Tag Archive for: Water Wars

Friday Flood Digest

Here’s a digest of recent flood-related happenings. Follow the links for more detailed information.

Texas’ First-Ever Regional Flood Planning Process Gets Underway

The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) is helping recently formed regional-flood planning groups deliver 15 regional flood plans by January of 2023. These regional flood plans will form Texas’ first-ever state flood plan, due to the legislature by September of 2024.

The Board designated flood-planning group members on October 1st. The regional flood planning group meetings are publicly posted under the Texas Open Meetings Act. The first meetings were posted on the TWDB website and the Secretary of State website. Groups have two objectives:

  • Reduce current flood risk
  • Prevent creation of new flood risk 

Flood Projects Move Closer to Funding

Flood projects eligible for funding through the State’s Flood Infrastructure Fund (FIF) moved one step closer to becoming a reality this week. Select applicants are currently submitting complete (as opposed to abridged) project applications to the TWDB. These applications will help Texas communities finance drainage and flood mitigation and control projects.

Eligible entities submitted 280 abridged applications for more than $2.3 billion in financial assistance.

TWDB culled that list to fit the available $770 million in funding for structural and nonstructural flood projects. Of that $770 million, TWDB will allocate $231 million (30 percent) to grants and $539 million (70 percent) to loans with no interest.

TWDB Chairman Peter Lake characterized this program as one of the biggest steps the State has ever taken toward flood mitigation.

As of November 5, 2020, the TWDB had received 125 applications from cities, counties, water districts, and other political subdivisions. The deadline for full applications is November 23.

Four of five SJRA abridged applications made the cut:

  • Upper San Jacinto Sedimentation Study
  • Spring Creek Flood Control Dams Conceptual Engineering Study
  • Lake Conroe/Lake Houston Joint Operations Study
  • Flood Early Warning System for San Jacinto County

Chuck Gilman, SJRA’s Director of Water Resources and Flood Management, said, “We hope to receive final notice on our four full applications in late December or early January.”

“The causes and effects of flooding vary from region to region, so there is no single ‘silver bullet’ solution to mitigate floods,” said Lake. “It is critical that we support Texas communities as they plan for and mitigate future risks based on their unique needs and circumstances.”

The Board will consider approving financial assistance commitments at public meetings in the coming months.“Financial assistance will help communities with both flood planning and project implementation. While we can’t avoid natural disasters, we can mitigate the damage they do,” said Lake.

Fire and Flooding

Fire and flooding may seem like a strange combination. But yes, fire can contribute to flooding. I first noticed this phenomenon on an island called Guanaja in the Bay of Honduras where I used to scuba dive. One year, poachers set fires at the bottom of a hill to drive exotic tropical birds toward nets at the top of the hill. The next year, half the hill slid into the Caribbean during heavy rains.

So what does that have to do with Houston? As drought approaches, developers continue to set fires to clear land. That kills all the grasses that retain soil. When rain does return, that soil will wash downstream and likely contribute to the mouth bar growing on the San Jacinto East Fork. Reduction of the river’s “conveyance” can back water up and contribute to flooding.

Drought Vs. Flooding

Jeff Lindner, Harris County Meteorologist says, “The focus for the last several years has been on flooding and heavy rainfall. We’ve had floods in some portion of Texas for each of the last 5 years. However, the onset of moderate to strong La Niña conditions in the Pacific appear to be swinging the state back toward a dry period.”

“What was predicted to be an active period next week is slowly decreasing both “cold” and “moisture” wise in recent model runs, as is typical in La Nina winters,” says Lindner.

Climate Prediction Center outlooks for the next two weeks indicate below average rainfall and above average temperatures. Similar outlooks continue for three months. Vegetation health will continue to decline, but likely at a slower rate than during the hot summer months when heat is maximized.  

Three month outlook from NOAA predicts below average rainfall across southern US.

So be careful of outdoor burning (see story above). Many counties have already imposed outdoor burn bans.

Note outdoor burn ban in Liberty County.

The only positive side of drought is that it can make ideal construction weather for flood-mitigation projects (see two stories above).

Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force Has First Meeting

The Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force held its first meeting earlier this month. The first order of business: expand the group’s membership from five to 17. The group is creating a web site which will accept online applications; it should be up shortly.

The application deadline: December 11. Stay alert for more information if you are interested in representing your area. Preference will be given to those:

  • Who have flooded
  • Represent flood-prone communities
  • Have knowledge in certain areas, such as housing, public health, engineering/construction, urban design/planning, flood-risk mitigation, environment, etc.

