Tag Archive for: SJRA

SJRA Appoints Aubrey Spear New General Manager

November 15, 2023 – The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) Board of Directors announced today the selection of Aubrey A. Spear, PE, as general manager.

Aubrey Spear


As general manager, Spear will oversee the development and implementation of SJRA’s vision, mission and strategic goals through the collaboration with the SJRA’s Operating Divisions: General and Administrative Services, Lake Conroe, Woodlands, Groundwater Reduction Plan, Highlands, and Flood Management. In addition to providing managerial oversight, Spear will be instrumental in overseeing the development and execution of capital improvement plans, planning, external affairs, leadership development, and budget.

SJRA Board President Ronnie Anderson expressed confidence in Aubrey Spear’s arrival saying, “After a thorough search, the SJRA Board of Directors is proud to welcome Aubrey to SJRA. Aubrey’s extensive experience in water utility management, water and wastewater infrastructure projects, and stakeholder relationships make him a great fit for our team.”


“I am excited to join the dedicated team at SJRA,” said Spear. “I look forward to collaborating with key stakeholders including employees, customers, and elected officials to determine major areas of focus for the Authority moving forward. I am passionate about implementing the river authority’s vision to provide reliable, cost-efficient, and sustainable water resource management that supports the significant growth in the region while earning the trust and confidence of our customers and community.” 


Aubrey Spear brings extensive professional leadership and managerial experience to SJRA. He served the City of Lubbock in a senior management role as Director of Water Utilities for 16 years leading the city’s Water Utilities Department of more than 200 employees. Additionally, he served as liaison to multiple water boards including the Lubbock Water Advisory Commission, Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, High Plains Underground Water Conservation District and served as the chairperson of the Region O Water Planning Group and on the executive committee of the Upper Brazos Regional Flood Planning Group. 

Spear has also guided public relations, marketing, and customer service activities and facilitated major projects including the city of Lubbock’s first new surface water supply reservoir in more than 25 years, Lake Alan Henry. 

Spear will start with SJRA in January 2024.


Aubrey Spear’s appointment comes almost six months after Jace Houston resigned from SJRA at the end of May 2023.

After 16 years with the SJRA, Houston had become the focus of criticism over a groundwater reduction plan designed to reduce subsidence and ensure the water future of Montgomery County. Houston had led the conversion from dwindling groundwater to surface water. That included construction of a water treatment plant at Lake Conroe and several water distribution pipelines.

However, several signatories to the Groundwater Reduction Plan eventually balked at higher prices despite the reduction in subsidence. Conroe state representative Will Metcalf proposed an amendment to the SJRA’s sunset review bill that would have ousted Houston had the state senate supported it.

As Spear prepares to navigate new waters in SE Texas, he will be forced to thread a needle between downstream and upstream interests.

Memories of the SJRA’s role in downstream flooding during Harvey when it released 79,000 cubic feet per second from Lake Conroe will constrain him. So will the reluctance of Lake Conroe residents to live with seasonally lower lake levels. Lake lowering didn’t generate much controversy this year. Because of drought, lake lowering wasn’t necessary.

However, it could in the future if the project to add more flood gates to Lake Houston ever gets off the drawing boards.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/15/23 based in part on a press release from SJRA

2269 days since Hurricane Harvey

Search For Sediment Solutions Should Lead Straight to Colony Ridge

Harris County Flood Control, SJRA, and the Cities of Humble and Houston using funding provided in part by the Texas Water Development Board are searching for sediment solutions in the Upper San Jacinto River Basin. Their major scientific study includes all or parts of seven counties: Harris, Montgomery, Waller, Grimes, Walker, San Jacinto and Liberty – all land draining into Lake Houston.

From Technical Memorandum 1 of the Upper San Jacinto River Basin Regional Sedimentation Study.

The high-level goal: to better manage sediment in the river basin. Sediment reduces both floodway conveyance and the storage capacity of Lake Houston. Both contribute to the frequency and severity of flooding.

Among other things, the study partners hope to prioritize sediment hot spots so they can develop sediment solutions and recommendations.

I hope they look at Colony Ridge. It exemplifies a major hot spot and points the way to an obvious sediment solution – better enforcement of existing regulations.

Scope and Status of Sediment Study

The study is now about half complete. With much of the fieldwork complete, the partners will next focus on modeling, hotspot identification, area prioritization and sediment solutions, according to Matt Barrett, Water Resources and Flood Management Division Manager atSJRA.

To date, the study has examined a variety of factors:

  • Topographical characteristics (watershed size, length, slope, relief, etc.)
  • Land Cover (degree of development, forested percentage, agricultural, wetlands)
  • Soil Types and Erodibility
  • Meteorological (annual rainfall amounts and intensity).

The Colony Ridge area receives some of the highest rainfall totals and highest intensity rains in the river basin.

From Technical Memorandum #2 of the USJRB Sedimentation Study, Page 16. Colony Ridge location circled in red.

Colony Ridge also ranks among the most erodible areas in the entire river basin.

Soil erodibility in the basin. From Technical Memorandum #2, Page 13. Colony Ridge circled in blue.

So, you would hope that a development 50% larger than Manhattan, which is decimating forests and filling in wetlands would receive some scrutiny.

Colony Ridge erosion
Colony Ridge ditch has widened approximately 80 feet in 6 years due to lack of erosion control measures such as backslope interceptor swales and grass.
Colony Ridge is now 50 percent bigger than Manhattan
Rivers of mud in Colony Ridge. Even the erosion is eroding.
Guess which way to colony ridge
Sediment coming down the East Fork (right) from Colony Ridge
East Fork Mouth Bar cost $18 million to dredge.
San Jacinto East Fork Mouth Bar between Kingwood and Huffman cost $18 million to dredge.

Sediment Solutions Must Address Development Practices

Erosion occurs naturally. But poor development practices can accelerate the rate of erosion unnaturally.

Regulations in Liberty County call for backslope interceptor swales to prevent sheet flow over the sides of ditches. I have yet to see one such system anywhere in the 30+ square miles of Colony Ridge. What you typically see is this.

All that sediment washes downstream where it reduces the carrying capacity of rivers and the storage capacity of Lake Houston.

Liberty County regulations also call for planting grass on the side slopes of ditches and detention basins. The grass reduces erosion, too. But you don’t see much grass on those side slopes either.

Compare the ditch above with the ditch below in Harris County to see how grass and backslope interceptor swales can reduce erosion.

Small swales behind main slopes capture sheet flow heading toward the ditch. Pipes then take runoff to the bottom of ditch, thus reducing erosion on side slopes.

Here’s Colony Ridge again.

