LCCN study: County insulated from lake issues

Posted: Friday, August 10, 2012 11:17 pm

By Howard Roden, Conroe Courier

LAKE CONROE – Montgomery County’s healthy, broad and diversified economy is likely to absorb any impact associated with lake level conditions at Lake Conroe, according to a study conducted by Texas A&M University.

The independent study was commissioned in 2010 by the Lake Conroe Communities Network at a total cost of $142,000 to determine what impact – if any – use of the lake’s surface water will have on the surrounding economy.

Among conclusions in the 60-page study is that the “direct economic impact” of the lake is limited to the city of Montgomery and the retail trade sector around the lake.

A study of the sales tax revenue in that area determined quarterly retail trade revenues reported to the state Comptroller’s Office decline 11.5 percent (or $1.6 million per year) in the city of Montgomery per foot of water in the lake, whenever the lake level falls more than 2 feet below the full pool of 201 feet.

However, that impact around Lake Conroe is not as “detectable” in the larger, more diverse economies of Conroe or Montgomery County, or more isolated economies (the city of Willis), according to the study’s executive summary.

“The more the business relies on the lake traffic for business the greater risk from lake fluctuations that may occur in the future,” the study stated.

Although some of the study’s conclusions came as no surprise, LCCN Director Dan Davis said A&M compiled a “very credible” study.

“The study was consistent with what people told us; not only appropriate but defensible,” he said.

County Judge Alan B. Sadler, SJRA Deputy General Manager Jace Houston, Conroe Mayor Webb Melder and Lake Conroe Association member Mike Bleier were contacted about the study, but all said they had not gone over the study in enough detail to comment.

Among other conclusions in the study included:

Lake levels are expected to fall more than 4 feet below full pool 1.6 times more often in phase one of the San Jacinto River Authority’s Groundwater Reduction Plan than in prior periods, and increase to 8.5 times more often in phase four.

Residents in lakefront communities expected a 28 percent decline in residential property values, in which case losses in real estate values would amount to $1.1 billion in the area.

In the near term, immediate proactive conservation efforts should be encouraged.

Two areas of greatest concern expressed by residents and business owners involve the lack of operational control by the local city and county officials. This may mean finding mechanisms to exert their views into operational matters or negotiating an ownership in the lake, or working toward an identifiable role on the SJRA board.

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.

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

LCA PRESIDENT’S UPDATE

It has been a beautiful, yet dry, Fall season so far.  I hope you’ve made your way outdoors to enjoy the lower temperatures, lower humidity and endless sunshine we’ve shared for the past six weeks or so.  But with “the good” usually comes “some bad”.  Officially in the Lake Conroe area, we’ve had only 2.83 inches of rain since September 1 and the lake level has dropped to a level of 199.36 as of today.  At this level, the lake is 1 foot 8 inches below its normal pool elevation of 201 feet.  Please be careful out there boating as submerged debris and stumps are much closer to the surface when the lake level is down.

With the lack of rainfall and dry conditions, Montgomery County was officially placed under a Burn Ban as of October 25.  Please resist burning your leaves or lighting that Fall bonfire as conditions are extremely hazardous.

The Lake Conroe Association (LCA) initiated its Annual Fund Raising Campaign on June 10 and identified its primary, immediate need to be monies to fund a study by Texas A&M University which will review future lake levels once water starts being removed by the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) in 2016 (further discussion of this Texas A&M study follows).  The LCA agreed to pay $66,000 of the $142,000 total study cost; with the balance funded by Montgomery County, the Cities of Conroe and Montgomery, various MUD’s, Lake Conroe Communities Network (LCCN) and other lake-related donors.  LCA’s Annual Fund Raising Campaign has raised $57,585 to date and $8,415 was paid from the LCA’s reserves to meet that $66,000 obligation.  We greatly appreciate the continued generosity of our LCA Members in donating $57,585 during these difficult economic times.  Should you have missed the LCA’s Annual Fund Raising Campaign and still desire to contribute, monies can be mailed payable to the “Lake Conroe Association” at PO Box 376, Willis, Texas  77378-9998.

