Raindrops keep falling….and falling….and falling on my head. With all of our recent rain and the gates on the dam open as the San Jacinto River Authority releases water downstream, it’s hard to imagine that the topic most on the minds of the Lake Conroe Association (LCA) is the availability of water for Montgomery County. Given so many water issues being discussed, I thought I’d update you on our perspective of where the discussions stand.
Judge Sadler held his “Water Summit” on September 28 with invitees including State Senators Nichols and Williams; State Representatives Creighton and Eissler; County Commissioners Meador, Doyal, and Chance; Conroe Mayor Melder; Woodlands Township Chairperson Blair; the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA); and the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD). SJRA presented data from the recently completed engineering study on historic Lake Conroe data (lake levels, rainfall, evaporation, water releases from the dam, etc) which included many “What If Scenarios” based on utilizing water from LakeConroe in different quantities in the future. Judge Sadler presented his concept of creating two future reservoirs within the County for water collection and use. While all attendees agreed that the topic of water for the County must be addressed, few specific conclusions or action items were developed. Regardless of this, Judge Sadler’s initiative to call this “Water Summit” brought many of the necessary parties together and set the basis for future such meetings. I believe we will shortly see another such “Water Summit” and, with a stronger consensus among the invitees on the best way to address our water needs, a subsequent meeting for the general public of Montgomery County. We’ll keep you posted when this public meeting is called.
You may recall the LCA’s September Question and Answer Survey related to lake issues that was mailed to over 19,000 County residents. With over 2,500 written, signed responses, the survey results were submitted to the attendees of the “Water Summit”. Key responses included:
- 86% knew groundwater use must be reduced by 30% by 2015
- To meet this goal, 87% knew water would be drawn out ofLakeConroe
- 97% believed lowering the level of Lake Conroe would hurt the local economy and property values
- 98% believed lowering the level of Lake Conroe would, at times, restrict access to the lake for recreational use of boaters and anglers
- 95% believed water conservation measures should be implemented for existing sub-divisions, and 97% for future community developments
We would like to acknowledge Senator Nichols for personally responding to all 2,500 respondents with his thoughts on our water future.
We meet regularly with Board Members of the Lake Conroe Community Network to discuss water needs for Montgomery County. This organization has held informative public meetings on the topics of property taxes, annexation, emergency services and water; and we find them to be most helpful in discussing water facts and potential water solutions.
During the past two weeks, we have met individually with Judge Sadler, Senator Nichols, Mayor Melder, and the SJRA. In my meeting with Judge Sadler, I was assured that I will be allowed to attend future “Water Summits” as a representative of the LCA. While calendars didn’t work for a meeting with Representative Creighton, our phone conversation provided insight and we set a meeting date for next week. We are working to set a meeting date with Woodlands Township Chairperson Blair in an effort to better understand the perspectives of Woodlands’ residents as it relates to water use.
What do I feel I can state with some level of certainty? I’d say:
- Montgomery County needs water. Our County is growing rapidly and growth requires water.
- Virtually all of Montgomery County’s residential water today comes from groundwater in our aquifer via water wells.
- Our aquifer has been overused and cannot be allowed to decrease to a level where it endangers that the aquifer will never be able to “recharge” itself. The LSGCD has concluded that the County can no longer draw greater than 64,000 acre feet of water annually from the aquifer, and that any water needs in excess of this must come from surface water (such as Lake Conroe). The U.S. Geological Service is releasing a report before year end which addresses how fast our aquifer is “recharging” itself, and this report will provide data to support (or modify) assumptions made by LSGCD.
- 2015 is the year in which the County will no longer be allowed to draw greater than 64,000 acre feet of water annually from groundwater in our aquifer via water wells.
- In 2015, all County water needs in excess of 64,000 acre feet per year will come from Lake Conroe. Based on current water usage and estimated population growth in the County, water use in the County will approximate 87,000 acre feet annually. The shortfall of 23,000 acre feet (87,000 projected less 64,000 allowed) will equate to about 1 foot of water per year from Lake Conroe(since Lake Conroe covers 23,000 acres and we’ll have a 23,000 acre feet shortfall, the math equates to 1 foot).