Three-mile-long Colony Ridge drainage ditch has no grass or backslope interceptor swales.

Address the Elephant in the Room Before the Next Disaster

Ironically, both Liberty and Harris County have almost identical regulations for erosion control. Harris County enforces them; Liberty County doesn’t.

Enforcement of development regulations is the elephant in the room.

So, as the SJRA and its partners search for sediment solutions, here’s one simple recommendation. Enforce regulations already on the books.

Colony Ridge and other developments that skirt regulations represent a disaster waiting to happen. Unfortunately, it will probably take a disaster, such as Harvey, to cause leaders to take action. But by then, it will be too late.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/20/23

2242 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.

Spring Creek Dams Facing Hurdles

The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA), which is managing a feasibility study on two Spring Creek dams, has run into some unexpected hurdles. They involve the benefit-cost ratio and competing uses for the land. Matt Barrett, PE, the SJRA’s Water Resources and Flood Management Division Manager, updated ReduceFlooding on the status of the project.

Project Location Near Montgomery

Harris County Flood Control District, five municipal utility districts, the City of Humble, and the Texas Water Development board are also involved in this project. The dams could reportedly reduce flood levels up to half a foot for 40 miles downstream.

The proposed Spring Creek Flood Control Dams would lie in far northeastern Waller County, a few miles west of Magnolia in Montgomery County.

Second Time Around for Spring Creek Dams

The SJRA first recognized the flood mitigation benefits of dams in the Spring Creek watershed back in 1985. But ironically, while the land could have been bought for a song back then, the projects failed to achieve favorable benefit-cost ratios because so few people lived in the then-rural area.

Fast forward 32 years to Hurricane Harvey when more than 10,000 structures downstream flooded. Experts identified more upstream stormwater-detention as one of the top three priorities for flood mitigation.

When I asked Matt Barrett, PE, the SJRA’s Water Resources and Flood Management Division Manager about the status of the dams, he had this to say. “We’re still working on the feasibility study. We ran into a couple hurdles when we started digging further into the proposed reservoirs.”

Benefit-Cost Ratio

What kind of hurdles? “First, after modeling was updated as part of the study, the benefit/cost ratios came out lower than was previously estimated as part of the San Jacinto Regional Watershed Master Drainage Plan,” said Barrett.

“I think we have a solution for this issue,” he said. “Once we optimized dam sizes and incorporated ‘social benefits’ (which the Federal Government now will consider) into the calculations, the BCRs came out at 1.88 and 2.03 for the two reservoirs.” That means the benefits exceed the costs, a crucial hurdle.

“Because of their costs, the reservoirs would almost certainly rely on some level of Federal participation for construction.”

Matt Barrett, PE

Competing Uses for Land

“The other issue,” Barrett continued, “is that each planned reservoir site is also the site of another planned development, which was not identified until we got into the feasibility study.”

A residential/commercial development is planned for the Birch Creek reservoir site, and a large solar farm for the Walnut Creek site.

Barrett said, “No ground has been broken on the former, and I would like to work with the developers to see if we can come up with a scenario where both projects could exist. Construction HAS begun at the solar farm site, and we are coordinating to determine what options there might be for future coexistence at the site.” 

Funding Partners Will Determine Path Forward, Timetable

“We are currently scheduling meetings with elected officials to present the project and its challenges,” said Barrett. “We want to get their input. Our goal is to get back together with our funding partners likely early next month to determine our path forward.

“The draft report should be completed by April next year, but that is subject to change.  We are behind schedule due to the challenges experienced.”

Project Will Ultimately Depend on Several Factors

Barrett concluded, “Whether the reservoirs ultimately get built will be based on the results of the study and whether there is an entity willing to champion the project through design and construction and ultimately own and take responsibility for operations and maintenance of one or both reservoirs.”

Alternative Possibilities

The SJRA is not actively looking at alternative reservoir sites. However, SJRA and its partners have discussed it. “If we determine the hurdles at the two proposed sites make those sites infeasible, we could consider other sites,” said Barrett. “That said, we selected those two sites because they seemed the most promising. Other sites may not pan out for other reasons. One potential alternative is to look at several smaller detention sites.”

For More Information

See these previous posts on the projects:

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/15/2023

2208 Days since Hurricane Harvey

2023 Legislature Scorecard on Flood Issues: 2 Wins, 4 Losses, 1 Toss-up

The 2023 legislature scorecard, just five years after Hurricane Harvey, shows that flooding is fast becoming forgotten in Texas. Of the seven issues I tracked, the Lake Houston Area had two wins, four losses, and one that could be ruled a coin toss depending on your point of view.

In the Win Column

Let’s look at the good news first.

HB 1: More Floodgates for Lake Houston

Due to last minute heroics, HB 1 contained enough money earmarked for more gates to keep the project alive. A last minute phone-call campaign by hundreds of citizens making thousands of phone calls to key state legislators in the House and Senate succeeded in getting riders attached to the budget bill.

Few projects have inspired more hope among residents in the northeastern part of Harris County than the one to add more floodgates to the Lake Houston Dam. The Lake Houston Area Flood Task Force identified the project as one of the top priorities for the area.

The idea: to release water both earlier and faster in advance of major storms to create more storage in Lake Houston. Right now, Lake Conroe can release water 15 times faster than Lake Houston. And the release from Lake Conroe during Harvey was widely seen as one of the contributing factors to the flooding of so many homes and businesses in the Lake Houston Area.

The governor signed HB 1 on 6/18/23. It becomes effective on 9/1/23. With funding secured, Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin says final design on the gates is proceeding.

Lake Houston Gates Project
Lake Houston Gates Project
SB 1397: TCEQ Reforms

The TCEQ was under sunset review this year. No one proposed eliminating the TCEQ. But many people had ideas to improve it. They focused on two main areas: increasing transparency and improving enforcement.

The Sunset Commission recommended measures to improve public outreach, public notices, community input, and dissemination of public information, including the publication of best practices for sand mining.

The Commission also recommended updating the TCEQ’s enforcement practices to better focus on the riskiest actors and ensure staff treat potential violations consistently and based on severity. 

Breach in dike of Triple PG mine remained open for months, sending wastewater into Lake Houston. Texas Attorney General is now suing the mine.

The governor signed SB 1397 on 6/18/23. It becomes effective on 9/1/23.

In the Loss Column

SB 2431/HB 5338: Gulf Coast Resiliency District

These companion bills would have transformed the Harris County Flood Control District into the Gulf Coast Resiliency District. The new District would have been governed by a board appointed by the Governor instead of management hired by Harris County Commissioners.

