Water well declines in MoCo

Jace Houston Resigns as SJRA General Manager Under Pressure from Subsidence Deniers

Jace Houston, the San Jacinto River Authority’s (SJRA) General Manager and point person on subsidence issues, resigned yesterday, 5/25/23, to avert a political war with Montgomery County subsidence deniers that could have taken down the entire SJRA board.

Houston had been with the SJRA for 16 years after spending 10 years with the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District. While at the SJRA, the lawyer/engineer helped put together a Groundwater Reduction Plan that included 80 municipalities and municipal utility districts (MUDs) across Montgomery County. He also helped the SJRA construct a surface-water treatment plant on Lake Conroe.

Goals of Effort to Preserve Groundwater

The half-billion dollar plant supplies surface water to the major population centers in Montgomery County, such as Conroe, The Woodlands and Oak Ridge North. Converting the population centers to surface water preserved groundwater for less populated and rural areas where water pipelines become uneconomical.

When the plant came online in 2015, it also virtually neutralized subsidence (see below).

When The Woodlands began using more surface water in 2016 after completion of a surface water pipeline, the rate of subsidence virtually leveled off.

The groundwater preservation effort proved effective at eliminating subsidence. It also helped water utilities avoid major costs associated with declining aquifer levels.

What costs? When water levels in wells drop, suppliers must move pumps deeper and use more electricity to pump water to the surface. In extreme cases, utilities may not be able to get water to the surface at all. Then they must drill new wells, often into deeper aquifers at hefty costs.

Declining well levels are especially worrisome in drought years when/where no alternative sources of water are available. Lack of water can limit population and economic growth as well as agricultural production.

However, preserving groundwater came at a cost. All members of the plan paid a fee to help pay for the surface water treatment plant even if they didn’t buy water from it. The need for such a plan became apparent more than 20 years ago, long before Houston joined the SJRA.

Need to Use Less Groundwater Validated by Legislature, But…

The Texas Leglislature validated the need to use less groundwater when it created the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD) in 2001.

But in recent years, all that was forgotten. The LSGCD board denied subsidence was a problem and advocated unlimited groundwater pumping as a way to lower water costs.

In the meantime, subsidence has returned. So have water well declines.

As you can see below, since the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District began moving to deregulate groundwater usage, well levels have dropped significantly across the county, setting up a day of reckoning in the future.

Water-level changes in representative area wells. Source: Harris-Galveston Subsidence District 2022 Annual Groundwater Report.

A Shot Across the Bow of the Board

Undeterred by these signals, the City of Conroe and the LSGCD board took their fight to the state legislature. They got State Representative Will Metcalf of Conroe to propose an amendment to the SJRA Sunset Review Bill that would replace Jace Houston. The amendment passed and emboldened Metcalf, Conroe and the LSGCD.

The amended bill then went to the Senate Water, Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee where the Conroe/LSGCD contingent testified again. But Senator Charles Perry, the committee chair, talked his fellow members out of adopting their proposals.

However, during the committee debate, Senator Lois Kolkorst, who represents Magnolia, fired a shot across the bow of the SJRA. She suggested making SJRA board-member terms one year.

That would have been disastrous, according to one seasoned SJRA board member, “It takes a year just to learn the job,” he said.

After defeat of all suggested amendments in Perry’s committee, it didn’t take long for back-channel rumors to mushroom. A whisper campaign suggested that sympathetic senator(s) might offer the Metcalf amendment or a one-year board amendment when the bill came up for a vote on the Senate floor.

Within days, the SJRA called a special board meeting to discuss Houston’s employment. While Houston reportedly had many supporters on the SJRA Board, he ultimately chose to resign and avoid a political battle royal that could have damaged the SJRA.

Board Accepts Houston’s Resignation

An article in Community Impact quoted SJRA Board President Ronald Anderson as saying: “At today’s meeting, the SJRA board of directors received and reluctantly accepted a resignation letter from our general manager, Jace Houston. Jace has served with honor and distinction for almost 16 years and has made the SJRA one of the most respected water agencies in the state of Texas.”

Anderson continued, “Even through these recent circumstances involving the legislature, Jace has once again placed the best interests of our organization and customers above his own, and the board wishes him the best in his future endeavors, which we know will be marked by continued success.”

Houston will remain at the SJRA until June 30th. But even on his way out the door, he seems less concerned about his own future than Montgomery County’s water future.

Impact of LSGCD on Water Future of MoCo and More

When asked about the impact of the LSGCD moves, Houston predicted, “They’re not going to regulate the aquifers. They’re going to allow pumpage to increase significantly.”

Houston added, “A lot of great work has been done to put a program together that allows Montgomery County to be able to afford the future water supplies it needs. And all of that is at risk. This just puts the county’s future at risk. They don’t understand the science. LSGCD is just dead wrong on the science.”

Because aquifers flow toward the coast, depleting groundwater in Montgomery County affects Harris and Galveston communities as well. But Metcalf and the LSGCD board never seemed to consider the impact on neighboring counties even though Metcalf’s district represents only about one thirtieth of the population in the San Jacinto watershed.

Because of differential subsidence, the impact of unlimited groundwater pumping in southern Montgomery County could actually tilt Lake Houston toward the north. That’s because the Kingwood/Porter area would subside more than the Lake Houston Dam by about two feet. And that could put many homes near floodplains into floodplains.

Projected subsidence in the northern Lake Houston Area could be 3.25 feet.
subsidence in Harris County
Meanwhile, projected subsidence at the Lake Houston Dam would only be 1.25 feet.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) should release new, updated models later this year that could affect the rates shown approve (plus or minus).

In the meantime, for anyone who doubts the relationship between water-well declines and subsidence, USGS has published a 432-page scientific report on the subject based on 120 years of data from northeast Texas aquifers.

Houston’s resignation seems to have averted a San Jacinto showdown for now. But some fear this fight isn’t over yet. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of “As the Swamp Sinks.”

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/26/2023

2096 Days since Hurricane Harvey

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