A little-known and poorly understood “planning group” could have a profound effect on future flooding in the Lake Houston area. Groundwater Management Area 14, consisting of 21 Southeast Texas counties including Montgomery County, has drafted its latest goals, a task it is required to do every five years, and the public has 90 days to comment.
GMA 14’s goals outline how much groundwater each conservation district can pump from aquifers and how much subsidence they will allow.
Subsidence, in words a lay person can understand, is the gradual caving or sinking of an area of land.
Groundwater Management Areas (GMA) were created by the Texas Legislature in 2005 to, among other things, “ … control subsidence caused by withdrawal of water from groundwater reservoirs or their subdivision …”
As complicated as it sounds, Lake Houston residents should be concerned about GMA 14’s goals regarding water in Montgomery County, especially water being pump from Montgomery’s underground, which eventually affects the Lake Houston area, according to Kingwood resident Bob Rehak.
Rehak has deservedly earned a reputation as Lake Houston’s champion for flood control and mitigation since Hurricane Harvey’s devastation. He minces no words when explaining how GMA 14’s goals could impact Lake Houston residents.
“It is simple,” Rehak said. “They want to withdraw water at a rate that would lower the north end of Lake Houston two feet relative to the south end.”
Rehak explained that the water withdrawal would alter the gradient, or slope, of the river, slow the water down, ultimately backing up all that water and exacerbate flooding.
“Imagine the thousands of people in Lake Houston who had two feet of water in their homes during Harvey,” Rehak wrote. “After all the flood mitigation work that has been accomplished since Harvey, they would still have water.”
Without a subsidence metric, Rehak said Quadvest, the family-owned water and sewer utility company supplying water to subdivisions throughout Southeast Texas including Montgomery County, “ … could pump as much water as it wanted for 40 years and say that the aquifer would recharge in the last 10 years.”
Laurie Norton, a Montgomery County resident, is an even more ardent critic of Quadvest and of the danger that subsidence would cause to The Woodlands and, eventually, the Lake Houston area.
“I do what I do because what is happening with groundwater withdrawal in our region is not good for homeowners,” Norton told The Tribune. “Most residents are not aware of what is happening.”
Norton created stopoursinking.com, a website she maintains that outlines the problems her community is facing because of the large amounts of water being extracted from beneath the ground.
Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, created by the Texas Legislature in 2001 to “ … preserve, conserve and protect Montgomery County’s groundwater supplies …” wants to allow Quadvest to increase their groundwater withdrawals to rates that have proved to cause irreversible subsidence/sinking, according to Norton.
In addition to causing more flooding in the Lake Houston area, Norton said computer modeling shows that pulling more water out of the ground will lead to a three-foot drop by 2080 at the intersection of Highway 59 and the Grand Parkway in New Caney.
“This is not even debatable. The facts are clear,” Norton said. “Right now, we are on a trajectory to go back to 100 percent groundwater and that is not sustainable with our explosive population growth.”
How Montgomery County manages subsidence issues contrasts with Harris County where subsidence has been top-of-mind since 1975 when the Texas Legislature created the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District to regulate all groundwater used within Harris and Galveston counties.
Pulling water out of the Gulf Coast aquifer has caused land around the Houston Ship channel to subside more than 10 feet, according to Mike Turco, general manager and chief executive officer for the subsidence district, and a hydrogeologist by training.
In the last 45 years, however, Turco said his district’s regulatory plan reducing groundwater use “ … resulted in dramatic reductions in subsidence rates.”
“Obviously, we only have jurisdiction in Harris County,” he said. “Our plan ultimately will prevent subsidence in the Lake Houston area, but deregulation and increased groundwater use in Montgomery County will result in aquifer compaction and additional subsidence will occur if left unchecked.”
Partnership Lake Houston is aware of the impact that Montgomery County action or inaction can create in Lake Houston and especially in Kingwood. The Partnership repurposed its Recovery Task Force which was created in response to the ravages of Hurricane Harvey. That task force now has broader responsibilities, the Resiliency Task Force.
“Our goal, first and foremost, is to protect lives and personal property, closely followed by keeping our business community educated, safe and viable,” said Mark Mitchell, Partnership Lake Houston’s chief economic development officer. “Our efforts needed to be broader in scope. In addition to subsidence, we will focus on potential future negative weather impacted events, and on repairing and improving our infrastructure.”
Humble City Manager Jason Stuebe is the task force chair. Other members are Mark Micheletti, Lake Houston’s representative on the San Jacinto Authority; Jessica Beemer, representing Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin; Casey Christman, representing State Rep. Dan Huberty; Kaaren Cambio, representing Congressman Dan Crenshaw; and Jenna Armstrong and Mark Mitchell of Partnership Lake Houston.
“Although subsidence can be viewed as a long-term issue, empirical data show the negative impact subsidence is having on our community,” Mitchell said, which is why his task force is working closely with elected officials, small and large businesses, nonprofit organizations, and the public to educate them on the potential levels of subsidence that can occur in the Lake Houston area because of groundwater policies in neighboring counties.
Land subsidence is subtle, happening at a relatively slow rate, said groundwater specialist Turco.
“It can be difficult to see and often dismissed because it typically occurs only about half to a foot every 10 years,” he said. “Over a 50-year period, though, dropping two feet or more can be problematic.”
There are subsidence deniers, too.
“We have nearly a century of research and data, examples throughout our region and the world, and the Texas Water Development Board and the U.S. Geological Survey have both identified subsidence in our region,” said Turco, “yet there will always be subsidence deniers.”
For Turco, subsidence is just one piece of the issue. Drainage should continue to be a primary focus in Lake Houston.
Rehak, who has written volumes on drainage and flooding in Kingwood, agreed.
“Subsidence is irreversible. It is also very damaging,” he said.
Montgomery County Activist Laura Norton wants Lake Houston residents to join her in advocating for the safety of their homes and businesses “ … our right not to sink …” by contacting Groundwater Management Area 14 and the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District Board during their 90-day period for public feedback. The public comment period ends July 19.
“This is an ongoing effort with no true sunset,” said Mitchell. “As long as we have heavy rains, tropical storms, hurricanes and subsidence issues, there will be work to do.”
Follow Laura Norton on her webpage, stopoursinking.com.
Friend Bob Rehak on his Facebook page, and visit his website, reduceflooding.com.
Follow the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District by going to their website, hgsubsidence.org.