The idea: to create regional solutions that benefitted all residents of Harris County, not just those that scored high on an equity formula.

The County fought the bill(s) tooth and nail. Each failed to get out of committee.

HB 1093: Financial Surety Guaranteeing Sand Mine Cleanup

The bill died in the House Natural Resources committee. It never even got a public hearing.

This bill would have required sand mining companies to post financial surety that would guarantee cleanup of mines before they were abandoned. Abandoned mines on both the San Jacinto East and West Forks are littered with the remains of once thriving operations. But when the sand played out, the miners walked away, leaving a legacy of blight for the public to clean up.

abandoned dredge
Abandoned dredge in mine on North Houston Ave. in Humble. Property is unfenced so kids can play on equipment.
HB5341: Lake Houston Dredging and Maintenance District

This bill also died in the House Natural Resources committee. House Bill 5341 would have created a Lake Houston Dredging and Maintenance District. Its purpose would be to remove sediment, debris, sand, and gravel  from Lake Houston and its tributaries to restore, maintain, and expand the Lake to mitigate storm flows. 

SB 1366: Flood Infrastructure Financing

This bill died in the Senate Finance committee. Senate Bill 1366 would have redirected surplus revenue from the economic stabilization fund to the Flood Infrastructure Fund. The State’s Flood Infrastructure Fund (FIF) has turned into one of the main sources of funding for Texas Water Development Board grants and one of the main ways that smaller counties and cities can fund flood projects. 

Passed but Failed
HB 1540: SJRA Reforms

HB 1540 passed. The bill implements reforms recommended by the Sunset Review Committee for the the San Jacinto River Authority. Many of those are good and needed reforms. They include provisions governing:

  • Gubernatorial designation of the presiding officer of SJRA’s board of directors;
  • Specific grounds for removal of a board member;
  • Board member training;
  • Separation of the board’s policy-making responsibilities and the staff’s managementresponsibilities;
  • Maintenance of complaint information; and
  • Public testimony at board meetings.

Approval should have been a rubber stamp. But at the last minute, Rep. Will Metcalf from Conroe offered an amendment that effectively fired Jace Houston, SJRA’s general manager and leader of the SJRA’s fight to reduce subsidence. The amended bill passed the Senate. Houston resigned effective 6/30/23. And now the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District has no one to challenge unlimited groundwater pumping in Montgomery County.

Some in the Lake Houston Area who flooded during Harvey may rejoice at Houston’s departure. But differential subsidence is tilting Lake Houston upstream. It could make the Lake Houston Dam two feet higher relative to areas upstream near the county line. That could eliminate the safety margin above the floodplain for many homes in the next big flood.

subsidence in Harris County
Modeling shows 3 feet of subsidence near Harris/Montgomery county line, but only one foot at Lake Houston Dam.

As someone who had floodwater lapping at his foundation, I personally would put this one in the loss column.

The governor signed the bill on 6/18/23. It goes into effect on 9/1/2023.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/2/23

2133 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.

SJRA Loses Plea in Harvey “Takings” Case, Attacks Expert Witness, Files Another Appeal

Downstream property owners who claim their property was unconstitutionally “taken” by the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) during Harvey face more delays in their legal battle for compensation. A final outcome could still be years away.

Appeal After Appeal

After losing a motion to dismiss the case against it in 2020, SJRA appealed the ruling. But the appellate court also ruled against the SJRA and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

So, the SJRA then entered a “plea to the jurisdiction.” Basically, a plea to the jurisdiction also seeks to dismiss a case. But it does that by challenging the court’s subject-matter jurisdiction, not by arguing the merits of the case.

On December 16, 2022, the trial court dismissed that, too. Now the SJRA is appealing the dismissal of its plea to the jurisdiction as well. SJRA uses a quirk of Texas law that allows government agencies to file appeals before a case is decided, thus dragging them out.

In the meantime, SJRA has been attacking the report of Dr. Phillip Bedient, a professor of engineering at Rice University, acting as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. Bedient’s report contains explosive allegations. If a jury finds them persuasive, it could be very costly to the SJRA and State of Texas, which backstops the SJRA financially.

SJRA’s delaying tactics and appeals suggest it fears Bedient’s testimony in front of a jury.

Seven Months Arguing over an Expert Witness

The chronology of 334 filings to date with the Harris County Clerk in this case (#1123430) reveals as much about the SJRA legal strategy as the contents of the SJRA filings themselves.

The latest dust-up over Bedient started in August 2022. SJRA claimed plaintiffs had not given them notice of Bedient’s expert testimony. Plaintiffs had given notice two years earlier.

Then it took almost two months to find a mutually agreeable time for Dr. Bedient’s deposition. During that time, the two sides argued about document production related to Bedient’s testimony. SRA allegedly requested the same documents more than once; plaintiff’s claim they produced them and were under no obligation to produce them twice.

On October 27, 2022, SJRA asked for a continuance until plaintiffs complied. Then, on October 31, plaintiffs again claimed they had complied and that SJRA was trying to manufacture a “discovery non-compliance dispute where none exists, presumably as a pretext to inject further unnecessary delay into this case.”

The next item in the court record (November 28, 2022) is SJRA’s objections to Bedient’s declaration. SJRA urged the judge to strike Bedient’s testimony. Plaintiffs objected to SJRA’s objections on 12/1/2022.

On 12/16/2022, the judge denied SJRA’s objections to Bedient’s testimony.

Then, on 1/4/2023, SJRA gave notice of its intent to file an interlocutory appeal on its plea to the jurisdiction. But it took a whole month for the SJRA to write a $3,067 check for the appeal.

Next, the SJRA requested the clerk to forward more records to the court of appeals. Three and a half months later, on 5/18/2023, the clerk finally filed the receipt for the additional records with the court of appeals.

Net: the SJRA has spent the last 7 months trying to keep Bedient’s testimony from being heard by a jury. One legal expert I talked to predicts that the SJRA will appeal its plea to the jurisdiction all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. And that plea revolves heavily around Bedient’s testimony.

Bombshells in Bedient Testimony

So, what did Bedient claim that could be so damaging? Read his entire testimony here. It contains a number of explosive allegations.

