Thursday, May 28, 2009

What's all of this hulabalu about Villa Sports?

There has been some interest recently in The Woodlands about the new Villa Sports facility on Technology Forest. The significance of the issue is that it may be something for the village association to solve rather than the Township, yet residents went to the Township for help on this issue. Several Panther Creek residents in the back of their property have homes abutting this new facility and are in an uproar. Does it deserve the attention of the Township Board? Apparently, the problem is in the evening and when the kids are out of school. The property was apparently expanded beyond the original plan so that a large water slide would comfortably fit the premises and so the original planned location could be used for other facilities. Now the slide is located on the back of the property close to the residents. Additionally, the pump house and the air conditioners are also placed on the back of the property. The facility closes at 10pm, with its outdoor music (speaker located at the back), foghorns (to get people out of the water) and children playing on the slide. To compensate for the noise, the Woodlands Development Company placed eleven large pine trees in the green area to the back of the facility. There is a small creek, therefore the land of the sports complex had to be raised some four feet. The trees had to be cleared as a result, and so the sports complex now has no natural vegetation remaining on its premises, except for a few small planted bushes and trees. The flow of water does not appear to be an issue nor the lights. It is strictly a noise issue. The development company has also placed a few Live Oaks at the back of one of the neighbors home, a two story home more vulnerable to sight issues than the one story homes. Villa Sports has placed fiberglass panels on three sides at the top of the slide to mitigate noise emitted from the top of the slide. No apparent mitigation has transpired with the remainder of the slide. The work looks to be incomplete, but they certainly have the right approach to the problem. There is about 25 feet of green space, more than adequate to provide a barrier for such a facility.

Ambient noise from the pumps and air conditioner behind the facility is equivalent to what one would hear in one of our neighborhoods close to traffic. In fact, I have lived in such a situation for years. This is the time to get the few residents affected and the sports center to reach an agreement. Children yelling on the steps going up to the slide will haunt some residents for years if it is not resolved satisfactorily. I have fair confidence that this will get worked out for all parties affected. The issue will be revisited at the next Township meeting.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lawns, Landscaping and Water in Southeast Texas

Here in The Woodlands Texas and all over Southeast Texas, this is the way many people think - you have to have put a lot of water on your landscape to have a pretty yard. We almost have to in order to have the lawns and the beauty we want. But let's add, NOT! The beauty? We need beauty in our lives. Nope, the beauty is not the issue here; the high volume of water is! We all have had our bad experiences with drought and seen what happens when we deprive our landscapes of water - more than just brown lawns - dirt yards even!

Our reaction to dead grass or plants is natural. We conclude that did not water enough! In most cases that is an incorrect conclusion. Our lawns are susceptible to various diseases and must be treated for those specific diseases when contaminated; this is typically the source of browning and yellowing. It can also be due to nutrition issues. We can starve our landscapes from water, but many of us do just the opposite. Water can be expensive to many of us and some of us just do not want that expense. Some of us have also experienced what happens when we forget the sprinkler and leave the water running all night. We get our water bill and ask, "who left the water on? or "what is leaking?", or maybe chastise ourselves for not having an automatic cutoff device attached to our hose. Maybe we need to recheck our thinking on how we use our water outside. In this second of a two part series on water conservation, we will explore this outdoor subject. What say the experts?

First and foremost, the experts say we need to water outside only once per week to have a beautiful lawn. Some sources will tell us that St Augustine needs watering every 5 days. The Woodlands Joint Power Agency says twice a week. I am of the opinion that we do need to water deeply and as infrequently as we can. That may translate to twice a week in July, August and September. Depending on what species of St Augustine grass is in our lawn, it will more or less tolerant to summer's menacing Chinch Bugs in the summer and to Brown Patch in the fall and winter.

Do you drive around the neighborhood and see water abundantly flowing down the street, even from sprinklers in the rain? I do. Some people just do not have time to tend to conservation issues. Water does not cost them enough money to be concerned about it. This is the reason for the tiered volume pricing by the MUD districts. Several agencies including the Water Conservation District is concerned about water resources here in Montgomery County, as well as surrounding counties. Let's dig into this subject and see what our opportunities might be to stave off a water shortage disaster in the next couple of decades.

