Tag Archive for: groundwater

Last Chance to Fight Subsidence: Comment Now

On Friday, July 23, 2021 – one week from today – the public comment period will close on the proposed Desired Future Conditions (DFCs) for the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District. DFCs represent goals for preserving a percentage of groundwater for future generations and preventing subsidence. A contentious debate has raged for years between those who profit from the pumping of cheap groundwater and those whose property will be damaged by the subsidence it causes.

Subsidence Caused by Excessive Groundwater Pumping

Subsidence is a sinking of property relative to others around it. Unlimited pumping removes the water under homes and businesses that helps to prop them up. When the water is removed, it can create a bowl in the landscape and contribute to flooding.

The Woodlands has already experienced this, where a “graben” is developing between two fault lines. Graben is a geologic term meaning “a block of the earth’s crust between two faults displaced downward relative to the blocks on either side.” Such displacement can damage streets, bridges, pipelines, driveways, foundations and homes.

Modeling has shown that subsidence could cause more than 3.5 feet of sinking in southern and eastern Montgomery County, growing population centers where groundwater pumping is greatest. Subsidence is already a serious concern in The Woodlands where it has triggered faults.

Predicted subsidence in Montgomery County if Lone Star allows the pumping of 115,000 acre-feet per year.

Conflict Between GMA-14 and Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District

Years ago, Texas established Groundwater Management areas to bind the people of a region together, and ensure that public interests outweigh the self-interest of a few powerful people. GMA-14 covers most of southeast Texas. It includes five groundwater conservation districts, comprising 20 counties.

GMA-14’s Proposed DFCs

GMA-14 has debated its next set of desired future conditions (DFCs) since 2016. At its last meeting, members finally adopted the following statement. 

In each county in GMA 14, no less than 70 percent median available drawdown remaining in 2080 and no more than an average of 1.0 additional foot of subsidence between 2009 and 2080.

GMA-14 Desired Future Conditions 

Click here for the full text surrounding the DFCs. 

Let’s break that down:

  • The numbers represent averages or medians within each county.
  • “70% median available drawdown remaining in 2080” means counties cannot draw down their aquifer(s) more than 30%. Seventy percent must remain at the end of the period – 2080. Each district controls this by monitoring aquifer levels and adjusting annual well permits to meet the goal.
  • “No more than an average of 1.0 additional foot of subsidence between 2009 and 2080” means “county-wide.”

Understand that some areas have already experienced significant subsidence in the last decade. For instance, before moving to more surface water, the Woodlands was sinking about 2 centimeters per year. That’s more than three quarters of an inch per year, 7.8 inches in ten years, or almost 2 feet during the life of a 30 year mortgage.

When The Woodlands began using more surface water in 2016 after completion of a surface water pipeline from Lake Conroe, the rate of subsidence dropped 75%.

Subsidence: a Check against Excessive Drawdown

The subsidence metric (1 foot additional) is a check on drawdown. Aquifers can recharge, but subsidence cannot reverse itself.

The subsidence metric ensures that groundwater pumpers won’t deplete aquifers, then magically claim they will recharge in the last year of the monitoring period. It protects both groundwater levels and homes.

Simon Sequeira, owner of a large for-profit groundwater pumping utility in Montgomery County, has fought the inclusion of a subsidence metric in the DFCs for years. This four-page letter to GMA-14 spells out his reasons why a subsidence metric should NOT be included in DFCs. In it, he first claims that drawdown will become an issue before subsidence becomes evident. He then threatens to sue everyone in sight if a subsidence metric IS included. Duh!

If he really believed subsidence is not a factor, why does he protest it so much? And why won’t he answer that question?

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” said Shakespeare in Hamlet – a phrase used in everyday speech to indicate doubt regarding the truth of an overly strong denial. 

The simple fact is this. Subsidence was already happening with pumping rates lower than the DFCs proposed. When MoCo started using more surface water, the subsidence leveled off. But get ready for more if Sue-Happy Simon gets his way.

Learn More and Protect Your Property Rights

To learn more about subsidence, check out:

Please consider emailing the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District before July 23rd. Demand that they adopt the subsidence metric proposed by GMA-14 and a sustainable pumping rate.