  1. SJRA told the court it did not model a “no-Lake-Conroe-Dam Scenario.” But Bedient claims SJRA produced a “no dam” model during discovery. Oops!
  2. The no-dam scenario showed:
    • Lower flood peaks downstream than with the 79,000 cubic-feet-per-second SJRA actually released
    • Flood peaks without a dam would have arrived slower and given people more time to evacuate.
  3. SJRA originally designed a dam that would have served two purposes: flood control and water supply. It later modified the design before construction to be water supply only.
  4. Flooding would have been less damaging had SJRA constructed the flood-control dam originally authorized.
  5. SJRA justified its release of 79,000 CFS by saying peak inflow was 130,000 CFS. But Bedient says the 130,000 estimate was a short-lived spike from one small area, and that had the SJRA averaged the inflow across the entire watershed, it could have released far less water – 60,000 CFS – while still following its dam operating procedures.
  6. A 1994 storm, during which SJRA released 33,000 cubic feet per second from Lake Conroe, badly flooded Kingwood and Humble. The SJRA later modified its gate operating procedures to avoid downstream flooding, but then released 79,000 CFS during Harvey.
  7. Downstream flooding will likely recur as a result of the current design and operation of the Lake Conroe Dam.

Read more about these and Bedient’s other conclusions on pages 25-27. No wonder SJRA is fighting this testimony!

At the current rate, it could be years before this case goes to trial. Two-years ago – on 5/21/21, the judge issued a deadline for challenges to expert testimony; they were supposed to have been heard 18 months ago.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/20/23

2090 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.

Amendment to H.B. 1540 Could Force Changes in SJRA Management

H.B. 1540 passed in the Texas House on Friday, April 28, 2023. The bill concerns recommendations from the Sunset Advisory Commission affecting the board of the SJRA.

However, Representative Will Metcalf from Conroe offered a last-minute amendment from the House floor that would effectively fire Jace Houston, the SJRA’s general manager, who reports to the board. The amendment has the potential to upset the delicate balance between upstream and downstream interests mandated by the Governor after Harvey.

The senate version of the bill does not include Metcalf’s amendment. So, this fight isn’t over yet.

Let me cover the bill, the amendment, and implications in that order.

Key Provisions of H.B. 1540

The House analysis summarizes key provisions of H.B. 1540. It revises provisions governing SJRA. It implements – across-the-board – all Sunset Advisory Commission policy recommendations relating to the following:

  • Gubernatorial designation of the presiding officer of SJRA’s board of directors;
  • Specific grounds for removal of a board member;
  • Board member training;
  • Separation of the board’s policy-making responsibilities and the staff’s management responsibilities;
  • Maintenance of complaint information; and
  • Public testimony at board meetings.

The bill also provides for the transition to the new training requirements for current board members. Significantly, it also adds an additional member to SJRA’s board of directors, decreases the length of a member’s term from six years to four years, and provides for the transition to this new membership and term length.

H.B. 1540 would require at least four of the seven SJRA board members to reside in Montgomery County.

H.B. 1540 requires SJRA’s board of directors to develop and implement a comprehensive policy that provides a structure for public engagement in advance of major actions and projects. The policy must include a clear and detailed description of how SJRA will seek to actively engage stakeholders, including the possible use of the following:

  • Advisory committees;
  • Community panels;
  • Town hall meetings;
  • Surveys;
  • Other strategies on a recurring basis.

General-Manager Amendment

After the bill was voted out of the House Natural Resources Committee, Representative Metcalf offered an amendment on the House floor that surprised Committee Chair Tracy King.

Rep. Will Metcalf
Rep. Metcalf from Conroe

The terse amendment requires that the board appoint a new SJRA General Manager within 30 days who hasn’t been employed by the SJRA as general manager within the last six months. It’s a dagger in Jace Houston’s back.

Chairman King spoke against the amendment, but in the end voted for the bill. King stated that the amendment tried to usurp the Governor’s authority. He pointed out that the Governor appoints the board and that the board hires the general manager. The legislature should not get in the middle of that, he said.

Why Try to Fire Houston?

During Metcalf’s testimony, he complained bitterly about SJRA’s:

  • Water rates
  • Groundwater reduction plan
  • Water treatment plant
  • Insistence that the City of Conroe uphold its SJRA contract
  • Seasonal-lowering policy of Lake Conroe that protects downstream residents
  • Battles with the Lonestar Groundwater Conservation District over subsidence.

As SJRA General Manager, Jace Houston has played a prominent role in all these controversies.

Let’s Go to the Videotape!

If you want to watch how this debate unfolded, here’s a link to the Texas House proceedings on H.B. 1540 and Metcalf’s amendment.

  • Discussion starts around 2:27:15.
  • Rep. Metcalf introduces his amendment at 2:28:20.
  • Chairman King raises a point of order against the amendment at 2:29:10. He says the amendment is not germane to the subject of the bill. Then there’s a long break in the action while they confer on the point of order.
  • At 2:41:10, discussion resumes. King has withdrawn his point of order and rises to speak in opposition to the amendment. Metcalf follows him. Then they hold a vote. The bill passes with the amendment.
  • At 2:47:50, discussion moves to the next bill.

Amended Bill Overwhelmingly Passes, But…

The House bill passed with 145 Yeas, 2 Nays, and 1 Present but not voting. However…

Four days earlier, on 4/24/23, the Senate passed S.B. 2586, an identical companion bill (minus the Metcalf amendment). It’s now in King’s House Natural Resources Committee.

That means the bill could go to a conference committee to iron out the difference and find a compromise. Then the House, Senate or both will have to vote on it again. Exactly one month remains in this session.

In the meantime, you can bet heavy-duty politicking will happen in Austin.

What’s Next? 

Does the Senate have the appetite to engage in a local water war this late in session? 

Will Senator Brandon Creighton whose district now includes Lake Conroe intervene?

Will Jace Houston fight to stay? Or will he throw in the towel? 

Is Metcalf trying to scare the SJRA into concessions?

Will the Governor weigh in? Stay tuned.  

San Jacinto River Basin

The San Jacinto river basin encompasses more than 5,000 square miles and 6.4 million people in 11 counties.

Yet Representative Metcalf seems concerned with only a small portion of them. Montgomery County has a tenth of that population in only a 1,000 square miles. And Metcalf represents only part of Montgomery County and a third of its population. Yet Mr. Metcalf seems to want to manage the SJRA for the benefit of 1 out of every 30 people in the watershed.

Last session, he introduced a bill that would have prohibited any downstream representation on the SJRA board. Luckily, it failed.

The San Jacinto river basin is much larger than Conroe, Metcalf, and his district.

That point seems to have eluded everyone who voted for Metcalf’s amendment. I hope calmer minds prevail.

Had this vote happened after Harvey, I think few would have defended the SJRA or Jace Houston. But since then, I have seen a concerted effort to find balance between upstream and downstream interests, as the Governor directed.

Metcalf’s amendment could potentially tilt the balance back upstream, the way it was before Harvey. We just don’t know. The uncertainty worries me. Will we be saying goodbye to lake lowering and hello to more subsidence?

