Goal is to reduce reliance on groundwater by 30 percent
Montgomery County residents will face some hard facts this year as a plan to decrease their dependence on dwindling groundwater supplies comes closer to fruition.
For South County residents, this means incremental increases in water bill fees—and unavoidable traffic headaches that will come with construction of miles of pipeline in the area, namely along Research Forest Drive.
Since the early days of its development, the county has been completely dependent on groundwater. But most residents may not realize that supply—the Gulf Coast Aquifer—is limited, said Jace Houston, San Jacinto River Authority’s deputy general manager.
“People turn on their tap, and the water comes out,” he said. “But just like a bathtub, you use more water than what’s flowing in, and the level starts to drop. What you have is a problem—that we are depleting our current water supply. And nobody knows it.”
The SJRA’s Groundwater Reduction Plan will convert some of the increasing water use to surface water, a term that refers to water in lakes, rivers and streams. The River Authority project has been years in the works, with major construction of water lines set to begin within the next year and an additional fee scheduled to appear on water bills this September.
With the county’s groundwater supplies increasingly at issue, all large water suppliers in the county have been required by the Lone Star Conservation District to reduce their dependence on groundwater by 30 percent by 2016.
The majority of them, representing about 80 percent of the county’s water use, opted to join the SJRA’s collaborative plan, known as the Groundwater Reduction Plan. At a cost of roughly $480 million, new pipelines and treatment plants will provide water from Lake Conroe to the north, fully converting some suppliers to surface water.
The result will be a 30 percent overall reduction in groundwater use—and a cost effective solution that has been used effectively by plans in neighboring Harris County, Houston said.
The plan also calls for tapping into other potential supplies, such as drilling into a deeper aquifer, known as the Catahoula Aquifer, to the north and reusing treated wastewater. Those on board with the plan began adding fees to their water bills two years ago.
“People say, ‘You mean you’re adding $24 a month to my bill?’ Well, unfortunately yes,” Houston said. “This cheap water supply we’ve enjoyed all these years, we’re draining it dry. The new supply is not as cheap as groundwater, and that’s the price of using more and more water.”
The fees are a separate line item on bills sent by participating suppliers, which include those serving all of The Woodlands. Most identify the extra cost as SJRA fee or GRP fee.
Along with The Woodlands, the City of Oak Ridge North is participating in the SJRA plan, alerting residents through its city newsletter about the necessity of the added water bill fee. The city also will be holding town hall meetings to prepare citizens for construction, which will affect two of its main thoroughfares, City Manager Vicky Rudy said.
The City of Shenandoah is not participating in the SJRA plan, opting instead to achieve its 30 percent reduction by partnering with Panorama Village, which will draw from the Catahoula Aquifer.
According to SJRA plans, a transmission line from Lake Conroe will enter the north end of The Woodlands at Research Forest Drive, run along the roadway easement and make its way to the south end of the community using both roadway and utility easements. The water line and several branches supplying the different villages will include six water plants to be constructed along these routes.
Meanwhile, Oak Ridge residents are addressing similar concerns. Residents there have also questioned the fee on their water bills, as city staff works to educate the public about groundwater issues. Subsidence, the gradual sinking of land levels because of groundwater depletion, is not an issue isolated to Montgomery County. It first became an issue in Harris and Galveston counties in the 1950s.
“It’s not something your average citizen thinks about very often,” Rudy said. “They turn on the tap and the water comes out, and they assume someone is looking after their well being, which we are. But there’s a growing awareness about issues of subsidence, and how important it is to protect the groundwater. Sometimes, that awareness doesn’t translate to that line item on your bill.”
The river authority received calls when the fee first went onto the water bills.
“We still get some, especially when we have a rate increase on the fee,” Houston said. “But so many people say, ‘Whatever, I write a check and go on with my life.’ But when they try to turn down Research Forest and it’s down to one lane, well, then they’re going to call someone.”
According to the SJRA, road closures will begin in the spring of 2013, with four or five locations undergoing construction at a time. Montgomery County Pct. 3 Commissioner Ed Chance’s office is involved in SJRA’s construction plan, making recommendations toward traffic control, which Pct. 3 Manager Arthur Salinas said is still in the design stage.
Construction will affect various roadways, but the greatest concern for traffic is Research Forest Drive, he said.
“Our primary concern is mobility,” he said. “We are making recommendations as the River Authority progresses with their design and staying in dialogue with engineers. They want to do it the easiest way possible for them, and we want them to do it with the least amount of negative impact to mobility. We’re having to work together to meet in the middle.”