Compose your own email to info@lonestargcd.org or just click this link. Don’t forget to replace the placeholders for contact info with your real info and hit send. It only takes a few seconds.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/16/2021

1417 Days after Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

LSGCD Votes to Almost Double Groundwater Pumping, Treat Subsidence as PR problem

The Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD) board voted Wednesday in a special meeting to throw caution and conservation to the wind. In a long-delayed vote, the board unanimously agreed to adopt “Desired Future Conditions” (DFCs) that allow groundwater pumping to increase from approximately 60,000 acre fee per year to 115,000. This was the third of three alternatives they considered and the one that caused up to 3.5 feet of subsidence in southern MoCo. The board also voted unanimously NOT to include a subsidence metric in their DFCs and to hire an Austin PR firm, The Mach 1 Group, to handle the PR fallout.

Still No Action to Initiate MoCo Subsidence Study

For the third meeting in a row, the board also took no action to initiate Phase II of its subsidence study. The LSGCD Phase I report stated that Phase II would assess subsidence and flooding. However, having decided to ignore subsidence, the fate of Phase II remains unclear. (As of this writing, the board has not yet posted its agenda for the regularly scheduled April 13 meeting, nor has it posted the video of the April 7 meeting.) (Update: as of 4/12 at noon, video of the meeting was still not posted.)

Stage Set for Showdown

All of these decisions set the stage for a showdown at the Groundwater Management Area 14 (GMA-14) meeting this Friday at 9 a.m. Approval of LSGCD’s DFCs requires a two-thirds vote. Because GMA-14 has five voting groundwater conservation districts, approval will require at least three others.

GMA-14 will meet tomorrow at 9 a.m. to discuss its options. See meeting details below if you wish to participate.

More Troubling Contradictions Emerge from Meeting

Those who follow this debate have noted many troubling contradictions on the part of LSGCD and yesterday’s meeting was no exception.

The virtual meeting started 14 minutes late due to connectivity issues. The few hardy souls who persisted through the delays and poor audio quality, were treated to lengthy presentations that covered old ground and several contradictory comments from staff and board members.

For instance:

  • LSGCD claimed at the last GMA-14 meeting that it needed another month to hold stakeholder meetings before they could vote on DFCs. But last night’s reports on the stakeholder meetings did not mention subsidence, only the need to improve communications. This set the stage for the motions to ignore subsidence in DFCs and to hire a PR agency. It would be interesting to learn whether stakeholders expressed concerns about subsidence that weren’t reported.
  • QuadVest, which reportedly funded the campaigns of current board members, previously threatened to sue everyone in sight if they didn’t get their way. However, in yesterday’s meeting, they claimed they now had no plans to sue anyone. (Note: Previous to voting on yesterday’s motion, the board discussed litigation in executive session.) Winning through intimidation!
  • The board claimed it could not measure subsidence, although tools to do so are cheap and readily available. And the LSGCD staff was told so in the last GMA-14 meeting.
  • The board also insisted its problems were based on misinformation, but failed to acknowledge one example. Neither did they acknowledge their own role in spreading disinformation.
  • For instance, LSGCD claimed Harris County had no subsidence metric in place, ignoring the facts that the goal of the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District is to eliminate subsidence and that HGSD has extensive regulations in place to get people off of groundwater.
  • The key argument seemed to be that aquifer decline, not subsidence, was the only limiting factor on groundwater pumping. But modeling showed that at the pumping rate they adopted, subsidence would exceed three feet in places.
  • The board also argued that pumping in Harris County affected subsidence in MoCo. While true in certain cases, that ignores the fact that they approved an increase in MoCo pumping while pumping in Harris County is declining.
  • They talked a lot about property rights, but never specified whose. QuadVest believes they have a right to pump water from beneath your house.
Modeled subsidence in MoCo if pumping reaches 115,000 acre feet per year.

Who Benefits?

QuadVest gets to pump more water, the raw material of its business. QuadVest previously backed efforts to get the LSGCD board elected rather than appointed by local regulated entities. QuadVest then reportedly backed a slate of candidates promising to “Restore Affordable Water.” However, according to MoCo residents who get QuadVest water and have contacted me, water rates have not come down.

Who Loses?

Consequences of subsidence are widespread. Differential subsidence measured over wide areas can alter the gradient of ditches, pipelines, streams, rivers and lakes. For instance, models show that the subsidence associated with pumping 115,000 acre feet per year in Montgomery County would cause 1 foot of subsidence at the Lake Houston Dam but 3 feet in Kingwood and Huffman. That would put tens of thousands of upstream residents 2 feet closer to floodwaters.