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/29/2023

2069 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.

Lake Houston Gates Project Moves Closer to Reality

The Lake Houston Gates Project is moving closer to reality with breakthroughs on the benefit/cost ratio, funding and endorsements.

City of Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin and Chief Recovery Officer Stephen Costello provided updates on 2/27/23 at City Hall on the Lake Houston Gates Project. The wide-ranging, hour-long discussion covered several related topics. They included:

  • A critical path for construction
  • Dredging of the lake
  • Funding for gates and dredging
  • Several related engineering studies
  • A favorable ruling from FEMA on the Benefit-Cost Ratio
  • An endorsement to the area’s legislators by the Greater Houston Partnership.

Need For Gates

For those new to the area, the City of Houston has been pushing to add gates to the Lake Houston Dam ever since Harvey in 2017. Upstream, Lake Conroe’s gates can release 150,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). But Lake Houston’s can only release 10,000 CFS.

The disparity in discharge capacity complicates joint-reservoir-management and pre-release strategies designed to avoid flooding by reducing the water level in Lake Houston.

Lake Houston releases cannot keep up with Lake Conroe’s. And pre-releasing water from Lake Houston takes so long that storms can veer away during the lowering process, often resulting in wasted water. That’s an important consideration for a water-supply lake.

According to Martin and Costello, the gate project will:

• Serve as the first phase of a long-term effort to extend the life of the Dam
• Enable the rapid lowering of lake levels in advance of a flood
• Eliminate the need for a seasonal lowering of both Lake Houston and Lake Conroe
• Provide potential water-rights savings
• Protect an estimated 5,000 residential properties in the surrounding area
• Yield an estimated half billion dollars in economic benefits during the life of the project

Gates, Funding, BCR, Studies

Preliminary engineering studies evaluated about a dozen different alternatives for adding discharge capacity to Lake Houston. The City initially favored adding crest gates to the spillway portion of the dam.

However, the City discarded that idea as “too risky” after further study. The engineering company cautioned the City that it would have a difficult time finding contractors willing to risk modifying a 70-year old concrete dam. The potential liability was just too great. So the City then revisited adding various numbers of tainter gates to the eastern, earthen portion of the dam.

Because tainter gates exceeded FEMA’s funding, the City had initially focused on crest gates. But after investigating the safety issues, the City decided to seek more funding for tainter gates instead.

The City now recommends adding 11 tainter gates.

Recommended location for new tainter gates is next to old ones, not farther east as I conjectured earlier.

The picture below is slightly wider and shows more of how both halves of the dam come together.

If funding comes through, new gates would go in the upper right along the earthen portion of the dam, next to the old gates.
Funding Needs

FEMA initially set aside $50 million for the gates. Plus Harris County committed $20 million in the 2018 Flood Bond to attract FEMA’s match. But the latest construction estimates show eleven tainter gates could cost between $200 and $250 million.

After engineering and environmental studies, only $68.3 million in funding remains. That includes an earmark secured by Congressman Dan Crenshaw. So the City is seeking another $150 million from the State of Texas. Martin and Costello have made weekly trips to Austin so far during this session to line up support from legislators, committee chairs, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Social Benefits Improve Benefit/Cost Ratio

All this is suddenly possible because of a favorable ruling from FEMA on the benefit-cost ratio (BCR).

For years, Houston had struggled to get the BCR for the gate project above 1.0 (the point at which benefits exceed costs). Usually, FEMA strictly interprets benefits as “avoided damages to structures.”

But Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Costello met with FEMA to argue that the problem was much bigger than damaged structures.

As a result, FEMA allowed the City to add the value of “social benefits” to the BCR. Social benefits can include such things as avoiding lost wages when businesses are destroyed; transportation disruptions that reduce the region’s productivity; reducing negative impacts on student achievement when schools are disrupted; and more.

The social-benefit ruling covers a number of City projects, not just the gates. It should also benefit other areas, especially rural ones.

Said Costello, “The minute the social benefits came in, everything was great.” Instead of struggling to reach 1.0, the City is now far above it.

Greater Houston Partnership Endorsement

With that out of the way, the Greater Houston Partnership wrote a powerful letter to state legislators seeking their support for the gate project. See below.

Greater Houston Partnership letter endorsing Lake Houston Gates. For a printable PDF, click here.

The Partnership includes business leaders from 900 member companies in the 12-county Houston Region.

Dredging Update

While pressing ahead with the gates project, the City is also working on a long-term dredging plan for the lake and working with the SJRA on sedimentation and sand-trap pilot projects.

The Texas Water Department Board (TWDB) has estimated sediment inflow to Lake Houston at about 380 acre-feet of material annually.

The lake has already lost more than 20,000 acre feet of capacity due to sedimentation. That worsens flooding. While the Federal Government supports efforts to improve Lake Houston now, the chances of getting more money in the future will be reduced – unless we can show that we’re at least keeping pace with annual sediment deposits.

Since Harvey, FEMA, the Army Corps, TWDB, and City of Houston have removed almost 4 million cubic yards of material from the lake at a cost of $226 million.

We have to prevent more sediment from coming downstream or dredge it after it gets here.

Stephen Costello, City of Houston Chief Recovery Officer

The City is currently lobbying for another $50 million for maintenance dredging to add to the money secured in the last legislative session by now-retired State Representative Dan Huberty. New Representative Charles Cunningham will reportedly now carry that banner forward along with State Senator Brandon Creighton.

Legislative News to Follow

March 10th is the last day to file bills in the Texas Legislature this year. Please visit the legislation page on ReduceFlooding.com for updates once bills are filed and start moving forward in Austin.

Thanks to all of our elected and appointed representatives who have pushed so hard on so many fronts for the last 2008 days to tie all the pieces of this complicated flood-mitigation puzzle together.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/27/2023

2008 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Harvey: A 5-Year Flood-Mitigation Report Card

Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. Many in the Lake Houston Area have asked, “Are we safer now?” The answer is yes, but we have a long way to go to achieve all our goals. Here’s a five-year flood-mitigation report card. It describes what we have and haven’t accomplished in 29 areas. So get ready for a roller coaster ride. I’ll leave the letter grades to you.

Lake Houston Area Mitigation

1) Dredging

The most visible accomplishment in the Lake Houston Area since Harvey is dredging. The City and Army Corps removed approximately 4 million cubic yards of sediment blocking the West and East Forks. Before dredging, River Grove Park flooded six times in two months. Since dredging, it hasn’t flooded once to my knowledge.

west fork mouth bar before dredging
West Fork mouth bar after Harvey and before dredging. Now gone, but not forgotten.