It is a given that we must shift our potable water from underground resources to surface resources. That source will be Lake Conroe for us, due to the cost of transportation and delivery of the water. That lake is closest to us. Unfortunately, we do have to use potable water on our lawns. It is possible to use recycled water, but the cost of an additional infrastructure, I suppose, is prohibitive. I have lived in a place that used recycled water for lawns and it worked very well.

So how do we water only once per week? Many of us have automatic watering systems. That is the easiest to deploy. A timer is needed to be effective at this. In some areas of the yard, a sprinkler with a timer on the hose can be used without a lot of waste runoff. On automatic systems, we need to do repeat watering. That is, water the landscape several times in one day for the interval needed to deeply saturate the soil. Giving the water an opportunity to soften the ground and allowing gravity to pull the water down into the soil will create an environment for plants to reach deeply into the soil with their roots. For example, a full watering cycle might occur three times during the night, over 8-10 hours. That would be a third of an inch at each sprinkler, released three times. My system allows me to program a time start for the cycle and each group of sprinklers has its own "time on" programmed into the timer. To optimize the time of each group, I measure the water with a can. One idea that I like is to use cat or dog food tin cans. Place them around the yard and measure the height of the water in each one after a full water cycle. Regardless how, make sure you measure the amount of water that you deliver to the landscape. It usually needs one full inch, although some sources say as little as 1/2 inch will do in some cases. Program your automatic system to deliver what is needed. 7

We need to develop a plan for watering our yards and understand what happens when we do water. One inch per week for every part of the yard is just a rule of thumb, but we need to take a look at each plant in the summer before watering time, to see if we are short changing the landscape. The water needs to penetrate the ground, not run off. If it runs off, we have not accomplished our goal. Efficient use of needed water is our goal. Our plants will not survive the once or twice-per-week watering cycle if we don't get all of it deeply to their roots. The water must penetrate some 4-6 inches into the ground. Some plants may even need supplemental watering to 8 inches. That may require aeration or loosening of the soil in some places.

Some helpful hints I have accumulated: (1) Recycle grass cuttings. A mulch lawnmower provides 30% of needed fertilizer and sun protection to the roots St Augustine grass in the hot summer months. (2) In the heat of the summer, grass grows rapidly. Mow late in the before the day before watering starts if you can. That way, the water reaches the ground easier in the evening and there is no blockage or diversion of streamed water from the sprinklers. (3) Try to keep from cutting more than 1/3 of the grass blade. (4) Sharpen or replace your mower blade once a year. It needs to cut the grass, not grind the top off. (5) Don't use a strong fertilizer in the summer months. Use only time released fertilizer or natural fertilizers that will not burn the grass in the sun. (6) Check the sprinkler system and make sure it is adjusted correctly. If it is not and you feel uncomfortable adjusting it, call in a service company. (7) Cut at maximum height starting when the temperature reaches the high eighty's. The roots need the grass shade, especially in places getting the afternoon sun. (8) Apply fungicide in the fall and treat for Chinch bugs in the early and mid-summer months. These bugs drink fluid from the roots and make the grass appear to need water, and of course, the grass DOES need the water, but you will not be able to save it from the bugs by water. (9) If you have an automatic system, install a rain detector to prevent the system from operating when the soil is already wet. Financial help is available from the MUD districts. (10) Cut the recommended amount of fertilizer in half when you use a mulching lawnmower.

In order to conserve water, it is important to plant our landscape for drought conditions. That solves a host of problems. native plants are accustomed to and adapt to the local weather patterns much better than plants brought in from Asia or elsewhere. There are landscapers who specialize in native plants but beware! Some say falsely that some plants are native. What some really mean to say is that they are selling plants that grow and bloom well here. Ask them if the plants originate from this area. That is what we prefer to have for wildlife and the weather conditions. I admit that I have some non-native plants in my yard which are drought resistant. Just be aware of what you purchase and its compatibility with the weather patterns.

St Augustine grass is not a plant that fits well into our weather patterns in The Woodlands. It works much better in climates close to the coast where rain comes in off of the Gulf. We are too far away for that. That type of grass is a water hog, despite what is said by some people. It is not drought resistant and will wither in the afternoon sun. There are other grasses that don't look quite so good but are better suited to our climate. St Augustine is very susceptible to several diseases and insects as well.9 It is a plant that is not very compatible with the strategies of water conservation, although species have been cultivated to resist some of these diseases. 3 Which grass to use is a tough one. I have seen grasses thrive in 120 degree temperatures in Saudi Arabia in sandy soils, watered with brackish water derived from sea water. There exists grass species appropriate for about every climate one can imagine. St Augustine grass is here in our yards because it is pretty. It is not native, except in the Carolinas, nor is it necessarily a contemporary grass of choice for the weather patterns here. It is a choice for beauty and thrives in moist climates, and tolerant to shade. In my view, one cannot legitimately argue that St Augustine is the right choice of grass for water conservation.