The contract between Texas A&M University and Montgomery County for the above-referenced Lake Study was approved by Commissioners Court and executed by Montgomery County on September 27.  With SJRA prepared to initiate significant water removal in 2016 yet stating that the effects on Lake Conroe’s lake levels will be “minimal”, the Lake Study will review engineering studies commissioned by SJRA in an effort to understand and validate (or not validate) SJRA’s conclusions on future lake levels.  Should Texas A&M’s study conclude that lake levels may drop lower than predicted by SJRA, Texas A&M will also study the economic impact on our community, and Montgomery County as a whole, of lower lake levels.  The 16 month “Timeline of A&M Study of Economic Impact of SJRA’s Planned Lake Level Reductions” includes reviews of lake level studies, property value assessments, and sales tax revenue data; and also includes a survey of residents, business survey and a contemplated Town Hall Meeting.  The Lake Study including all elements listed here is to be completed by December, 2011.

As you’ve most likely read, water conservation has become a key element in both reducing our overall water consumption and potentially helping maintain lake levels in Lake Conroe.  LCCN (a local community organization) has spearheaded the water conservation topic and held several presentations to elected officials, MUD’s, and interested parties.  For more information about LCCN and their work on water conservation, you may review their website at www.lakeconroecn.com.

An invasive species named Zebra Mussels have been identified for the first time on Lake Conroe.  Zebra Mussels multiply quickly and have damaged many bodies of water in the U.S. and around the world (causing clogged intake pipes, damaging boat hulls, creating sharp surfaces on boat docks and lake floors, and altering water chemistry).  Fortunately, this case of Zebra Mussels was identified on the hull of a boat BEFORE it was launched into Lake Conroe thanks to an observant marina owner (and LCA Board Vice President).  In conjunction with Texas Parks & Wildlife and SJRA, the LCA has contributed $1,250 towards the creation and installation of 250 permanent signs around Lake Conroe at various access points to educate the public on the importance of inspecting your boat hull before launching that boat into any body of water.  For more information on Zebra Mussels, you can access www.texasinvasives.org.

Texas Parks & Wildlife completed its survey of aquatic vegetation on Lake Conroe in July, 2010 and reported only 0.02 acres of Hydrilla, 1.79acres of Giant Salvinia and 1.16 acres of Water Hyacinth…..ALL GREAT NEWS !!  Native vegetation (natural, beneficial plants) held steady at 150.21 acres.  Many thanks are due Texas Parks & Wildlife and SJRA for their efforts in controlling invasive aquatic vegetation on Lake Conroe, and to our LCA Members who have donated over $500,000 over the past four (4) years towards this cause.

As you may be aware, the primary method of controlling Hydrilla (which covered over 2,000 surface acres of Lake Conroe only two years ago) has been the purchase of 130,000 White Amur Grass Carp.  Based on a 32% estimated mortality per year and the fact that this species has been genetically-engineered so as not to produce offspring, Texas Parks & Wildlife (TPWD) estimates that 48,000 were still alive on May 31, 2010 and projects that 32,000, 22,000 and 15,000 grass carp will be alive on May 31 of 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively.  When asked how it will calculate when to start adding new White Amur Grass Carp to Lake Conroe, TPWD responded “As soon as Hydrilla starts to expand into water beyond a few inches deep, it will likely be time to add more grass carp.  At that point, stocking calculations will be based on returning the number of grass carp per total surface acre to the most recent survey where Hydrilla was totally under control.  In this way, we hopefully will remain in a proactive mode instead of a reactive mode.”  The LCA meets regularly with TPWD and SJRA to discuss aquatic plant surveys and means by which to maintain a healthy Lake Conroe.

Well, that’s it for another edition of our LCA President’s Update.  You can review previous editions of these LCA President’s Updates, follow current topics of interest, and send us your comments at our website at www.lakeconroeassociation.com.  We’re wishing you a wonderful Fall season on the lake and thank you for your continued support.

Mike Bleier, President

Lake Conroe Association