Lake Conroe’s impact worth measuring

Published by The Conroe Courier – Over the years, development has enveloped Lake Conroe, representing a sizeable contribution to the Montgomery County economy.

But exactly how big is that contribution, and exactly how would the county be affected if lake levels in a time of drought dropped 12 feet or more?

It’s a question that deserves an answer, but it’s going to cost some money to get it.

The Lake Conroe Communities Network is seeking participants and funding for a quantitative study of the economic impact of lower lake levels. If lake levels were to drop significantly, it would definitely have an impact on the Lake Conroe economy, and would begin to dry up sales tax revenues and eventually could affect revenues from property values. The objective of the study, according to our story by Reporter Howard Roden, would be to provide an assessment of the economic impact from sustained lower water levels of the lake. The study would include surveys of local residents, historical analysis and study of other communities in comparable circumstances.

The network is asking city of Montgomery officials for a contribution of $5,000 to help fund an economic study of the area based on declining water levels. The proposed study by Texas A&M University would cost approximately $140,000 and take up to 16 months to complete. Already, according to the network, the Lake Conroe Association, the city of Conroe and Commissioners Court have pledged support to the project.

It’s clear, from just a glance at the residential and business development that surrounds it, that Lake Conroe is a key part of the county’s economic success. It would be worthwhile knowing exactly how significant that impact really is, and how plummeting lake levels could affect that value. For more information about the LCCN effort to raise support for a study of the economic impact of lower water levels on Lake Conroe, call (936) 448-1809.

Search for water must continue

Even with a negotiated contract between the city of Conroe and the San Jacinto River Authority that secures Conroe’s access to water in Lake Conroe for up to 80 years, city officials told The Courier recently that the search for future water resources must continue.

For that reason, we welcome the decision of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District to give large volume groundwater users the option of looking for water source alternatives to Lake Conroe surface water.

The Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District recently approved changes to its district rules that give large volume groundwater users, those groups that pump at least 10 million gallons annually, the opportunity to look for alternative water sources in place of the multi-billion dollar surface-water project proposed by the San Jacinto River Authority.

As a result, representatives from several of the municipal utility districts located around Lake Conroe are looking at their options, particularly the potential for obtaining and treating brackish water. MUD No. 18, the water provider for Bentwater, already has advertised for a contractor to drill a test well to determine if there’s enough brackish groundwater underneath the Gulf Coast Aquifer to make a project viable. Brackish groundwater is located at greater depths than water from the aquifer and must be treated using reverse osmosis, all of which adds to the costs of the water as an alternative source.

Still, some believe brackish water could become an affordable alternative to tying into a surface water treatment and distribution system utilizing Lake Conroe surface water.

The negotiated agreements which now tie Conroe and The Woodlands to Lake Conroe’s surface water were an important step to ensuring this county has the water it needs for the future.

But the test well that MUD No. 18 plans to drill could open a door for other possibilities for water in the future. Whether brackish water is a viable option is a worthwhile question, and as Montgomery County looks to its future water needs, it’s worth answering.

Walden MUDs plan to purchase share of Huntsville wastewater

By Howard Roden | comment

The two municipal utility districts that provide water to Walden residents have negotiated a contract with Huntsville to acquire a portion of the city’s wastewater return that flows into Lake Conroe.

Should MUD Nos. 8 and 9 ultimately strike a deal with the San Jacinto River Authority for access to the reservoir, Walden’s water needs could be assured through 2035, several community leaders announced during a presentation at the SJRA meeting Wednesday at the Lone Star Convention Center in Conroe.

The two MUDs are among the approximately 197 large-volume groundwater users in Montgomery County required to reduce their groundwater usage at least 30 percent by Jan. 1, 2016. LVGUs are defined by the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District as water systems that pump at least 10 millions gallons annually.

The majority of those water users agreed to join the SJRA Groundwater Reduction Plan, which calls for the construction of a surface water treatment plant near Lake Conroe. Most of the water will be piped to the city of Conroe and The Woodlands area in order for the other water systems to achieve the mandated reduction.

Several cities and governmental entities, such as Panorama Village, Shenandoah, Bentwater and April Sound, are pursuing the idea of drilling for brackish water in the deepest strata of the Gulf Coast Aquifer. However, the Walden MUDs opted to go in a different direction, settling on “indirect reuse” of their wastewater return flow, supplemented by wastewater reuse from an additional source, said Mike Irlbeck, of NRS Engineering in Austin.

The MUDs’ jointly operated wastewater treatment plant presently discharges an average of 350,000 gallons per day into Lake Conroe. The plant is permitted up to 900,000 gallons per day.

Under the MUDs’ own proposed GRP, the contract with the city of Huntsville provides Walden with up to 2 million gallons per day from Huntsville’s two existing wastewater treatment plants.

