Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright coined the phrase, “The first casualty in war is truth.” The same is true of water wars. In an attempt to justify unlimited groundwater pumping from the Jasper aquifer, a headline in a Montgomery County online newspaper trumpeted, “University Of Houston Study Shows No Linkage Between Deep Groundwater Production And Subsidence In Montgomery County.” But wait! Is that what the study really said? The article did not provide a link to the actual study. So how could you tell if the review was accurate? It’s not. Below are just a few of the reasons why.
Contradictions Between Study and Newspaper’s Summary
The UH study didn’t study Montgomery County. It looked only at Harris-Galveston Subsidence District Regulatory Areas 1 and 2. They cover only SOUTHERN Harris and Galveston counties! Researchers found no subsidence associated with the Jasper there. That’s because virtually no one pumps the Jasper there (See Jasper well location map below). The article’s anonymous author forgot to mention that though.
“Don’t Extrapolate Results,” But They Did
The UH study also carefully cautions readers not to extrapolate the results from the study area to other areas. But the newspaper did it and forgot to mention the caution also.
Newspaper Falsely Claims Study Suggests “No Subsidence”
The newspaper author claimed that the study “suggests that Montgomery County utilities, municipalities, homeowner’s associations, and other large-scale groundwater users could draw water production from the Jasper aquifer without causing any subsidence at the surface of Montgomery County.” The UH study makes no such suggestion.
Claimed “No Need for Regulation,” Contrary to UH Findings
The newspaper author goes on to claim that the study “also suggests that, as long as groundwater production comes from the Jasper or lower formations (such as the Upper Catahoula Formation), there is little need, if any, for any groundwater regulation whatsoever.” Again, the UH study makes no such suggestion.
Quite the contrary, the UH study says that regulation was effective in slowing the subsidence found in other aquifers along the gulf coast that were being depleted, such as the Evangeline and Chicot.
Newspaper Claim of 100% Annual Recharge Not Substantiated by Study
The newspaper author also says that, “Since the quantity of groundwater in Montgomery County is essentially unlimited, and since Montgomery County aquifers enjoy almost 100% recharge annually after production drawdowns have occurred, there would seem to be no reason whatsoever to regulate groundwater production from the Jasper aquifer and the Catahoula aquifer.” The study makes no mention of recharge rates in either of those aquifers.
Newspaper Implies “No Need for Regulation” but Study Says It Helped
Finally, the anonymous newspaper author concludes by saying, “The University of Houston study suggests that it’s time for the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District to bring the entire over-regulation of groundwater to a crashing halt.” The study made no such recommendation.
Inferring that the UH scientists even implied that would require turning the the study’s findings on their head. Quite the contrary. The study explicitly states that regulations implemented in 1975 with the formation of the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District slowed out-of-control subsidence.
Newspaper Article Not Signed
Jumpin’ Jasper! What’s going on here? Who wrote this unsigned article? Was it someone who stands to profit financially from pumping the Jasper dry?
Why Water Not Pumped From Southern Part of Jasper
For the record, the Jasper dips toward the coast along a roughly north-to-south axis. The Jasper aquifer contains fresh water in Montgomery County and northern Harris County. But south of that, it becomes brackish. The water is too salty to use. That’s a big reason why virtually no one pumps it in the southern part of the region.
The down-dip part of the Jasper toward the coast also goes very deep. At the southern limit of freshwater, depth ranges to thousands of feet in places (see bottom of colored area below). Why would you drill that deep if you could get fresher water from aquifers like the Chicot and Evangeline much closer to the surface?
Subsidence Already Noted in Northern Part of Jasper
Those are the reasons why the UH scholars do not associate subsidence with the Jasper in southern Harris and Montgomery Counties. That does NOT mean subsidence won’t happen in other areas where utilities DO pump the Jasper. It already has.