Perhaps the Buffalo Grass would be more adaptable as a conservation lawn grass in the long term. It needs to be watered every 21-45 days compared to every 5 for St Augustine (although local authorities say 7).10 This is not a popular view, but I am not trying to be popular, just looking at the issue pragmatically. A legitimate contender as an alternative is the Centipede Grass.11 This one is suggested by one of our local master gardeners. It has a texture similar to St Augustine, can be started from seed and expands out with underground "runners". Centipede requires watering every 7 or so days and needs the same soaking as St Augustine. It is tolerant to shade like St Augustine but not to a lot of walking traffic. Buffalo Grass may not tolerate so much moisture as we have here. Some people eliminate it as a legitimate alternative for that reason alone. It does well in arid areas. The better alternative would probably be Centipede. There are other alternatives such as Bermuda Grass. I love the texture and softness of the turf in a St Augustine lawn. Yet I have seen over and over again the ugly effects of disease and water deprivation.

Centipede grass has probably the lowest maintenance of these warm season grasses that would plant here. It grows on poor, sandy soils to clay based ones, and we generally have a mixture of these two types of soils. One thing to consider if you try another lawn grass - how do you keep really good grass from invading your flower beds? Rhizoid systems that go underground don't respect surface boundaries so one has to build underground boundaries to confine the grass to the yard.

Another issue to consider in water conservation - we must water our foundations in the summer during droughts. I don't know about you, but I don't have an automatic watering system for the foundation. Our concrete foundations are reinforced with row bar that must be sealed off from water to keep them from rusting. Underneath the home we often have a mixture of sand and clay. The clay expands with water and contracts in dry spells. If the walls start cracking, we might be experiencing subsidence due to water depletion in the underground reservoirs or we may be experiencing a shift of soil due to this contracting and expanding process in clay soils. The foundation can crack and that would introduce exposure to termites and generate movement of walls within the home. Watering the foundation helps to stabilize it. The same principal applies - you need an automatic cutoff and use a soaking hose for this, not a sprinkler system.

Resources
1 Woodlands G.R.E.E.N. organization
2 Joint Powers Agency
3 Grow Green Lawn Care
4Watering Your Texas Lawn
5Lawn Irrigation tips from the Joint Powers Agency
6 San Jacinto River Authority">Groundwater modeling for Lone Star Conservation District, 2008
7Beautiful Lawns the wise way, The Woodlands Association 9Forida Turf - St Augustine Grass
10Buffalo Grass - Texas Wildscapes
11 Centipede Grass

