Interest grows in a brackish water source deep underground

Municipal utility districts and major water users in Montgomery County concerned about the need to find alternative sources of water are digging deep for a solution — and they think they have found it.

A trio of water suppliers approved by the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District are tapping into the Catahoula Formation aquifer as a new resource for providing water to their customers now and in the future. Officials expect that number to grow.

“A study has been commissioned to determine the long-term viability of the Catahoula aquifer,” said Kathy Turner Jones, general manager of the LSGCD. “We want to determine the quantity, quality and suitability of the aquifer as a water resource.”

Turner said wells have been approved for Municipal Utility District 18 in Bentwater and Stanley Lake MUD and UD 3 in April Sound. Panorama Village has been approved for a test well — and Turner said she has heard rumors of interest from other cities and organizations.

Interest in the Catahoula is especially keen because the LSGCD has, for now, determined that water coming out of it will be considered an alternate resource and exempted from a mandate to reduce groundwater usage by 30 percent by Jan. 1, 2016.

To accomplish such a reduction, 85 major water users representing 135 water systems in Montgomery County banded together under a program developed by the San Jacinto River Authority. Jace Houston, deputy general manager of administration for SJRA, said the plan covers 80 percent of the total amount of water used in the county.

Ken Conatser, general manager of UD 3, was critical of the SJRA plan — saying the plan, which requires a commitment through 2045, is outrageously expensive.

“Our projected cost is millions less than it would be if we joined the SJRA program,” he said. “The Catahoula is a cost-efficient alternative.”

Original test wells drilled to 3,200 feet produced poor quality water, but at 2,800 feet — below the Evangeline, Chicot and Jasper aquifers that provide freshwater for Montgomery County — was significantly better.

Conatser said the water is low on dissolved solids and warmer than expected — around 102 degrees — but is quite acceptable. Standard chlorine treatment water from the Catahoula is potable and a viable source for human consumption. And Conatser said water from the aquifer is abundant and plentiful.

Interest in the Catahoula has not gone unnoticed by other utility districts. The SJRA is interested in tapping into the aquifer as an alternative source that would lower its need to rely on surface water — reducing the amount of water it would have to pump out of Lake Conroe beginning in 2016.

Houston said the SJRA is working with the city of Willis on a possible program that would incorporate tapping into the Catahoula aquifer as an alternative resource.

Jones acknowledged LSGCD currently considers the Catahoula exempt from the 30 percent reduction in groundwater reduction required of major users by 2016 but said the agency still maintains supervisory control over the use of this or any water resource in the county.

“The study will go a long way to determining the future use of water from the Catahoula aquifer,” she said. “The district reserves the right to monitor or limit production in the future if it is in the best interest of the public.”

That’s worrisome for Conatser because the members of the LSGCD board are appointed rather than elected. He expressed concern that board members have no consequences for inappropriate actions. Still, he supports the concept of a local agency responsible for local water management.

“I’d rather fight the battles here in Montgomery County than in Austin,” Conatser said.

For more information about the LSGCD, visit www.lonestargcd.org.

Hunt for brackish water begins

By Howard Roden | comments

LAKE CONROE – Now that they’ve been given the green light to explore for an alternative water supply, several municipal utility districts in Montgomery County are starting to map out their strategies.

Representatives from several of the MUDs located around Lake Conroe are planning to meet and discuss their options. Meanwhile, 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 the project a viable one.

The Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District last week 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.

The SJRA’s plans calls for construction of a surface-water treatment plant on Lake Conroe, with the water piped to the city of Conroe, The Woodlands Township and selected areas along Interstate 45. The over-conversion of surface water to those areas will allow the rest of Montgomery County water users to continue pumping groundwater, but at 70 percent of the volume consumed in the 2009 calendar year.

In addition to Bentwater, the municipal utility districts in the Lake Conroe communities of Walden and April Sound think they have a cost-effective solution to SJRA’s plan by pumping the brackish groundwater located underneath the Gulf Coast Aquifer.

The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, and other governmental entities, had included the Catahoula Formation as part of the Gulf Coast Aquifer. However, the LSGCD board amended its definitions last week to exclude the Catahoula as a part of the Gulf Coast Aquifer.