Water Baron of Montgomery County Takes On World; Lawyers Drool

Simon Sequeira, CEO of Quadvest and the Water Baron of Montgomery County, continues his War with the World. At the last GMA14 meeting, lawyers are reportedly lining up to get a piece of the action and licking their lips.

Sequeira also supplies water to Colony Ridge in Liberty County. Several years ago, he led a fight to get the board of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District elected rather than appointed. Then he backed candidates who favored unlimited groundwater pumping and promised to Restore Affordable Water.

Broken Promises

While groundwater is cheaper than surface water, water bills reportedly failed to come down. However, he has stopped paying the SJRA. Sequeira says he is setting aside that money in a special fund in case he loses his legal battle with the SJRA. But his legal battles go far beyond the SJRA. He’s also taking on the rest of GMA14.

GMA14 includes the 15 colored counties above, each represented by a different conservation district. Montgomery County (dark blue) has the Lonestar Groundwater Conservation District.
Purpose of Groundwater Management Areas

GMA stands for groundwater management area. GMAs were set up years ago, in part, to make sure that one county doesn’t hog groundwater, depriving surrounding areas and creating subsidence. So the other counties in GMA14 get to approve (or not) the groundwater withdrawal rates in Montgomery County.

They do that by defining “desired future conditions.” How much drawdown in an aquifer is acceptable? How much subsidence can people and infrastructure tolerate?

GMA14 wants Sequeira to leave 70% of the water in aquifers intact and to produce no more than 1 foot of subsidence.

Hired-Gun Experts Defy Scientific Consensus

Ever since, Sequeira took on this fight, his hired-gun experts have been trying to prove subsidence doesn’t pose a threat in Montgomery County. Unfortunately, data and models don’t agree with him. His pumping has already created subsidence in MoCo and now threatens northern Harris County, too.

Strangely enough, while science has shown – and the rest of the world believes – that unlimited groundwater pumping causes subsidence, Sequeira does not. His profit margin depends on cheap groundwater, unfettered by fees designed to encourage people to convert to surface water.

Five Alternative Plans Considered

Sequeira and company originally proposed three alternative plans to GMA14 that involved pumping:

  • 900 feet of decline in the Jasper Aquifer
  • 700 feet of decline in the Jasper Aquifer
  • 250 feet of decline in the Jasper Aquifer (Similar to Run D scenario, modeled below.)

Of those three, GMA14 only considered the last (even though Lone Star and GMA14 use different criteria to describe the volume pumped).

GMA14 countered by adding two more alternatives that involved even less pumping:

  • 115,000 acre-feet per year (Similar to Lone Star’s Run D scenario. See below).
  • 97,000 acre-feet per year
  • 61,000 acre-feet per year

The two sides are still arguing about how much can be pumped safely. And that’s why the lawyers are drooling.

Models Show Unacceptable Subsidence from Sequeira’s Least Damaging Plan

Subsidence can alter the landscape in ways that cause water to collect in areas that otherwise might not flood. The maps below model projected subsidence in south Montgomery and northern Harris Counties. And we know that this model under-predicts subsidence. That’s because it doesn’t model ANY subsidence from the Jasper aquifer.

Sequeira’s least damaging plan would cause up to 3.25 feet of subsidence in southern Montgomery County and up to 3 feet in northern Harris County, according to GMA14. See below.

Pumping 115,000 feet per year would cause up to 3.25 feet of subsidence in southern MoCo.
The same amount of pumping would cause up 3 feet of subsidence in parts of Kingwood and Huffman, and a foot or more in much of the rest of Harris County.
Effect on Humble, Kingwood, Atascocita, Huffman Areas

If you live in the Lake Houston Area and you stare at that last subsidence map long enough, eventually you will come to a jaw-dropping realization. The Lake Houston spillway is only subsiding by a foot. But the headwaters of the lake are subsiding up to 3 feet. Imagine filling your bathtub with water and then tilting it two feet.

Homes and businesses in the headwaters of Lake Houston will be lowered 2 feet relative to the spillway.

That’s a huge amount. Those who built homes a foot above the hundred year flood-plain would find themselves a foot below it. Those who had a couple inches of water in their homes would have more than two feet after subsidence.

Battle Lines Drawn

So the battle lines are drawn. Sequeira wants to allow up to 900 feet of decline in the Jasper aquifer. And GMA14 wants no more than 1 foot of subsidence with 70% of the aquifer intact. That would mean pumping less than 100,000 acre feet per year.

The presence of so many lawyers in the last GMA14 meeting reportedly has the smaller groundwater management districts nervous. One observer used the word “intimidated.” Some don’t have financial resources to fight Sequeira.

Lawyers I talk to believe Sequeira has little chance of winning a lawsuit. But who needs a favorable judgment when you have an army of lawyers that can intimidate the other side into backing down.