Rescue efforts in Kingwood on Valley Manor during Harvey flood in 2017. Almost two miles from West Fork of San Jacinto.
Rescue efforts in Kingwood on Valley Manor during Harvey flood in 2017. 2.1 miles from West Fork of San Jacinto. 110 homes in this subdivision flooded. Imagine if water were 2 feet higher.

Subsidence can also crack roads, foundations, walls, ceilings, and roofs, especially near fault lines which are plentiful in southern MoCo and northern Harris Counties.

Subsidence triggered by groundwater pumping at a Woodlands home near a fault line.

Avoiding Checks and Balances

If subsidence isn’t really a danger as the LSGCD board contends, why not include a subsidence metric in its DFCs? Aquifers can rebound over time, but subsidence is forever. Over-pumping could cause irreversible damage as you see above.

GMA-14 Meeting Details

The GMA-14 meeting is April 9, 2021 at 9 a.m. To make a public comment, sign up here.

Posted by Bob Rehak on April 8, 2021

1318 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Doublespeak Continues to Cloud MoCo Subsidence Debate

Those who watched recent Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD) and Groundwater Management Area 14 (GMA-14) meetings were treated to some jaw-dropping, head-spinning doublespeak on the subject of subsidence. On January 20, 2021, at a GMA-14 meeting, LSGCD rejected any mention of subsidence in their Desired Future Conditions (DFCs). Then on 2/9/2021, three presenters told the Lone Star board that they were still considering subsidence. Then on 2/24/2021, the same three presenters told GMA-14 they still rejected subsidence.

Pardon My Whiplash!

As if that wasn’t enough, during the three-hour 2/24 GMA-14 meeting, they also:

  • Claimed that their groundwater withdrawal plan won’t create subsidence, but insisted on removing subsidence as a measure of their performance.
  • Believe they are entitled to their fair share of subsidence.
  • Insisted they should be measured on nine factors (which included subsidence), but then argued to take subsidence out of the mix.

Their main point? In essence, “We reject subsidence as a measure of our performance.”

Why? Samantha Reiter, LSGWCD General Manager, listed four reasons in a six-page, 3716-word letter which she read to GMA-14. I have summarized her arguments below for readability and to make concise responses possible.

Argument #1: Modeling

Modeling shows that projected water draw-downs won’t create subsidence in excess of one foot on average across Montgomery County, so why worry?

Response: Subsidence models have not yet been validated for the aquifer from which Montgomery County would predominantly pump – the Jasper. Moreover, while aquifers can rebound from overpumping, subsidence cannot. Without a subsidence metric as a check, private water utilities, such as Quadvest, could merrily pump as much water as they wanted for 40 years and claim they would make it up in the last ten. But the subsidence damage at that point would be permanent.

Much of the groundwater in Montgomery County used for human consumption is pumped from the Jasper aquifer which also affects Harris and Galveston Counties. However, models predicting subsidence from the Jasper have not been validated as they have for the Chicot and Evangeline Aquifers. Source Harris-Galveston Subsidence District.

Argument #2: Can’t Control Harris County

LSGCD can’t control Harris County pumping which affects subsidence in MoCo.

Response: True, but MoCo has already shown that surface water can dramatically reduce subsidence, even where subsidence is worst – in the heavily populated, southern part of the county. Moreover, SJRA’s surface water treatment plant has space to quadruple its capacity. While MoCo is arguing to increase its reliance on groundwater, Harris County is desperately trying to reduce its.

When The Woodlands began using more surface water in 2016 after completion of a surface water pipeline, the rate of subsidence dropped 75%.

See more below under “More on Argument #2.”

Argument #3: Unfairness

It’s unfair to limit subsidence in MoCo to an amount less than Harris County experienced.

Response: Is LSGCD really arguing to make the same mistakes Harris County did? Is it really worth damaging peoples’ foundations, walls, doors, cabinets, ceilings, roofs and driveways to make a philosophical point about fairness?

These front steps in The Woodlands dropped almost 10 inches due to subsidence before conversion to more surface water. Photo courtesy of Mark Meinwrath.

Argument #4: Measurable Goals

Goals must be measurable and LSGCD does not have enough monitoring sites or equipment to measure subsidence throughout Montgomery County.

Mike Turco, head of the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District answered this in the GMA-14 meeting. You can monitor subsidence with GPS, LIDAR and other readily available technologies for much less than the cost of a network of extensometers.

To see Ms. Reiter’s full text, click here. Her subsidence discussion starts on page 4.