Monday, May 25, 2009

Water Conservation and Use Issues in Montgomery County Texas

From time to time, we rethink our water usage and related issues. Woodlands Green1 sponsored a presentation a few days ago at the George Mitchell Woodlands Library by Jim Stinson of the Joint Powers Agency and Mark Lowry. Mr. Lowry is a consultant for water capture and distribution. He has worked on regional water planning in Harris and Montgomery counties. Mr. Stintson is the head of the Joint Powers Agency2 located off of Grogans Mill on Lake Robins Dr. He also represents us on the water conservation board. This article is based on what was said in that presentation and includes information from other sources as well.
I will keep the scope of this article limited and follow up with at least one more article due to the size of this subject. Here we address conservation - the reason for it, how we got here, what consequences we face if we don't mitigate the issues, and the urgency of the mitigation. A second article will be a consideration of lawn maintenance, landscaping and related topics, key to any conservation initiative by residents.
Currently, we obtain our water through MUD district wells. It is distributed to homes and businesses by a pipe network. The infrastructure for the MUD district is financed through bonds which are paid by residents and businesses through a MUD tax. The operation of capturing the water, distributing it, and processing waste and sewage water is financed through bi-monthly utility bills. It is through a tiered consumption pricing scheme where the water authority hopes to create more efficient consumption practice. Those who utilize more water, pay a higher price per gallon for it than those who conserve water.
The growth of Montgomery County (5th fastest growing county in Texas - part of the Houston Metroplex)7 will force the use of surface water in lieu of ground water in large population areas of the county by 2016. There are five areas in Montgomery County which fit under this umbrella, including The Woodlands and nearby municipalities and communities. That puts an urgency on change! Joint Powers Agency now services 90,000 people from 11 MUD districts having 35,000 connections. The build-out of The Woodlands should end up slightly more than 110,000 people, not counting businesses being served.
Our current consumption here in The Woodlands is 78,000 gallons per day but by 2040, it will be 150,000 gallons per day, or doubled. A $500 million project is in its initial stages which will be comprised of contracting surface water, most likely all from lake Conroe, designed as a water reservoir for potable water, to feed these five areas. Then a delivery system will be constructed, likely pipe, to distribute water to these areas. I am unsure of the status of needed land acquisition or right-of-way for the delivery systems from Lake Conroe. Although this project is scheduled for completion in 2014, it probably will not be finished until 2015 or 2016. For us, the water will be more expensive, since it is very expensive to transport. Our monthly bills will rise, probably substantially. When this water delivery system is brought online, I am sorry to say, our MUD district facilities will probably no longer be useful, but bonds will not be paid off for years to come. We will be converted to surface water. Unlike subsurface water, surface water is usually softer and does not have the natural salts like calcium and bromides to protect our teeth. However, here that might be reversed. The Jasper is a hard water producer whereas the other aquifers are soft water. A supplement salt will need to be added to the surface water to retain our current tooth decay prevention measures. The softness of the water however will benefit out bathroom fixtures by removing the mineral buildup and spotting behavior of the water, although our MUD district does fairly well by producing fairly soft water.

Municipality Cost per month per household avg entire year
Woodloch $130
Houston $124
Conroe $94
Woodlands $77
Shenandoah $64
The Woodlands resident is the highest per capita consumer of water in Montgomery County, yet our monthly residence billing is almost half of Woodloch. Our recently implemented three-tiered rate will be replaced with a four-tiered rate in the future to help us reach our consumption reduction goals. The water authority has an objective to reduce our daily per capita consumption from 190 gallons to 177 within the next five years and to 164 in 10 years, or an average reduction of of 1% per year. The national daily average water consumption per person is 145 gallons. 721 homes here exceed the current consumption goal. 100 homes are very large consumers, averaging over 1600 gallons per day, mostly for irrigation purposes. The Woodlands uses 5 billion gallons of water per year of the 20 billion gallons used in the county.
So where does our water come from? Let's take a peek below the ground. There are shallow reservoirs used by residents in the country. Most country folk do not have the money to drill into the deep zones, so they produce their water from small shallow reservoirs. The vision is that this will not change. However, commercial volume production of water comes from three underground reservoirs. The Chicot aquifer starts in this county; It is about 500-600 feet under the surface. Houston gets that water as it flows to them by sloping deeper underground. Gravity is the rule of flow. Rain falling here recharges that aquifer. The Evangeline aquifer is found about 1500-1600 feet deep. It is recharged in counties immediately to our north where it lies shallower. This water flows to us from the northwest. There is a mixture of clay and sand in this aquifer. If we pull from the reservoir faster than it is recharged, the clay crushes (never to be reconstituted), causing land subsidence. Then there is the third aquifer, the Jasper at about 1800 feet under the ground. It too slopes from the north and is recharged further to the north. To recharge, the aquifer must outcrop to the surface. It is like pouring water into a tube that goes underground. 8
Rapid depletion of water resources as has already been implied, will cause subsidence. That has been proven to be a consequence in these same aquifers in Harris County. Take San Jacinto Battlefield for example. 100 acres of the park is now under water, caused by a 10-foot subsidence of land from the depletion of the reservoirs. Subsidence can cause lakes to be created from residential areas by the bowl effect of localized subsidence. Rapid depletion is a function of quantity and time. 40% of water consumed annually is taken from the aquifers in the summer months for irrigation of lawns and gardens. So time is a few months; the volume taken in those months is huge, a perfect model for subsidence. Speaking of modeling,there is an interesting article produced in 2008 for the current conservation program. There is a lot of material available on this subject.11 If you want to know more, just read the references provided at the end of this article.
Our water conservation management program is by the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, just one of many such districts in Texas. Montgomery County defines its boundary, although it need not have county boundaries.9
So what can we as residents do to help? We don't normally need to worry about our in-home consumption, although most of us could be more thrifty in our use of this valuable resource. If we had no outdoor consumption, we would not have to do change. We would cut our use by 40% and realize instant relief to this limited resource. But we are not going to do that. We will continue to require green lawns and pretty flowers. Our lawns will remain St Augustine, a grass that does not tolerate drought very well. It was said by our Joint Powers Agency that St Augustine is not the source of the problem. We will get into that more in the next article.
Resources
1 Woodlands G.R.E.E.N. organization
2 Joint Powers Agency
3 Grow Green Lawn Care
4Watering Your Texas Lawn
5Lawn Irrigation tips from the Joint Powers Agency
6 San Jacinto River Authority
7 Woodlands Commentary:video of growth fundamentals
8 Presentation of USGS Aquifer Study in Harris County
9 Lone Star Conservation District
10 What is Land Subsidence?
11Groundwater modeling for Lone Star Conservation District, 2008

