In a marathon meeting last night, the SJRA modified the seasonal lowering program for Lake Conroe. The adopted motion does not exactly follow the City of Houston’s last-minute compromise recommendation. It delays lowering the lake to 199.5 feet until after September 1 to accommodate boaters and businesses on Lake Conroe. The City had recommended lowering the lake to that level beginning August 1. The old policy called for lowering the lake all the way to 199 in both months.
Details of Plan
Minutes of the meeting have not yet been approved, but here is the preliminary summary:
Lower to 200’ msl (mean feet above sea level) beginning April 1 through May 31. Recapture begins June 1.
- Beginning August 1, lower to 200’ msl.
- Beginning September 1, lower to 199.5’ msl.
Tropical Storm Provision:
If a named storm enters the region, City of Houston may initiate an additional prerelease to 199’ msl by requesting the SJRA to do so in writing. SJRA staff will coordinate with COH staff on the details and timing of the lowering.
Duration of Program
The program will continue through December 2022, giving the City of Houston enough time to add additional gates to Lake Houston and complete West Fork dredging.
1400 Crowd Convention Hall for 5-Hour Meeting
More than 1400 people crammed into the meeting at the Lone Star Convention Center in Conroe. The meeting lasted more than five hours. Some people arrived hours earlier to make sure they got seats.
Lake Conroe residents still outnumbered Lake Houston residents by 2 to 1, but it was far better than the 20 to 1 ratio in previous meetings on this topic.
Also present at last night’s meeting were people from between the two lakes in communities such as River Plantation. More than 1100 people between Lake Conroe and Lake Houston flooded during Harvey when the SJRA released 80,000 cubic feet per second.
Plea for Civility Starts Meeting
The meeting started with a plea by the chambers of commerce from the two areas for unity and civility. And the meeting was in fact far more civil than previous meetings on this topic. Gone was the bar room atmosphere of jeers, catcalls, name calling, interruptions, and physical threats.
Staff Presentation and Mayor’s Letter Change Debate
Before public comments began, two developments totally changed the debate. Most people expected the SJRA to decide between continuing or scrapping the existing plan. However, the evening before the meeting, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a letter to the SJRA suggesting a compromise proposal: 200 msl in the spring and 199.5 in the fall. Then Chuck Gilman, SJRA’s Director of Water Resources and Flood Management, kicked off the meeting with an alternate proposal: 200 msl in spring AND fall.
Gilman’s presentation to the board emphasized lowering the lake one foot could have prevented releases in all but three storms in the last twenty years. Gilman’s team correlated the average rise in lake level per inch of rainfall in dozens of events. See graph below.
“A review of historic rainfall data and corresponding lake rise suggests less than 2 feet of storage is adequate to catch most storm events at Lake Conroe that occur in the fall,” said Gilman.
“Only two rainfall events that occurred in the months of August and September since 1999 (excluding 2017) resulted in more than one-foot of rise in Lake Conroe. More than 90% of these events resulted in less than 3 inches of rise in Lake Conroe. Five named tropical storms in this same period resulted in less than 12 inches of rise,” he said.
Many residents in attendance questioned why the SJRA excluded 1994 and Harvey from examination in the chart above. The worst downstream damage occurred during those two events.
Both the City’s proposal and the SJRA’s came as surprises to many people. Instead of choosing between A and B, suddenly C and D became options, too.
Board Settles on Compromise to Mayor’s Compromise Proposal
In the end, the proposal adopted by the SJRA differed from the City’s in one key respect. The level of Lake Conroe remains a half foot higher in August to accommodate boaters during vacation season. SJRA Board President Lloyd Tisdale characterized August revenue as vital to the area’s economy. Tisdale said vacationing falls off significantly after Labor Day.
Board member Kaaren Cambio who represents the Lake Houston area preferred the Mayor’s proposal but acknowledged that the final plan “balances flood mitigation with water supply and recreation. The board heard businesses and delaying the fall release will extend the boating season.”
The approved plan still lets the City of Houston call for lowering to 199 msl if forecasters predict a named tropical storm will enter the region within five days.
The City owns two thirds of the water in the lake. City Council Member Dave Martin said in his remarks before the board voted that “The City could take the lake down to 180 msl if it wanted.”
In the end, it appeared that the Board punted any responsibility for painful reductions and put that onus on the City.
State Emphasizing Need for Cooperation within Watersheds
Much of the board’s debate focused whether to adopt the City’s proposal verbatim. Board President Tisdale’s opening remarks cited the importance of partnership with other entities in the region. Legislation adopted in 2019 places a premium on cooperation within a watershed. The Texas Water Development Board can financially penalize those that don’t cooperate. They now score grant requests based on how well all affected areas work together. “We have to look at this as a regional flooding issue,” said Tisdale.
Both Lake Houston area Board Members, Kaaren Cambio and Mark Micheletti, argued for adopting the City’s plan, but none of the other board members agreed. In the end, they voted to adopt a plan that delayed lowering the Lake to 199.5 until September 1.
Net Effect Vs. Historical Averages
After a debate going back to 2018, we now have a lake-lowering plan that closely mirrors Mother Nature’s. Unless we’re in a very wet or very dry year.
Compared to historical averages, the SJRA will lower Lake Conroe:
- 4 to 5 inches in April and May
- 0 inches in August
- 3 inches in September
Of course, that assumes the City does NOT call for greater reductions. Also keep in mind that these are averages, not certainties. If the lake levels are higher or lower than the average in any given year, these reductions would vary.
The primary protection provided by the policy adopted by the SJRA would occur in a very wet year when the lake was full up to 201 msl. Then the reduction would be 12 inches in August and 18 in September.
State Representative Dan Huberty who gave a powerful speech before the board began deliberations, said, “I am proud of our community and how we came together, including the State (Especially Governor Abbott and Chief Nim Kidd), the City, the County, our Chamber and most importantly our citizens.”
Huberty continued, “Thank you for showing up and being respectful but forceful. We worked very hard, and in the end won a vote that achieves our goal of lake lowering. Special thanks to Mark Micheletti and Kaaren Cambio for having the courage to stand up with and for the recommendation from Mayor Turner and Mayor Pro-Tem Martin.”
The City of Houston provided no comment.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/21/2020
906 Days after Hurricane Harvey