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

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