However, if Sequeira is successful, he could open up himself and the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District to billions of dollars in “takings” claims. The lawyers make out coming and going.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/20/2020

1179 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.

Truth is the First Casualty In Water Wars, Too

Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright coined the phrase, “The first casualty in war is truth.” The same is true of water wars. In an attempt to justify unlimited groundwater pumping from the Jasper aquifer, a headline in a Montgomery County online newspaper trumpeted, “University Of Houston Study Shows No Linkage Between Deep Groundwater Production And Subsidence In Montgomery County.” But wait! Is that what the study really said? The article did not provide a link to the actual study. So how could you tell if the review was accurate? It’s not. Below are just a few of the reasons why.

Contradictions Between Study and Newspaper’s Summary

The UH study didn’t study Montgomery County. It looked only at Harris-Galveston Subsidence District Regulatory Areas 1 and 2. They cover only SOUTHERN Harris and Galveston counties! Researchers found no subsidence associated with the Jasper there. That’s because virtually no one pumps the Jasper there (See Jasper well location map below).  The article’s anonymous author forgot to mention that though.

“Don’t Extrapolate Results,” But They Did

The UH study also carefully cautions readers not to extrapolate the results from the study area to other areas. But the newspaper did it and forgot to mention the caution also.

Newspaper Falsely Claims Study Suggests “No Subsidence”

The newspaper author claimed that the study “suggests that Montgomery County utilities, municipalities, homeowner’s associations, and other large-scale groundwater users could draw water production from the Jasper aquifer without causing any subsidence at the surface of Montgomery County.” The UH study makes no such suggestion. 

Claimed “No Need for Regulation,” Contrary to UH Findings

The newspaper author goes on to claim that the study “also suggests that, as long as groundwater production comes from the Jasper or lower formations (such as the Upper Catahoula Formation), there is little need, if any, for any groundwater regulation whatsoever.” Again, the UH study makes no such suggestion. 

Quite the contrary, the UH study says that regulation was effective in slowing the subsidence found in other aquifers along the gulf coast that were being depleted, such as the Evangeline and Chicot. 

Newspaper Claim of 100% Annual Recharge Not Substantiated by Study

The newspaper author also says that, “Since the quantity of groundwater in Montgomery County is essentially unlimited, and since Montgomery County aquifers enjoy almost 100% recharge annually after production drawdowns have occurred, there would seem to be no reason whatsoever to regulate groundwater production from the Jasper aquifer and the Catahoula aquifer.” The study makes no mention of recharge rates in either of those aquifers.

Newspaper Implies “No Need for Regulation” but Study Says It Helped

Finally, the anonymous newspaper author concludes by saying, “The University of Houston study suggests that it’s time for the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District to bring the entire over-regulation of groundwater to a crashing halt.” The study made no such recommendation.

Inferring that the UH scientists even implied that would require turning the the study’s findings on their head. Quite the contrary. The study explicitly states that regulations implemented in 1975 with the formation of the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District slowed out-of-control subsidence.

Newspaper Article Not Signed

Jumpin’ Jasper! What’s going on here? Who wrote this unsigned article? Was it someone who stands to profit financially from pumping the Jasper dry? 

Why Water Not Pumped From Southern Part of Jasper

For the record, the Jasper dips toward the coast along a roughly north-to-south axis. The Jasper aquifer contains fresh water in Montgomery County and northern Harris County. But south of that, it becomes brackish. The water is too salty to use. That’s a big reason why virtually no one pumps it in the southern part of the region.

This map shows the freshwater limits of the Jasper aquifer in 2010. For the most part, the freshwater portion of the Jasper aquifer does not extend to the area of interest studied by the UH scholars.

The down-dip part of the Jasper toward the coast also goes very deep. At the southern limit of freshwater, depth ranges to thousands of feet in places (see bottom of colored area below). Why would you drill that deep if you could get fresher water from aquifers like the Chicot and Evangeline much closer to the surface?

From Page 30 of Hydrogeology and Simulation of Ground-Water Flow and Land-Surface Subsidence in the Northern Part of the Gulf Coast Aquifer System, Texas, Scientific Investigations Report 2004–5102, USGS

Subsidence Already Noted in Northern Part of Jasper

Those are the reasons why the UH scholars do not associate subsidence with the Jasper in southern Harris and Montgomery Counties. That does NOT mean subsidence won’t happen in other areas where utilities DO pump the Jasper. It already has.

Map showing contours of the average subsidence rate (mm/year) during the time span from 2006 to 2012. From “Is There Deep-Seated Subsidence in the Houston-Galveston Area?”, Page 2.