Emergency Management in Montgomery County, Texas - CERT in The Woodands

The CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training program has kicked off in The Woodlands. I am currently enrolled in this program and will attend my third class this week. This program all started with the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1985. At that time, earthquakes were the primary concern where citizens would be expected to survive on their own in the early stages of a disaster. This program had a substantial impact in 1987; FEMA decided the program should be expanded nationwide. In 2003, the Citizens Corps program was established in an effort to bring the needed response skills to every community. Hurricane IKE demonstrated the need to have our community prepared for disasters in such a way that would have its citizens ready to assist emergency professionals in a disaster.

Leveraging our emergency response training center, the Woodlands Fire Department is leading an effort to train a first responder team in the area. A first responder is typically a person able to contribute their assistance to families and businesses in the immediate area of the emergency. An emergency can be caused by many circumstances, from a hurricane, tornado or earthquake to a fire, chemical spill or other potential disaster. Typically a first responder must act in a team role, but sometimes individual action and decision making may be required. Therefore, individuals are not only trained to have knowledge of many situations and act on them, but also have ready resources to assist or advise on appropriate actions.

Training consists of about 20 hours of classroom instruction and hands-on practice to develop the pertinent skills for participating on a team. The training is targeted at community residents who are willing and able to be the first on the scene, to help emergency responders save lives and protect property. They might also assist with non-emergency projects that help improve the safety of their community.

The curriculum includes: Disaster Preparedness, Fire Safety, Disaster Medical Operations, Search and Rescue, CERT Organization and Disaster Psychology, Terrorism preparation and CERT roles, Disaster Simulation. Among those attending this first class are Walmart asset managers, Woodlands residents, and residents from various small communities in North Harris and South Montgomery counties. Some are experienced in emergency management and others are not.

This program is sponsored by the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management at www.mctxoem.org For more information on this class, contact the local coordinator Jessica M Jackson, 936-582-3103, email the coordinator for more information or class enrollment

Monday, May 18, 2009

Texas for Texans - video of growth fundamentals of this state

Texas continues to grow despite the economy. At the heart of it is the "Texaplex", those cities where housing continues to boom, new jobs created, and major corporations find inexpensive corporate headquarters. Based on the information provided in this video, our challenge is how to absorb this growth or possibly discourage it on behalf of preserving our environment. To me, this means we need to consider how we can continue to flourish without destroying our beautiful state. The stats are impressive and instills a sense of state pride, but should we be a population sponge for the United States?

There is little wonder that some people think about separation from the the other states and reforming back into am independent nation rather than being part of a country. I do not promote such a position, but I see why some people do.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

I have registered for Montgomery County Red Alert System, Have you?

The county is methodically calling all residents to coerce them into joining the emergency notification system and for good reason! This service will automatically disperse quick notices to specific zip codes and/or local areas when there are serious public health issues needing quick notification. Examples might be tornadoes, chemical spills, forest fires, or hurricanes. Generally, we expect this service to be used sparingly, without flooding our email or telephones. So I joined this morning. It was easy, just completing some basic resident information. This service will complement the local Woodlands notification system. There will likely be an overlap, but different organizations control the content, so I am comfortable with receiving more notice instead of less when an emergency comes around. For weather I also subscribe to email notices from Channel 11. That includes severe storms and other weather related warnings.

Related links:
1. Montgomery County Emergency Alert Code Red System
2. Channel 11 Weather Alert System
3. The Woodlands Community Notification System