More On Argument #2

Of the four arguments posed above, #2 seems strongest. Excessive pumping in either Harris or Montgomery County can produce subsidence across the county line. So how do you determine who’s causing how much in each location?

This is a question for scientists to answer. However, it seems to me that if one county is reducing its reliance on groundwater and the other is increasing its, any increase in the rate of subsidence should be easy to trace.

And this is precisely the scenario we face. Harris is reducing its dependence on groundwater; Montgomery is arguing to increase its.

In Harris County, the City of Houston is investing heavily to move people off groundwater. The $351 million Luce Bayou Interbasin Transfer Project will bring more water to Lake Houston. And the new $1.4 billion Northeast Water Purification Plant will supply that water to Houston as well as surrounding municipalities, counties and utility districts. Montgomery County already has a lake that’s 3-4X larger and a water treatment plant that can supply its growing population with enough water to reduce subsidence to a negligible rate. With the Montgomery County investment already made, why risk subsidence?

Expansion of Houston’s Northeast Water Purification Plant will quadruple its capacity. It will soon provide 320 million gallons of treated water capacity per day, more than three times the entire water demand in Montgomery County. Looking NE toward Lake Houston in background.

We Need Fewer Filibusters, Less Doublespeak, More Debate

I wish the LSGCD would engage in debates, not filibusters. By its own admission, LSGCD has tried to come up with a statement of Desired Future Conditions since 2016. That’s five years! How long does it take to study a problem and write a sentence!

In my opinion, verbose, rambling, repetitive 3-hour meetings filled with doublespeak have been designed to cloud tradeoffs, not find the best balance. It shouldn’t take smart people three hours to articulate a problem. And until we can get at what the real problem is, we will never find a real solution.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/5/2021

1284 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Fault Movement and Property Damage Linked to Aquifer Depletion in Montgomery County

A new report just released by the SMU Department of Earth Sciences draws several important conclusions that bear on the groundwater management debate in Montgomery County. The report links aquifer depletion and subsidence with fault movement, road damage, home damage, and damage to other structures.

Subsidence in the north Houston/Montgomery County region from a separate report by the HGAC.

Aquifer Depletion Linked to Fault Activation/Property Damage

Significant findings include:

  • Excessive groundwater production has resulted in water-level declines, subsidence, and fault movement.
  • Subsidence and fault movement are not just limited to the Evangeline aquifer; they also occur in the Jasper aquifer.
  • Fault movement has damaged roads, highways, homes, wells, pipelines, and other surface structures.
  • Timing and location of fault movement correlates to timing and location of water-level declines and subsidence.
  • Damages from fault movement go beyond The Woodlands area. They extend as far north as the Conroe Aquatics Center near downtown Conroe.

Peer Reviewed Research Funded by NASA and SMU

NASA and SMU co-funded the peer reviewed research which appeared in the June 25, 2019, issue of the journal Remote Sensing.

Some key quotes:

“Hundreds of paved roads and homes in the Houston area are being offset by faults and require frequent maintenance.”  (p. 1)

“The newly discovered fault activation appears to be related to excessive groundwater exploitation from the Jasper aquifer in Montgomery County.  The continuous mining of groundwater from the Jasper aquifer formed new water-level decline cones over Montgomery County, corroborating the intensity of new fractures.” (p. 1)

“Our study seems to validate that subsidence and related shallow subsurface fault activities in northern [Greater Houston] relates to mining of aquifers.” (p. 17)

“Faulting activities were in connection with the spatial distribution and density of water-level decline and ground subsidence.”  (p. 16)

“…the newly discovered fault activation appears to be related to the stress associated with fluid pressure reductions caused by excessive water extraction from Montgomery County aquifers.” (pp. 17-18)

Corroborates Other Research

The results of this SMU report further corroborate recent findings published by the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District in May, 2018. The subsidence district concluded that the Jasper aquifer is compressible and that the potential for subsidence increases in the northern portions of the Jasper where it is being used for freshwater supply.  

For Full Report

For the full report, see: Qu, F.; Lu, Z.; Kim, J.-W.; Zheng, W. Identify and Monitor Growth Faulting Using InSAR over Northern Greater Houston, Texas, USA. Remote Sensing. 201911, 1498.