- The one foot of Lake Conroe water will be drawn annually from 2015 to 2024. Based on estimated population growth and ignoring alternatives (see “Alternatives” below), two feet of Lake Conroe water will be drawn annually from 2025 to 2034; three feet drawn 2035 to 2044; and four feet drawn 2045 and beyond. The maximum allowable annual draw from Lake Conroe has been set by The State of Texas at 100,000 acre feet.
- A water treatment plant will be built below the dam on Lake Conroe and pipelines connected from that water treatment plant to various locations including, but not limited to, Conroe and The Woodlands. Planning and construction will commence shortly so as to meet the mandated 2015 groundwater reduction deadline. The water treatment plant will be built in units called “trains”, and additional “trains” will be added as additional water is required in each ten year interval described above. The estimated cost of “Phase 1” (2015 operational date) is $400 million. The estimated cost of “Phases 1 thru 4” (2045 operational date) is $2.8 billion. Do not think the construction of the water treatment plant is an option. This construction is a certainty, and only the amount of water needed in the future will dictate the number of “trains” needed and the final cost.
ALTERNATIVES: How could the amount of water to be drawn from Lake Conroe in the future be reduced? “Alternatives” include:
- Water conservation will be an integral part of reducing the amount of water drawn fromLakeConroe. If we use less water, then we won’t have to draw as much. Since a maximum of 100,000 acre feet per year can be drawn fromLakeConroeand more water than that will be needed someday, water conservation will be with us forever. For a separate discussion of this, see “Water Conservation” below.
- Utilizing waste effluent from treatment plants for irrigation will reduce our water use. In summer months, it is estimated that 60% of our residential water use goes to irrigation (watering your yard and landscape). In the winter, that estimate is 30%. While it may be difficult to convert existing subdivisions and commercial development into users of effluent for irrigation (since the construction and infrastructure is already in place), new construction could much easier accommodate the use of effluent for irrigation by incorporating this concept into the planning stage of that development.
- Further consideration must be given to Judge Sadler’s proposal of building two new reservoirs to capture water that would otherwise be released over the dam on Lake Conroe or lost elsewhere during periods of heavy rainfall. Conceptually, these two reservoirs would capture water before it gets toLakeConroe. If Lake Conroe were not full (at the 201 feet level), then the water would be allowed to flow intoLakeConroe. If Lake Conroe were full and excess rains would be otherwise released downstream, these reservoirs would capture the water behind dams and hold it there until Lake Conroe needed it to fill the lake to the 201 feet level (normal pool elevation). Clear obstacles to this proposal include the procurement of the land for the creation of the two reservoirs (some of which would have to come from theSamHoustonNational Forest) and the multitude of environmental concerns related to such a project. The cost of such a project has not yet been determined. SJRA has agreed to conduct a feasibility study of this proposal, but a study date earlier than 2015 has not been agreed to yet by SJRA. Approvals for and construction of such reservoirs would probably take a minimum of 20 to 30 years (remembering that our County’s water needs will be here forever).
- Many have suggested that an “alternative” might be building a reservoir between Lake Conroe and The Woodlands which captures all water released over the dam atLakeConroe. This “alternative” has been discounted based on the lack of a suitable site. To be cost effective and practical, this reservoir would require too much land given the lack of undeveloped land between Lake Conroe and The Woodlands.
WATER CONSERVATION: What are suggestions for implementing a County-wide program for Water Conservation? Some include:
- Given the estimate above that 60% of our residential water use in summer is for irrigation, numerous concepts utilized currently by other communities could be applied. Automatic sprinkler systems can have rain sensors added which stops the system from engaging if a certain amount of rain has fallen. Manual sprinkler systems (hose with a sprinkler attached) could require a dial timer inserted before the sprinkler itself which forces the homeowner to set a specific watering duration (How many times have you turned on your manual sprinkler and forgot to turn it off?). Automatic sprinkler systems can have a feature added which turn off your system if a sprinkler head is broken off or an underground water line is broken.
- Consideration could be given to the specific landscaping plants that you select. Obviously, some plants and trees require more water than others. Similarly, certain lawn grasses require significantly less water thanSt. Augustine, for example.
- Many modifications within your home can reduce the amount of water that you consume. Examples include low water volume toilets, low water volume shower heads, and water efficient dish washers. Showers typically take less water than baths. Reducing shower duration affects water use. Reducing frequency of car washes affects water use. Eliminating the use of your water hose to clean your sidewalks and driveways reduces water use. I’m sure you could come up with further ideas of your own.