Huntsville is discharging 1.6 million gallons per day into the San Jacinto River upstream from Lake Conroe. The city has a combined discharge permit of 4.1 million gallons per day.

“Combined with the MUDs’ own return flow, these two water supply sources are sufficient to meet the MUDs’ conversion obligation under the LSGCD rules,” Irlbeck said.

Over the next 40 years, the Walden proposal will conserve more than 66,000 acre-feet of groundwater, according to the MUDs’ presentation.

“We’ve worked hard for two years to try and find an alternative that was good for our constituents,” said Linda Wilson, president of MUD No. 9. “Our project reduces groundwater use by a tremendous amount. The SJRA would never have to run a pipeline to us.”

At first, the MUDs proposed a direct-use approach to wastewater by using that source of water for irrigation purposes, such as golf courses.

“But we couldn’t do enough to make it economically feasible,” Roy McCoy, MUD No. 8 president said. “We think there are risks in both projects, but we think the risks are less using this project.”

The MUDs made their presentation to the SJRA Board of Directors last week seeking approval of an intake and “passage” of the MUDs’ water rights through Lake Conroe. SJRA board member David Kleimann commended Walden leaders for their project.

“You have done a patriotic thing, and I thank you for it,” he said.

Kleimann said the SJRA has made a “monopoly” out of the water in Lake Conroe, and criticized the agency for providing grants with money from taxpayers.

His remarks didn’t go unchallenged.

“Can you tell me what taxpayer money it (the SJRA) does receive?” said Joe Turner, SJRA board vice president.

“I just told you,” Kleimann said.

Following the meeting, Kleimann stressed that the SJRA is a governmental entity that should be working for the people.

Turner said the SJRA does not have any taxing authority and derives its revenue from the sale of water and other fees.

“He (Kleimann) is misleading the people. To say we’re a monopoly isn’t true,” he said.

But how much the Walden MUDs will pay the SJRA for water fees is up for debate. After the board convened from a heated argument in executive session, board president Gary Montgomery told MUD leaders to “continue talking” with SJRA staff with the hope of reaching an agreement on water fees.

Whatever that amount, Montgomery said he wanted the final figure to be “well-discussed and defensible in hard, black-and-white terms.”

Montgomery said he wants the agreement with the Walden MUDs to be approved by the SJRA’s GRP Advisory Committee.

Wilson said she was “thrilled” the SJRA board did not say no to the MUDs’ request. But she and McCoy did not rule out the possibility of legal action if talks reached an impasse.

Howard Roden can be reached at hroden@hcnonline.com

LCA PRESIDENT’S UPDATE

Lake Conroe Association Completes Funding of Texas A&M Lake Study of Economic Impacts of Lower Lake Conroe Water Levels Planned by San Jacinto River Authority

Raising money in today’s economy is never easy.  When the Lake Conroe Association (LCA), Lake Conroe Communities Network (LCCN), Montgomery County and the City of Conroe desired to engage Texas A&M University for an independent study on drawing water from Lake Conroe, it came with a hefty $142,000 price tag.  The LCA kicked off the fund raising effort three months ago by agreeing to contribute the first $50,000 towards the study.  When all potential donors had completed making (or passed on making) their donations, the collective efforts fell $16,000 short.  Understanding the importance of completing this study, the LCA agreed this week to make up the $16,000 shortfall and raised its total contribution to $66,000.

As previously reported, the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD) and San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) have determined that water will be drawn from Lake Conroe starting in 2016 to meet the ever-growing demand on Montgomery County’s water supply.  SJRA, with a virtual monopoly on water supply in our County, engaged the engineering firm of Freece & Nichols to review the effects on Lake Conroe’s water levels and subsequently concluded that “the effects would be minimal”.  While this may be true, some question the accuracy of this conclusion and believe a second, independent evaluation is appropriate in such a vital issue as our future water supply and the impact of lake level reductions on the economies of the Lake Area and Montgomery County.

Three (3) key variables could dramatically affect the conclusions drawn by SJRA and its engineering firm, Freece & Nichols.  First, anticipated future water use is directly based on population demographics which project the rise in residents in Montgomery County.  Concerns exist that the population projections are understated and that water demands could be far greater than those used in SJRA’s conclusion.

Second, the aquifer historically supplying groundwater for Montgomery County (which, until now, provided 100% of the water used in the County) is not sufficiently recharging and only “estimates” by LSGCD can predict the rate at which it will recharge itself in the future.  If LSGCD’s “estimates” are too optimistic and, in fact, the aquifer cannot recharge adequately at the reduced level of usage it has mandated, LSGCD will further reduce the amount of water that may be used from the aquifer and increase the amount of water that must be drawn from Lake Conroe (or other unproven water sources such as “brackish water”).

Third, the City of Houston owns two-thirds of Lake Conroe water.  Under its contract with SJRA, Houston can sell any part of its two-thirds that SJRA doesn’t nominate for its own use in a given year.