State Representative Dan Huberty secured additional funding during the last legislature to continue maintenance dredging. That includes clearing drainage canal outfalls into the lake, such as the entrance to Rogers Gully. The dredging operation is now moving around the lake, according to the City’s District E office.

2) Adding Floodgates

Engineers keep looking for a cost-effective alternative. They first identified 11 options in a preliminary review. They then studied the most promising – spillway crest gates – in more detail. Now they’re looking at tainter gates in the earthen portion of the dam. In case the Benefit/Cost Ratio still doesn’t meet FEMA requirements for moving forward with construction, Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin is also exploring additional funding sources. But so far, no construction has started on additional gates. Martin hopes to reveal a recommendation in September.

Lake Houston Dam, area for new gates
Potential location for new tainter gates east of the spillway portion of the dam (out of frame to the right.
3) Upstream Detention

To reduce the amount of water coming inbound during storms, the San Jacinto River Basin Master Drainage Study identified 16 potential areas for building large stormwater detention basins. Unfortunately, they had a combined cost of $3.3 billion and would only reduce damages by about a quarter of that.

So, the SJRA recommended additional study on the two with the highest Benefit/Cost Ratio. Their hope: to reduce costs further. The two are on Birch and Walnut Creeks, two tributaries of Spring Creek near Waller County. Expect a draft report in February next year.

Funding these would likely require State assistance. But the Texas Water Development Board’s San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group has just recently submitted its first draft report. The draft also recommended looking at detention basin projects on West Fork/Lake Creek, East Fork/Winters Bayou, and East Fork/Peach Creek.

Building them all could hold back a foot of stormwater falling across 337 square miles. But funds would still need to be approved over several years. We’re still a long way off. Results – on the ground – could take years if not decades.

4) “Benching”

The Regional Flood Planning Group also recommended something called “benching” in two places along 5 miles of the West Fork. In flood mitigation, benching entails shaving down a floodplain to create extra floodwater storage capacity. Like the detention basins, benching is still a long way off…if it happens at all.

5) West Fork Channel Widening

Finally, the Regional Flood Planning Group recommended widening 5.7 miles of the West Fork to create more conveyance. But again, at this point it’s just a recommendation in a draft plan.

San Jacinto River Authority

6) SJRA Board Composition

After Harvey, many downstream residents accused SJRA of flooding downstream areas to save homes around Lake Conroe. At the time, SJRA’s board had no residents from the Humble/Kingwood Area. So Governor Abbott appointed two: Kaaren Cambio and Mark Micheletti. Cambio later resigned due to a potential conflict of interest when she took a job with Congressman Dan Crenshaw. That leaves Micheletti as the lone Humble/Kingwood Area resident on a seven-person board. However, the SJRA points out that the Board’s current president, Ronnie Anderson, represents Chambers County, which is also downstream.

State Representative Will Metcalf, who represents the Lake Conroe area, introduced a bill to limit SJRA board membership to upstream residents. Luckily for downstream residents, it failed.

7) Lake Conroe Lowering

SJRA identified temporary, seasonal lowering of Lake Conroe as a strategy to reduce downstream flood risk until completion of dredging and gates projects in the Lake Houston Area. The lowering creates extra storage in the lake during peak rainy seasons. After SJRA implemented the plan, Lake Conroe residents objected to the inconvenience. They sued SJRA and the City, but lost. After discussion with all stakeholders, the SJRA quietly modified its plan. It still lowers the lake, but not as much.

8) Lowering Lake Houston

Houston also started lowering Lake Houston, not seasonally, but in advance of major storms. The City has lowered the lake more than 20 times since beginning the program. That has helped to avoid much potential flooding to date.

9) Lake Conroe Dam Management

SJRA applied for and received several TWDB grants to enhance flood mitigation and communications in the San Jacinto River Basin. One involves developing a Lake Conroe Reservoir Forecasting Tool. SJRA has also worked with San Jacinto County to develop a Flood Early Warning System.

Finally, SJRA’s Lake Conroe/Lake Houston Joint Reservoir Operations Plan is on hold pending completion of the City’s plan to add more gates to the Lake Houston dam. Such projects may help reduce the risk of releasing unnecessarily large volumes of water in the future.

Coordination between Lake Conroe and Lake Houston has already improved. You can see it in the SJRA’s new dashboard. It shows releases requested by the City of Houston to lower Lake Conroe.

10) Sediment Reduction

Huge sediment buildups in the West and East Forks of the San Jacinto clearly contributed to flooding. The Army Corps stated that the West Fork was 90% blocked near River Grove Park. To reduce future dredging costs, SJRA also studied the use of sediment traps. SJRA may implement a pilot study soon on the West Fork near the Hallett mine.

However, the location is controversial. Geologists say it wouldn’t reduce sediment in the area of greatest damage. Environmentalists worry that it could increase sedimentation through a “hungry-water” effect and open the door to river mining. And I worry that, even if successful, the pilot study would not be extendable. That’s because it relies on partnerships with sand miners. And other tributaries to Lake Houston do not have sand mines or as many sand mines.

Sand bar blocking West Fork after Harvey. The Corps has since removed it.

Federal Funding

It’s hard to get good grades on your flood mitigation report card without funding.

11-18) Appropriations

In March this year, Congressman Dan Crenshaw secured appropriations that should help advance projects in the San Jacinto Basin. They included:

  • $1.6 million for HCFCD for Taylor Gully  stormwater channel improvement. 
  • $1.6 million for HCFCD for Kingwood  Diversion Channel improvement. 
  • $1.67 million for Harris County for the Forest Manor drainage  improvement project in Huffman.
  • $8.2 million from FEMA the Westador Basin stormwater detention project on Cypress Creek.  
  • $9.9 million from FEMA for the TC Jester storm water detention basin on Cypress Creek.

Crenshaw also has backed community requests for more funding in Fiscal 23. They include:

  • $8 million for the Lake Houston Dam Spillway (Gates).
  • $10 million for the Woodridge Stormwater Detention Basin (see below).
  • $10 million for a Cedar Bayou Stormwater Detention Basin.

Harris County Flood Control

19) Channel Maintenance and Repair

Harris County Flood Control has already completed several maintenance projects in the Lake Houston Area. In Kingwood, those projects include Taylor Gully, Ben’s Branch, parts of the Diversion Ditch and other unnamed ditches. In Atascocita, HCFCD also completed a project on Rogers Gully. Upstream, HCFCD is working on the third round of repairs to Cypress Creek. Batch 3 includes work at 12 sites on 11 channel sections. I’m sure the District has maintenance projects in other areas, too. I just can’t name them all.

