The population of Montgomery County is growing too fast for the groundwater to sustain it, and human consumption isn’t even the biggest drain on the county’s water resources; it’s lawn irrigation.
In The Woodlands, as much as 80 percent of the township’s water is used on lawns during the summer, according to data from The Woodlands Joint Powers Agency. WJPA restricts residents from watering their lawns more than twice a week. Beginning in June, residents may find an extra surcharge on their water bills if they are caught watering off-schedule.
Jim Stinson, WJPA’s general manager, said these measures along with conservation education programs are essential for responsible usage, but the rates continue to rise.
“Historically, we’ve had plenty of water resources to cover Montgomery County,” said Mark Smith, Groundwater Reduction Plan administrator for the San Jacinto River Authority. “But urbanization puts those resources under pressure.”
The county’s population doubled more than four times from 1960 to 2010, according to Census data; and as the area north of Houston continues to grow, Montgomery County will have to look elsewhere for water.
Smith said Lake Conroe holds the key, at least for now. That’s where SJRA is building two 5 million-gallon tanks and prepping to lay 57 miles of pipeline that will carry water from the lake to homes and businesses in certain areas of the county, including The Woodlands, Oak Ridge North and Conroe.
“Without that, we would have to stop growing for lack of water,” he said.
Montgomery County’s portion of the Chicot, Evangeline and Jasper aquifers can recharge by 64,000 acre feet, or 20.8 billion gallons, a year. But Montgomery County residents used more than 28 billion gallons in 2009. The Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District(LSGCD), the county agency that regulates these underground bodies of water, estimates the demand will grow to more than 50 billion gallons by 2040.
The lake can sustainably provide 32.5 billion gallons of water a year. The SJRA may have to dig deeper or buy water from other counties in the future, but eventually demand will likely outpace the supply. Conservation could significantly reduce the demand for water.
“The cheapest alternative supply is to simply use less,” Smith said.
Keep off the grass
Landscaping is a point of pride in The Woodlands. Residents take care to ensure their lawns are vibrant and well-watered. Stinson said Woodlands residents triple the amount of water they use on their lawns in the summer, and about half of that is wasted.
He said grass needs only about an inch of water each week. Too much water can keep grassroots from growing deep enough, causing them to become “addicted” to the excess. He said residents routinely over-water their lawns.
Not even the drought in 2011 slowed them down.
John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, said Texas’ 2011 drought was the worst of any single year on record.
Most of the state suffered its driest year. Temperatures topped 100 degrees on 52 separate days for most of Montgomery County. Nearly 30,000 trees died in The Woodlands. WJPA issued water restrictions as part of a drought contingency plan, and its residents used 1.8 billion gallons of water more than the previous year.
“Those numbers would have been higher had restrictions not been in place,” Stinson said.
Nielsen-Gammon said conditions won’t be as severe as they were in 2011, but Texas still is experiencing a drought. Higher-than-average temperatures and less-than-average rainfall will worsen the drought statewide.
“Things are probably going to dry faster than they normally do,” he said.
And despite water conservation programs – like Woodlands Irrigation System Evaluation (WISE Guys) implemented in early 2010, which recommends ways homeowners can reduce their water use – Stinson said residents continue “to waste this vital resource.”
A year after initiating the WISE Guys program, WJPA saw a modest decline in the township’s usage – from 67,546 gallons per person in 2009 to 67,092 in 2010. Then the drought hit in the beginning of 2011 and erased those gains in conservation.
At a time when water was most scarce, The Woodlands’ then-95,715 residents used more than 8 billion gallons of water for an average of 83,988 gallons each. In 2012, at 68,236 gallons per person, usage rates fell but were still well above the 2010 low.
And some of the township’s municipal utility districts use more than others.
The most water-frugal MUD is No. 7, which covers parts of Panther Creek and the northernmost section of Cochran’s Crossing, using 42,411 gallons per person in 2012.
By comparison, MUD No. 2, the smallest, covering 762 people in southwestern Grogan’s Mill, used nearly double the township’s average at 128,537 gallons per person in 2012.
“To have an effective conservation program is a process that takes several years,” Stinson said.
In the meantime, the county’s conservation and utility agencies continue to educate the public about watering lawns and to devise creative solutions to meet water needs. For example, The Woodlands’ golf courses water their fairways with wastewater from SJRA’s water plants.
But in the long run, no single solution will be adequate. If the region continues to grow, its citizens will be required to develop more resources and use them responsibly.