“We’re thankful that Lone Star saw the light,” said Roy McCoy, a LSGCD board member and president of MUD No. 8 (Walden). “This opens up the possibly for another source of water, not only for the residents in Walden but potentially for other residents around the county.”

McCoy acknowledges brackish groundwater, groundwater that, by definition, includes at least total dissolved solids concentrated in excess of 1,500 parts per million is an unprove source for water that has a great deal of potential as cities and communities search for water in future years.

“We’re in a very good positions that, in time, brackish groundwater could become an important part of the landscape,” he said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity.”

McCoy said drilling deeper to locate the brackish water, and its treatment process (reserve osmosis), could be more expensive up front, but those costs could be more than offset when compared to the expense of installing massive pipelines, like the ones proposed to Conroe and The Woodlands in the SJRA project.

“It could save Montgomery County millions,” McCoy said.

Of course, the major question is just how much brackish water exists in the Catahoula Formation, which is located below the freshwater aquifers of the Chico, Evangeline and Jasper aquifers.

MUD No. 18 engineer Bill Kotlan said the brackish water is located in a strata approximately 2,500 feet in depth.

Based on previous experience with gas and oil wells in the areas, the Catahoula releases water at a rate of 900 to 1,100 gallons per minute, he said.

“The real question is the volume of water that is down there,” Kotlan said.

Kotlan anticipates it will take four months to drill the test well and analyze the data before reaching a conclusion. Cost of the test well is estimated at $500,000, he said.

The municipal utilities districts of April Sound and Walden may join Bentwater on its test well to reduce costs.

“We well may decide to drill our own test well, or we may join up to save money,” McCoy said of Walden. “It’s a decision we’ll have to make.”

Kotlan said Bentwater was prepared to drop its test well in January, but was delayed by changes in the LSGCD’s district deadlines. MUD No. 18 wants to have its testing completed in time to join the SJRA’s Groundwater Reduction Plan if its test well fails to show enough brackish groundwater is available, Kotlan said.

“If there’s no other option, there’s always the SJRA MUD No. 3,” General Manager Ken Conatser said.

Montgomery officials to select water plan

By Brad Meyer Courier staff

MONTGOMERY — Montgomery officials recognize they need a partner to comply with a state agency’s mandate for future water conservation; the question is which potential resource best fits the city’s needs and budget.

Among the topics Montgomery City Council members are expected to review when they meet this evening is how the city will comply with a directive from the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District to decrease the city’s dependence on water drawn from traditional wells.

“It’s a very important issue to cities in the region,” said Bill Kotlan, acting city administrator. “Water is essential to the growth — or stability — of every community, and it’s going to be increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain its availability.”

Officials had a workshop Monday evening to discuss the city’s options for potable water based on the LSGCD directive mandating a 30 percent reduction of groundwater use by the end of 2015. Options include accessing surface water from Lake Conroe and other sources, drilling into the unregulated Catahoula Aquifer or joining forces with other water users.

Considering Montgomery’s size and projected growth, achieving an independent solution to the directive is economically impractical, Kotlan said. The city has three primary options.

One option is working with or purchasing credits from Municipal Utility District 18 in the Bentwater area. The group plans to drill a well into the brackish water of the Catahoula Aquifer and treat it.

A similar arrangement is available with MUDs 3 and 4 in the April Sound area. The third option is participating in a large group program organized and coordinated by the San Jacinto River Authority.

“All of the programs have significant costs and inherent risks associated with them,” Kotlan said. “We have some tough decisions to make and we have to start making them now.”

Of the three potential solutions, Kotlan said working with the SJRA offers the greatest security and simplicity, but at a premium cost and a long-term commitment.

“The April Sound MUD offers a rate 20 percent lower than whatever rate SJRA establishes for its participants,” he said. “We also have the option of opting out in 2016 if other cost-efficient alternatives become available.”

At stake isn’t just cost, but risk, Kotlan said. City officials will have to make a decision based on uncertainties associated with all of the potential options. Kotlan favors the cost efficiency of the MUDs 3 and 4 program but understands the security and simplicity of the SJRA plan.

“It’s a tough choice,” he said. “It’s an issue with a lot of complexity.”

The Montgomery City Council meets at 7 tonight at Montgomery City Hall, located at 100 Old Plantersville Road.

Brad Meyer can be reached at bmeyer@hcnonline.com.