Bens Branch
Bens Branch near Kingwood High School after sediment removal.
20) Woodridge Stormwater Detention Basin Expansion

In 2019, uncontrolled stormwater from the Woodridge Village development twice flooded approximately 600 homes in Elm Grove Village and North Kingwood Forest. HCFCD and the City purchased Woodridge from Perry Homes last year. HCFCD soon thereafter started removing sediment from the site to create a sixth stormwater detention basin that would more than double capacity on the site. At the end of last month, contractors had removed approximately 50,000 cubic yards out of 500,000 in the contract. This gives HCFCD a head start on excavation while engineers complete the basin’s final design.

21) Local Drainage Study Implementation

HCFCD authorized four studies of the drainage needs in the Lake Houston Area. They completed the Huffman and Kingwood studies. Atascocita and East Lake Houston/Crosby started earlier this year and are still underway.

The Kingwood study measured levels of service in all channels and outlined strategies to improve them to the 100-year level. The first two projects recommended: Taylor Gully and the Kingwood Diversion Ditch. Neither has started construction yet. But see the notes under funding above.

The Huffman Study recommended improvements to FM2100, which TxDOT will handle. It also recommended dredging in the East Fork near Luce Bayou which the City has completed. Finally, it recommended a bypass channel for Luce. However, pushback from residents forced cancellation of that project.

22) Buyouts

HCFCD completed buyouts of 80+ townhomes on Timberline and Marina Drives in Forest Cove last month. Contractors demolished the final run-down complex in August. That should improve property values in Forest Cove.

forest cove townhome demolition
Completion of demolition of one of the last Forest Cove Townhome Complexes in July 2022.
23) Regulation Harmonization

Harris County Flood Control and Engineering have been working to get municipalities and other counties throughout the region to adopt certain minimum drainage regulations. I discussed the importance of uniformly high standards in last night’s post. So far, about a third of the governments have upgraded their regs. A third are still deciding whether to act. And the remainder have taken no action. There has been little movement in the last six months.

City of Houston

As mentioned above, the City has taken a lead role in dredging, adding gates to Lake Houston, and proactive lake lowering. In addition, the City has helped with:

24) Bridge Underpass Clean-Out

The City of Houston successfully cleaned out ditches under Kingwood Drive and North Park Drive in at least six places. Bridges represent a major choke point during floods. So eliminating sediment buildups helps reduce flood risk in areas that previously flooded.

City excavation crews working to remove sediment on Bens Branch under Kingwood Drive
Excavation of Bens Branch under Kingwood Drive by City crews.
25) Storm Sewer Inspections, Clean-Out, Repairs

The City has inspected storm sewers throughout Kingwood and cleaned those that had become clogged. It also repaired sinkholes and outfalls that had become damaged.

Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District

The lowest score on the flood-mitigation report card probably goes to LSGCD.

26) Subsidence

The Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District has started pumping groundwater again at an alarming rate. Projected subsidence near the Montgomery County Border equals 3.25 feet, but only 1 foot at the Lake Houston dam. That could eventually tilt the lake back toward the Humble/Kingwood/Huffman area and reduce the margin of safety in flooding. That’s bad news.

Sand Mining Regulations

Twenty square miles of West Fork sand mines immediately upstream from I-69 have exposed a swath of floodplain once covered by trees to heavy erosion during floods. Mathematically, the potential for erosion increased 33X compared to the normal width of the river. Sand mines were also frequently observed releasing sediment into the river. And the dikes around the mines often wash out.

So in 2019, the Lake Houston Area Grassroots Flood Prevention Initiative (LHAGFPI) began meeting with legislators, regulators and the Texas Aggregate and Concrete Association (TACA). The goal: to establish comprehensive Best Management Practices (BMPs) for the sand mining industry in the San Jacinto River Basin. 

27) Mine Plan/Stabilization Reports Now Required

TCEQ adopted new regulations, effective January 6, 2022.  They required miners to file a ‘Mine Plan’ by July 6, 2022 and also a ‘Final Stabilization Report’ when a mine is played out.

28) Vegetated Buffer Zones (Setbacks)

The new regs also stipulate undisturbed vegetative buffer zones around new mines. Buffer zones aid in sediment filtration and removal by slowing surface water. They also strengthen dikes.

The new regs require a minimum 100-foot vegetated buffer zone adjacent to perennial streams greater than 20 feet in width. However, for streams less than 20 feet wide, the buffer zone is only 50 feet for perennial streams, and 35 feet for intermittent streams.

29) Reclamation Bonds

Unfortunately, the Flood Prevention Initiative could not convince TCEQ to require ‘reclamation bonds.’ Other states use such bonds to prevent miners from abandoning mines without taking steps to reduce future erosion, such as planting vegetation.  

My apologies to any projects or parties I omitted. Now it’s your turn. Give grades to those you think have done the best job on YOUR Harvey flood-mitigation report card.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/26/22

1823 Days since Hurricane Harvey and one day from Harvey’s Fifth Anniversary

SJRA’s Next Steps After Public Comments on Sand Trap Study

The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) has completed its initial sand trap study, in partnership with Harris County Flood Control, and reviewed public comments. According to Matt Barrett PE, SJRA’s Manager of Water Resources and Flood Management, the SJRA is working toward a pilot study. But a successful pilot will require several things including funding partners and consultation with regulatory agencies, such as TCEQ and Texas Parks and Wildlife.

The goal of the project: intercept and remove sediment migrating downstream to reduce buildups elsewhere.

west fork mouth bar before dredging
West Fork mouth bar after Harvey and before dredging. A small area at the far right had been building up before Harvey. The rest appeared when Harvey’s floodwater’s receded.

The proposed pilot sand trap could not possibly remove enough sand by itself to prevent the build up of another giant sand bar like the one above. However, a network of such traps might help.

Consultation with Regulatory Agencies

In Texas, among other things, TCEQ regulates floodplains, sand mining, and water quality. Texas Parks and Wildlife regulates rivers between the vegetation on each bank.

Legislation exempts the SJRA, HCFCD and its contractors from obtaining state permits before removing sediment from the river. Regardless, the SJRA wants to work with regulatory agencies to ensure it doesn’t recommend anything that runs afoul of agency policy. Example: the newly adopted TCEQ Best Management Practices for Sand Mining. For instance, see section 2.1.1 – Vegetated Buffer Zones.

Location of proposed sediment trap.
Possible location of trap for pilot study outside Hallett Mine on West Fork. Trap would consist of a trench through the middle of the point bar in the foreground.

But a trench at this location might run afoul of new TCEQ BMPs for sand mining that specify 100-foot buffer zones adjacent to perennial streams greater than 20-feet wide.