Need for Full-Cost Accounting

Last year, I observed that we should have full cost accounting for sand mining along the river. If we had such a thing, sand mining practices might be different. The same could be said for groundwater pumping. As a famous oil-filter commercial once said, “You can pay me now or pay me later.” Yet another Montgomery County mystery to ponder.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/12/2019

682 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Another Storm Brewing: The Groundwater Debate and How It Relates to Flood Risk

Groundwater relates to flooding? Yes. Here’s how. And here’s why you should care, especially now.

In November, Montgomery County voters will elect board members to the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District who may advocate using more groundwater, a move that some believe could give residents cheaper water in the short run, but which could also cause subsidence, contribute to flooding, create shortages, raise costs and limit growth in the long run.

Unequal Groundwater Withdrawals, Unequal Subsidence

Subsidence is scientifically well documented and understood. Removing groundwater from clay causes the clay to compress. When that happens, you sink. And once clay is compressed, it stays compressed forever – even when rehydrated.

Yet some Montgomery County voters are advocating removing more groundwater because, at this moment, it’s cheaper than surface water. They are betting their future and their neighbors’ futures on it.

Subsidence can contribute to flooding because not everybody subsides equally. While Kingwood only subsided two feet in the last century, one part of Baytown subsided so much that it became uninhabitable in about half that time.

In 1944, the area that would become Brownwood in Baytown was starting to show signs of development.

By 1978, Brownwood was well developed…and sinking fast.

Today, the area floods so much that it is uninhabitable. All the homes are gone. Brownwood has been turned into a park.

The “Pump-Now, Let-Somebody-Else-Pay-Later” Mentality

Subsidence generally happens so slowly that some people claim it’s not a problem. Especially those on higher ground. They want to continue to pump water from their wells because they perceive it to be cheaper than surface water. It can be…at least in the short run..until wells run low or dry. Then pumping costs increase…often along with salinity…and the people who depend on the well are out of water and out of luck.

Gulf Coast Aquifers: Source Harris-Galveston Subsidence District. Much of the water in Montgomery County used for human consumption is pumped from the Jasper aquifer.

Depleting at More Than 500X the Recharge Rate

Still, some people say, “I’ll worry about that when it happens.” Problem is:

The rate of depletion will exceed the rate of recharge by more than 500X.

More Expensive in Long Run

Now consider this. As pressure in an aquifer decreases, the cost of bringing water to the surface increases dramatically, sometimes to the point where recovery is no longer economical, i.e., competitive with surface water. It’s much like the oil industry. As a rule of thumb, half the oil in reservoirs is left in the ground because it’s too expensive to recover.

For all these reasons, most counties in the region are trying to switch people to surface water. Their groundwater withdrawals have either declined or stayed the same.

Counties surrounding Montgomery have either decreased groundwater pumping or kept it constant.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County’s groundwater withdrawals have soared.

Montgomery County groundwater pumping, however, has generally increased in the last three decades.

A report by LBG Guyton Associates to the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District showed that the largest increase in pumping since 2000 has occurred in Montgomery County. Pumping in surrounding counties has generally decreased since 2000.

Montgomery County Growth

The surge in Montgomery County groundwater usage is largely because Montgomery County has grown so quickly. With the exception of Fort Bend County, Montgomery County is growing faster than any county in the region on a percentage basis.

Houston Region growth last year by county. In percentage terms, Montgomery County trailed only Fort Bend County. 

So Why Worry NOW?

Water resources take so long to develop that they need to be planned 50 years into the future. The Houston region’s population tripled in the last 50 years.

If Montgomery County expects to grow that fast in the next 50, where will the water come from to support that growth? Especially if voters undermine the financial viability of the half-billion dollar surface-water treatment plant – that they just built – by shifting to groundwater!

Proponents of unlimited groundwater pumping in Montgomery County will ELECT directors of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District for the first time in November.

If people vote for candidates who advocate use of “cheaper” groundwater in the short term, they will also be voting for subsidence and policies that limit long-term growth. Without question, they will be betting their future on a rapidly depleting water source.

If that’s the will of the people, so be it. I just hope they don’t set a precedent that residents in neighboring counties follow. If so, we could all be sunk.

Red contours show subsidence in the last century. Blue contours show how much subsidence has increased in the first sixteen years of this century. Note the widening gap between red and blue at the top of the frame. It shows that subsidence in Montgomery and northern Harris Counties is increasing at an increasing rate. Parts of Harris County have subsided 10 feet! Source: Harris-Galveston Subsidence District.

Posted 9/14/2018 by Bob Rehak

382 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Note: Because this is such an important issue, I have created a new tab titled Subsidence on the Reports page.