While SJRA has concluded that its planned sales of water will only have “minimal effects” on Lake Conroe’s water levels over the next 40 years, errors in population demographics, lower aquifer recharge rates and/or the sale of water by the City of Houston could escalate water use “sooner rather than later” and create serious problems within 15 to 20 years.

The Texas A&M University study will review two distinct topics.  First, it will review the study conducted by Freece and Nichols on behalf of SJRA.  Texas A&M will analyze the facts, methods and assumptions applied by Freece and Nichols in an effort to support or refute that study.  In particular, Texas A&M will conclude if it agrees or disagrees with future lake levels as projected.  Second, Texas A&M will review the socio-economic effects on residents and businesses in the Lake Conroe area should lake levels drop to economically disadvantaged levels.  Coupled with this socio-economic study will be a review of the effects throughout Montgomery County if they conclude a negative economic impact is likely in the Lake Conroe area and insufficient water is available for our future.

In the socio-economic portion of the study, numerous questions are under review.  If lake levels were to drop to economically disadvantaged levels:

  • How would this affect lake area property values?
  • How would this affect property tax collections (used to fund the majority of County, school and hospital district budgets)?
  • How would this affect local business activity and related sales tax collections?

Since a maximum of 100,000 acre feet of water per year may be drawn from Lake Conroe, concerns exist that we may run out of water “sooner rather than later”.  If we were to run out of water:

  • How would existing County residents and businesses adapt to a lack of water?
  • Would all residential and business development be curtailed due to the inability to provide water for that growth throughout Montgomery County?
  • If growth within Montgomery County is curtailed, what happens to a County that can no longer sustain growth?

Certain potential donors to this Texas A&M study have elected not to contribute (such as The Woodlands Township….the most populous and tax-abundant area in the County) because: 1) SJRA already did a study, 2) SJRA is in charge of water in Montgomery County, and 3) lake levels on Lake Conroe do not directly affect their community.  While these points may hold some validity, a much bigger point is being missed; namely, what happens when the County runs out of water?  Lake Conroe may be able to satisfy our short-term water needs, but will not be able to supply our water needs forever.  Among many interested parties, the LCA, LCCN, Montgomery County and the City of Conroe desire to explore future reservoir sites before it’s too late, damage is done to our economies and our water demands outweigh our water supply.  While SJRA is virtually in charge of all of the County’s water, SJRA has declined to support a review of future reservoir sites “for at least 5 years”.  The procurement of land, acquisition of permits and construction of a suitable future reservoir site would most likely take 20 – 25 years, or more.  What happens if a scenario as outlined above occurs where local economies are damaged and the County runs out of water in 15 years?  Is it not time to take action on the review of a reservoir to supplement Lake Conroe NOW?            

Across the world, people are realizing that WATER is the commodity of the future.  Alternatives to oil are being developed to fuel our seemingly endless energy needs.  But, as best we know, no one has developed an alternative to water.  Certainly, water conservation methods will become commonplace across the nations to reduce our demands on our precious water supply.  But, it is our belief that better efforts must be made today to capture every drop of water that falls from the sky.  For Montgomery County, that means a second reservoir.

Many thanks must go to the Lake Conroe Communities Network for spearheading volunteer efforts in pursing the Texas A&M study and fundraising.  Judge Sadler and Commissioner Mike Meador deserve acknowledgement for contributing money and staff time, and for legal resources in the negotiation of a contract with Texas A&M University for this water study.  Conroe Mayor Webb Melder, Senator Robert Nichols and Representative Brandon Creighton provided support and leadership; and, certainly, those entities contributing monies towards this study deserve our gratitude.  Financial contributors include the LCA, LCCN, Montgomery County, the City of Conroe, the City of Montgomery, MUD 2, MUD 4, MUD 8, MUD 9, MUD 18, Emergency Services District 1, Corinthian Point, La Torretta del Lago, private utility owner Mike Stoecker, and the Dana Richardson family businesses E-Z Boat Storage, The Palms Marina and Sunset Shores RV Park.

The Lake Conroe Association, a non-profit 501 (c) 3 corporation, is fortunate to have over 400 supportive residential and business members who contribute their hard-earned dollars to support our past and, hopefully, future efforts on behalf of the many communities within Montgomery County.  The LCA currently has over 21,000 fund raising letters in the mail as part of our Annual 2010 Fund Raising Campaign.  Should you receive yours in the mail, the LCA would greatly appreciate your support.  In the event you do not receive such a letter, donations can be mailed to: Lake Conroe Association, PO Box 376, Willis, Texas  77378-9998.  Additional information regarding the LCA can be obtained at www.lakeconroeassociation.com and about LCCN at www.lakeconroecn.com.

Mike Bleier, President

Lake Conroe Association