Sand trap recommendation
Schematic diagram of proposed trap at location above from initial conceptual design study finished before TCEQ adopted new BMPs.

Finding Funding Partners

SJRA must also find funding partners as it does not have a revenue source to pay for a pilot study and full construction costs of sand traps. In that regard, Barrett mentioned Harris County Flood Control and City of Houston as potential partners.

Barrett is also exploring partnerships with APOs (Aggregate Production Operations, aka sand mines). Sand mines can help defray expenses by removing sand from the traps as it accumulates. Of course, their desire to do that will depend on the location of the traps. They would prefer something close to their mines to minimize transportation costs and logistics while maximizing salability of the sand.

Hungry-Water Concern

Barrett also mentioned the need for the preliminary engineering design to avoid a “hungry water” effect which might increase erosion downstream. Hungry water results when streams have more power to transport sediment than they have available sediment. As a result, it erodes stream beds and banks to compensate.

Would Program be Extendable if Successful?

In a wide-ranging 45-minute discussion with Barrett, I raised several other potential issues. They included:

  • Location of the test near APOs, far upstream from the heavily damaged areas near Lake Houston where sand accumulates. There are no active sand mines between Humble and Kingwood – and few on other tributaries.
  • No sediment gages upstream and downstream from the test site. Not having a way to demonstrate success could limit future expansion of the program.
  • Potential partners that could remove sand from traps NOT located near APOs. You need a way to get sand out of a trap after it fills up. If the City of Houston or HCFCD established an ongoing maintenance dredging program, that could solve this issue.
  • How long an APO will remain committed to a location near a trap. After going to the expense of building a trap, SJRA would want to make sure the APO didn’t move operations to another location in a year or two. For example, some sand miners have talked about moving to the East Fork to take advantage of expected growth associated with the new Grand Parkway extension.

The SJRA must work through such issues to protect the public’s investment in the program. It has many moving parts. And the interests of all partners must align before moving forward.

Outline of Next Steps

So the next steps are:

  • Find partners with money whose interests align.
  • Obtain commitments from them.
  • Consult with regulatory agencies to avoid potential conflicts.
  • Lock down a location near an APO.
  • Begin preliminary engineering.
  • Ensure the pilot study (based on proximity to APOs) can extend to other areas (Rehak concern)
  • Find a way to measure success to help extend the pilot program if successful

In business, there’s an old maxim: “That which can be measured will be repeated.” Doing a pilot study that can’t be measured or replicated elsewhere helps no one.

For more information, see this post about potential sites and designs for traps. It features the most likely spot for a pilot study.

The Army Corps has also published extensive research about the effectiveness of different sand-trap designs. Search for “Army Corps sand trap studies.” I originally became interested in the concept when I read a Corps study about a test of different trap geometries in the Mississippi River. There are many alternatives including some that could be located where water slows down at the entrance to Lake Houston (where the Harvey mouth bar appeared in 2017). Such a location would have the advantage of intercepting sediment from all upstream sources, not just the West Fork...if all the tumblers aligned.

Posted by Bob Rehak

1783 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Case Finally Closed on Lake Conroe Association Lawsuit against City, SJRA

In April, 2021, a Montgomery County District Court dismissed the Lake Conroe Association’s lawsuit against the City of Houston for its Lake Lowering Policy. In August 2021, the court dismissed the same case against the SJRA with prejudice. The Lake Conroe Association (LCA) and several Lake Conroe residents appealed the decisions.

Then on April 20, 2022, LCA and the other appellants asked that the Court dismiss their appeal. Neither the City, nor SJRA, opposed the motion. Three judges of the Ninth District Court of Appeals in Beaumont then unanimously dismissed the appeal. Case closed.

“Takings” Claim Disputed

Lake Conroe Association contended that the SJRA’s lake lowering policy amounted to a “taking” of residents’ property.

The City of Houston and SJRA contended that the water at issue did not belong to lakefront homeowners. It belonged to the State of Texas and the City. Therefore, the Lake Conroe Association had no basis for a “takings” claim.

Sources close to the process said that before the matter was heard on appeal, the LCA realized it would never win. So its leaders decided to drop the case and avoid more legal fees.

Clearing the Way for Lake-Lowering Policy to Remain in Effect

This clears the way for the SJRA’s seasonal lake lowering policy to remain in effect during construction of additional floodgates on the Lake Houston Dam. The policy helps ensure that extra “storage capacity” (parking space for water) remains in Lake Conroe during the rainiest months in spring and the peak of hurricane season.

This reduces chances of another devastating release that floods downstream residents during a major storm, such as Hurricane Harvey. The SJRA released 79,000 cubic feet per second during Harvey, one third of all the water coming down the West Fork between Humble and Kingwood.

However, as time went by, Lake Conroe residents became upset with the policy. That led to a contentious confrontation between upstream and downstream residents, as well as the lawsuit.

2022 Version of Lake-Lowering Policy is a Compromise

Over time, the SJRA has reduced the amount of lowering in its policy. Currently, the spring lowering is one-half foot below 201 during April and May, the level of the conservation pool in the lake. Originally, it was one full foot below 201. Most people call that the “normal” level. However, the mean level of Lake Conroe is below that about two-thirds of the time. (See last table below.)

Current Lake Conroe Level

Evaporation and low rainfall currently have Lake Conroe at 200.8, or about 3 inches above the new seasonal target level and 3 inches below the conservation pool.

Currently Lake Conroe’s level is at 200.8 feet and the City of Houston (COH) has not called to lower the lake further.

A close reading of the policy reveals that for the lake lowering to begin, the City of Houston must call for the water.

Below-Average Rainfall Has Delayed Need for Spring Release

However, below-average rainfall for the last two months has delayed the need for a spring release from Lake Conroe this year. Much of the state is now in drought.

Montgomery and northern Harris Counties are currently rated as “abnormally dry.” Southern Harris, Fort Bend and Waller Counties all have “moderate drought.”

Jace Houston, general manager of the SJRA, said, “We haven’t had a big rain in a long time and there’s no significant rain in the foreseeable future. The feeling is that evaporation will soon take the lake down to the target level. The City of Houston must initiate the lowering. If we get a lot of rain, we’ll start releasing again.”

Time for Healing

In addition to reducing the spring lake lowering, the 2022 policy lowers Lake Conroe to 200.5 in August and 200 in September – both a half foot higher than the original policy.

Hopefully, this compromise will help upstream and downstream residents live together now that the lawsuit has been dismissed. It’s time for some healing.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/22/2022

1697 Days since Hurricane Harvey