- Consideration should be given to reducing or eliminating amenity ponds and water features that are created strictly for aesthetic purposes. Amenity ponds are currently replenished with groundwater and water features (waterfalls, fountains) create excessive evaporation.
- Utility Districts/MUD’s are contemplating a tiered rate structure that charges more money per unit (gallons) based on your individual residential water use. Basically, a “standard” is set for residential water use per month. If you use the “standard” amount, you pay the standard price per gallon. If you use more water than the “standard”, you pay a higher price per gallon. If you use less water than the “standard”, you pay a lower price per gallon. This type of program assumes that water users are price sensitive and that they will reduce usage when they 1) pay closer attention to their water usage, and 2) must pay a higher unit cost per gallon due to their “excessive” use. This type of program has already been implemented in certain Utility Districts within Conroe and The Woodlands.
- State legislation could be developed that mandates water conservation in some form. Currently, neither The State of Texas no rMontgomery County nor SJRA nor LSGCD nor anyone else can mandate water conservation. Senator Nichols has approached the LCA and Lake Conroe Communities Network for assistance in drafting wording for possible water conservation legislation. You can’t submit a bill for legislation without wording. Of course, nothing says such legislation would pass; but this is a start at addressing the State-wide problem of how to provide water to an ever-growing population.
FURTHER THOUGHTS: Please consider the following:
- The initial 1 foot of water per year will not be drawn from Lake Conroe until 2015.
- For a current perspective, this weeks storms have forced SJRA to release 1 foot of water over the dam to reduce the lake level back to 201 feet (normal pool).
- The average quantity of water released over the dam on Lake Conroe equates to seven feet per year (since the 1973 construction of the lake). Through 2024, drawing one foot of water from Lake Conroe should simplistically mean that lake levels will remain similar to today but now only six foot (rather than seven foot) of water will be released over the dam per year. Of course, beware of “averages”. Some years will see more than seven feet and others less than seven feet.
- Since the construction of Lake Conroe in 1973, this lake has dropped to a level of 197 feet (the level after Hurricane Rita when water had to be released to repair the dam) on 0.9% of the months over these 36 years. Had one foot of water been removed from the lake every year since 1973, the lake would have reached a level of 197 feet on 4.3% of the months over these 36 years. Don’t get me wrong. The level of 197 feet was terrible and only three public boat launches could even get a boat in the water. This factoid simply points out that given the one foot drawdown, we’d reach the level of 197 feet 18 months (out of 432 months in 36 years) rather than the actual 4 months (out of 432 months in 36 years).
- The projected draw downs of 1, 2, 3 and 4 feet do not factor in the benefits of water conservation. Successful water conservation efforts County-wide will reduce our overall water use. This will equate to either a direct reduction in the drawdown amounts or an increase in the future levels of our aquifer (which would allow more water to be drawn from the aquifer and less taken from Lake Conroe). The LSGCD will regularly monitor our aquifer level and adjust water programs accordingly.
- You may not be aware that the majority of waste effluent from treatment plants around Lake Conroe is pumped into Lake Conroe. Population growth has already been factored into projected draw downs. What has not been credited is that population growth creates more waste effluent which goes into the lake and, thereby, adds some amount of water to Lake Conroe.
- Typically,LakeConroedrops to the level of 197 feet only during an emergency (dam repair) or a drought. SJRA is working on a “drought contingency plan” which would limit how much water could be removed from Lake Conroe in a period classified as a drought.
I’ve ignored so many details yet have written five pages already. If you’ve read this far, I commend your dedication to the topic and patience with me. I’ll leave topics like “How will we pay for this new water treatment plant?” and “What will all of this do to my monthly water bill?” for another day. For now, know that concerned citizens like those Board Members of the Lake Conroe Association and Lake Conroe Communities Network are doing their best to learn about “the water business” and challenge our elected officials to arrive at the best solution for all residents of Montgomery County. As always, we welcome your feedback at www.lakeconroeassociation.com. I’ll communicate further information and the proposed public water summit date when we know more. Until then, enjoy what I hope is some beautiful fall weather.
Mike Bleier, President