Texas State Representative Will Metcalf from Conroe has introduced two bills in the 87th Legislature that would affect the composition of the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) Board. The two bills have major differences. One calls for the election of Board members. In case that fails, the other recommends how the Governor should appoint directors. Both bills, however, introduce an upstream bias in the selection of board members at the expense of downstream residents.
Excluding Harris County Voters
HB4575 would create a Board of seven directors who must be legal voters in the State of Texas. It does not specify who gets to vote in the election. It simply says voters in the District will elect Board members at large. But the boundaries of “the District” are not defined in HB4575. They are, however, defined in Section 5 of the SJRA enabling legislation to EXCLUDE Harris County. So far, no other sponsors have signed onto the bill.
Stacking Deck in Favor of MoCo
HB3116 relates to recommendations for the appointment of SJRA directors. It calls for the Governor to appoint six directors, all of whom must be Texas voters and property owners. Four of the six must reside in Montgomery County, the only county wholly encompassed by the District defined in the SJRA boundaries.
The Commissioners Court of Montgomery County would get to recommend two directors to the governor. Other counties in the watershed could each recommend one. But, again, four – a two-thirds majority – would have to reside in Montgomery County.
The SJRA board currently has seven members, so this bill would reduce that number by one and also increase the possibility of tie votes. That could help stymie approval of policies, such as lowering Lake Conroe seasonally or fighting subsidence. As of this date, no other sponsors have signed onto this bill either. It was referred to the Natural Resources committee yesterday.
Could Impact Lake-Lowering Policy
Metcalf’s filing of these bills comes hot on the heels of a contentious debate last year about seasonal lowering of Lake Conroe to provide a buffer against flooding in downstream communities. The hotly contested issue drew hundreds of Lake Conroe residents to a board meeting that had to be held in the Montgomery County Convention Center to accommodate the crowd. Protestors complained that it would ruin recreation and the tax base of Montgomery County.
In the end, the appointed board voted to continue its lake lowering policy. The policy calls for lowering the lake from 201 feet to 200 during April and May, then again in August. During September, the peak of hurricane season, the SJRA would lower Lake Conroe an additional half foot to 199.5. The City of Houston owns two-thirds of the water in the lake, and all releases come from the City’s share, and only at the City’s request. SJRA staff coordinate with City staff on the details and timing of all releases. And if the level of Lake Conroe has already dropped to the target elevation due to natural evaporation, no additional releases are called for.
The SJRA board first adopted this policy after Governor Gregg Abbott visited the flood-ravaged Lake Houston Area in 2018. That year, he also appointed two downstream residents who flooded during Harvey, Kaaren Cambio and Mark Micheletti, to the SJRA board.
If Metcalf’s bills gain traction, the bills could potentially undermine the lake-lowering policy. The SJRA Board extended it for three years starting last year. That would give the City of Houston time to add more gates to the Lake Houston dam. FEMA gave the City three years to complete the gates when the project clock started ticking on April 8th of last year. The City is still in the preliminary engineering phase of that project, and trying to prove up the benefit/cost ratio for FEMA.
Could Also Impact Groundwater and Subsidence Debates
Metcalf’s bills could also affect the subsidence debate between upstream and downstream interests.
Shortly after the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD) first elected its board in 2018, the LSGCD board began advocating for higher groundwater pumping. It has also stonewalled any mention of subsidence in the desired future conditions for Montgomery County in Groundwater Management Area 14.
Private groundwater providers, such as Quadvest, heavily backed a slate of candidates for the LSGCD Board in 2018. Their candidates won based on the promise to “restore affordable water,” but residents report that water rates have not gone down.
The SJRA has opposed the unlimited pumping of groundwater. Electing the SJRA board, too, opens it up to the same kind of shadowy influence exerted by Quadvest prior to the 2018 election. If Quadvest is successful again, Quadvest could eliminate its primary opposition on the subsidence issue. The residents of northern Harris and southern Montgomery Counties would then potentially face increased subsidence. And subsidence can damage foundations, walls, ceilings, cabinets, doors, driveways, streets, pipelines, and more.
As the map below shows, subsidence could also tilt Lake Houston toward the Harris/Montgomery County line by two feet relative to the amount of subsidence at the Lake Houston Dam. That could increase flood risk for people living in the upstream reaches of the lake.
Neither Elections, Nor Appointments, Should Exclude Affected Residents
I normally don’t oppose elected boards. But I also don’t want to return to the days just before Harvey when the SJRA board represented only upstream interests and downstream areas flooded disastrously.
If the SJRA board is elected, downstream residents in Harris County should be able to vote on the board members. Metcalf’s bills have the appearance of populism, but they strive to stack the deck against downstream residents. Both are wrong.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/20/2021
1299 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.