Photo by Jackie Brunk
Cities pay fees to fund efforts in other areas
As of July 2012, the City of Tomball and its residents have paid more than $7 million in fees to the North Harris County Regional Water Authority since 1999. However, the services the city receives in return have some city officials questioning why they are paying anything at all.
The NHCRWA, established in 1999, has been tasked with helping area water suppliers—the City of Tomball, Jersey Village and roughly 160 utility districts—convert from groundwater usage to surface water usage in accordance with a state-supported mandate passed in 1995. In their monthly water bill, Tomball residents are paying $1.75 per 1,000 gallons of water used to the NHCRWA to help fund the conversion.
“The issue is that Tomball has been paying all this money, and there are still no plans for the city to be converted,” said city councilman Mark Stoll.
Councilmen Field Hudgens is also wary of the situation. He and Stoll have been reaching out to local representatives and encourage residents to do the same if they feel the fee is unjust.
“We’re paying for the development across Harris County and are getting no benefit,” Hudgens said. “But this is all state legislature driven, and there’s not much we can do as individuals.”
With water issues poised to play a large role in the 2013 legislative session, state representatives like Allen Fletcher, R–Houston, are mindful of such predicaments.
The situation is tricky, he said, but he wants Tomball residents to be aware that the money they pay serves a vital purpose.
“If I perceived that the people of Tomball were being taken advantage of, I would do something about it,” he said. “I am convinced that, even though the pipelines aren’t there right now, this money is being used to make sure we don’t run out of water in the future.”
In 1995, the Harris-Galveston Coastal Subsidence District passed an ordinance mandating the conversion from groundwater to surface water in an effort to prevent subsidence—the phenomenon where excessive groundwater use causes the ground to literally sink. The ordinance required all water suppliers to convert to 30 percent surface water by 2010, 70 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2030. Any entity that did not comply would be subjected to a disincentive fee of $3.50—which has since gone up to $5—per 1,000 gallons of water used.
NHCRWA President Al Rendl said Tomball opted to be a part of the water authority’s conversion effort in January 2000, with approval from the City Council and administration at the time.
“No city or incorporated area could make the change on their own by 2010,” he said. “Where do you get the water from? It costs millions of dollars to build all the infrastructure.”
Based on the cost of connecting pipes from Lake Houston to Tomball, and the relative reliability of Tomball’s groundwater supply, it was determined most cost-effective to leave the city in the 20 percent that remained using groundwater through 2030.
“It was understood from the start that the areas most in need of water would be converted sooner,” Rendl said. “Everyone who is a part of the process still benefits because they do not have to worry about converting on their own or paying the disincentive fee.”
Tomball is still responsible for charging and collecting money from its residents, based on the amount of water they use, to fund the NHCRWA, Stoll said. The difference between what is pumped and what is sold—such as water used by firefighters—comes out of city coffers. The fee, which started at 25 cents per 1,000 gallons, has since risen to $1.75 and will likely rise again.
As far as Stoll is concerned, the city and its residents are paying for a service they are not receiving and one they do not need.
“We just added two new wells, and we don’t have any water supply issues,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything that suggests this area is in danger of subsidence. When you pay a tax and you don’t see anything in return, I think you have a problem.”
Stoll suggested that, until the citizens of Tomball are actually receiving some benefit for their money, they should either be credited with an interest on their money, or receive a refund for what has already been paid.
Since 2010, a similar set-up between the San Jacinto River Authority and the City of Magnolia has residents paying $0.75 per 1,000 gallons to help cities like Conroe and The Woodlands convert to surface water from Lake Conroe. City Administrator Paul Mendes said SJRA is only doing its job.
SJRA has been tasked with converting roughly one third of the districts using the Gulf Coast Aquifer in Montgomery County to surface water by 2016.
“What they’re doing is trying to make it possible for all of us to continue to have a water supply,” he said. “[SJRA] came up with the most cost-effective solution to deal with the problem.”
Mendes said his preference would be to remain using ground water even if the opportunity to convert was available, noting that the quality of surface water is much more expensive to maintain. The population density in Magnolia compared to Conroe and The Woodlands also make subsidence less of a threat.
One of the major factors playing into why Tomball and Magnolia are not being converted to surface water is that groundwater supplies for both cities are strong.
“Our wells in Magnolia are in good shape,” Mendes said. “During the drought last year our overall use went up, especially because of the fires, but they still ended up in good shape.”
The water levels in Tomball are likewise not in any danger, according to David Kauffman, the city’s director of public works. The city recently added two wells to its system, bringing the total to five wells.
Even though the current situation is manageable and neither city is expecting water shortages in the near future, population growth does raise some questions about the long-term.
“Across the state we are consuming more water than is readily available,” Mendes said. “Just like with any natural resource, we have to be responsible with it. There is no replacement for drinking water.”