However, USGS well-water height readings north of Highway 99 show severe drawdown near the population centers in southern Montgomery and northern Harris Counties. And surprise, surprise! That also happens to be the area where most subsidence has occurred in Montgomery County.
Unsustainable Pumping Rates
While the advocates of unlimited groundwater pumping want you to believe that the aquifer recharge rates in Montgomery County equal the drawdown rate, they don’t. The Jasper aquifer is being drawn down in populated places at more than 10 FEET per year (see graph below). But USGS estimates that the recharge rate for the Jasper is as little as ONE-TENTH of an INCH per year. That means some utilities have been using up Jasper water 1200 times faster than nature replaces it.
Truth or Consequences
Ground level declines produce fault movement and subsidence. They translate to infrastructure damage and flooding.
As water levels decline, water wells begin to have problems producing. They lose “yield,” which means they can’t produce as much water in a given time period. This requires the wells to run longer to meet demand. It costs more to lift water. Longer run times increase maintenance costs. Pumps have to be lowered. The motors have to be upsized, which requires electrical rewiring.
Some well pumps can’t be lowered any farther, which may mean abandoning and replacing the well. Some water level decline is expected. But those who argue that Montgomery County has an unlimited supply of water are just ludicrous. The harder you pump, the more decline you get, and with that comes all the consequences of declines.
Why People Want to Believe the Unbelievable
Montgomery County residents have found the change from well to surface water financially difficult. People WANT to believe that unlimited groundwater pumping is safe. I just hope they don’t wind up putting all their water lillies in one pond, so to speak.
The only thing worse than expensive water is no water. Or no water plus infrastructure damaged by subsidence.
Selective Perception Amplified by Selective Deception
Selective perception is a well known cognitive bias. It describes the process by which people perceive what they want to in media messages while ignoring opposing viewpoints. However, in this case, it seems that selective deception is amplifying the bias.
Other Useful References
Below are some other useful publications from the U.S. Geological Survey which is part of the Department of the Interior.
USGS Subsidence home page. Contains dozens of useful publications on Texas Gulf Coast Groundwater and Land Subsidence, plus raw data in numerous formats.
Hydrogeology and Simulation of Ground-Water Flow and Land-Surface Subsidence in the Northern Part of the Gulf Coast Aquifer System, Texas By Mark C. Kasmarek and James L. Robinson, 2004
Groundwater Withdrawals 1976, 1990, and 2000–10 and Land-Surface-Elevation Changes 2000–10 in Harris, Galveston, Fort Bend, Montgomery, and Brazoria Counties, Texas, Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5034, By Mark C. Kasmarek and Michaela R. Johnson
Water-Level Altitudes 2016 and Water-Level Changes in the Chicot, Evangeline, and Jasper Aquifers and Compaction 1973–2015 in the Chicot and Evangeline Aquifers, Houston-Galveston Region, Texas, Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5034, U.S. Department of the Interior U.S. Geological Survey
Evaluation of Ground-Water Flow and Land-Surface Subsidence Caused by Hypothetical
Withdrawals in the Northern Part of the Gulf Coast Aquifer System, Texas, Scientific Investigations Report 2005–5024, U.S. Department of the Interior U.S. Geological Survey by Mark C. Kasmarek, Brian D. Reece, and Natalie A. Houston
Also, don’t forget to check out the subsidence tab under the Reports page of this web site.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/27/2019
697 Days after Hurricane Harvey
“Is There Deep-Seated Subsidence in the Houston-Galveston Area?” by Jiangbo Yu, Guoquan Wang, Timothy J. Kearns, and Linqiang Yang, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, National Center for Airborne LiDAR Mapping, 312 Science & Research Building 1, Room 312, University of Houston, Houston, TX 77204-5007, USA. Copyright © 2014 Jiangbo Yu et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License. Hindawi Publishing Corporation, International Journal of Geophysics, Volume 2014, Article ID 942834, 11 pages.
Note: All thoughts in this post represent my opinions on matters of public interest and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statute of the great State of Texas.