However, USGS well-water height readings north of Highway 99 show severe drawdown near the population centers in southern Montgomery and northern Harris Counties. And surprise, surprise! That also happens to be the area where most subsidence has occurred in Montgomery County.

Unsustainable Pumping Rates

While the advocates of unlimited groundwater pumping want you to believe that the aquifer recharge rates in Montgomery County equal the drawdown rate, they don’t. The Jasper aquifer is being drawn down in populated places at more than 10 FEET per year (see graph below). But USGS estimates that the recharge rate for the Jasper is as little as ONE-TENTH of an INCH per year. That means some utilities have been using up Jasper water 1200 times faster than nature replaces it.

This well drilled in the Jasper aquifer near the Woodlands showed an average decline of approximately 10 feet per year (about 180 feet in 18 years).
USGS map showing 2000-2018 Water-Level Decreases/Increases (left) vs. Well Locations (right) for the Jasper Aquifer. This USGS viewer lets you see different aquifers over different time periods and check water level changes for any well near you. Most of Montgomery County’s major declines happened near major population centers.

Truth or Consequences

Ground level declines produce fault movement and subsidence. They translate to infrastructure damage and flooding. 

As water levels decline, water wells begin to have problems producing. They lose “yield,” which means they can’t produce as much water in a given time period. This requires the wells to run longer to meet demand. It costs more to lift water. Longer run times increase maintenance costs.  Pumps have to be lowered. The motors have to be upsized, which requires electrical rewiring. 

Some well pumps can’t be lowered any farther, which may mean abandoning and replacing the well. Some water level decline is expected. But those who argue that Montgomery County has an unlimited supply of water are just ludicrous. The harder you pump, the more decline you get, and with that comes all the consequences of declines. 

Why People Want to Believe the Unbelievable

Montgomery County residents have found the change from well to surface water financially difficult. People WANT to believe that unlimited groundwater pumping is safe. I just hope they don’t wind up putting all their water lillies in one pond, so to speak. 

The only thing worse than expensive water is no water. Or no water plus infrastructure damaged by subsidence.

Selective Perception Amplified by Selective Deception

Selective perception is a well known cognitive bias. It describes the process by which people perceive what they want to in media messages while ignoring opposing viewpoints. However, in this case, it seems that selective deception is amplifying the bias.

Don’t take my word. Read the newspaper article and then read the actual study on which the article is based. I provide links so you can make up your own mind; the newspaper article did not.

Other Useful References

Below are some other useful publications from the U.S. Geological Survey which is part of the Department of the Interior.

USGS Subsidence home page. Contains dozens of useful publications on Texas Gulf Coast Groundwater and Land Subsidence, plus raw data in numerous formats.

Hydrogeology and Simulation of Ground-Water Flow and Land-Surface Subsidence in the Northern Part of the Gulf Coast Aquifer System, Texas By Mark C. Kasmarek and James L. Robinson, 2004

Groundwater Withdrawals 1976, 1990, and 2000–10 and Land-Surface-Elevation Changes 2000–10 in Harris, Galveston, Fort Bend, Montgomery, and Brazoria Counties, Texas, Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5034, By Mark C. Kasmarek and Michaela R. Johnson

Land Surface Subsidence in Harris County between 1915 and 2001.

Water-Level Altitudes 2016 and Water-Level Changes in the Chicot, Evangeline, and Jasper Aquifers and Compaction 1973–2015 in the Chicot and Evangeline Aquifers, Houston-Galveston Region, Texas, Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5034, U.S. Department of the Interior U.S. Geological Survey

Evaluation of Ground-Water Flow and Land-Surface Subsidence Caused by Hypothetical
Withdrawals in the Northern Part of the Gulf Coast Aquifer System, Texas
, Scientific Investigations Report 2005–5024, U.S. Department of the Interior U.S. Geological Survey by Mark C. Kasmarek, Brian D. Reece, and Natalie A. Houston

Also, don’t forget to check out the subsidence tab under the Reports page of this web site.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/27/2019

697 Days after Hurricane Harvey

“Is There Deep-Seated Subsidence in the Houston-Galveston Area?” by Jiangbo Yu, Guoquan Wang, Timothy J. Kearns, and Linqiang Yang, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, National Center for Airborne LiDAR Mapping, 312 Science & Research Building 1, Room 312, University of Houston, Houston, TX 77204-5007, USA. Copyright © 2014 Jiangbo Yu et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License. Hindawi Publishing Corporation, International Journal of Geophysics, Volume 2014, Article ID 942834, 11 pages.

Note: All thoughts in this post represent my opinions on matters of public interest and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statute of the great State of Texas.