How WFUD Is Addressing Subsidence Issues

Subsidence is a fact of life in the Harris/Galveston County area. In the mid 1960’s it was noticed that certain lands were at a significantly lower elevation than just a few years before. The problem had many causes, a major reason being that the land was sinking due to the water being pumped from the ground and not replenished fast enough from the aquifers. As a result, the land was “subsiding”. The Harris-Galveston Coastal Subsidence District (the “Subsidence District”) was created in 1975 to provide for the regulation of groundwater withdrawal to control subsidence in Harris and Galveston Counties. The Subsidence District has issued four regulatory plans (1976, 1985, 1992, and 1999) for the management of groundwater consumption in an effort to stabilize the levels of groundwater tables in the area. As part of this plan, many water supply systems using groundwater sources have been placed on a conversion schedule. This schedule requires the replacement of groundwater sources either with surface water or by interconnection with other systems that utilizes a surface water source.

Specifically, Area 3 (the area that includes WFUD) is required to reduce and maintain their groundwater withdrawals to comprise of no more than 70% of total water demand beginning in January 2010. Groundwater withdrawals must comprise of no more than 30% of total water demand beginning in January 2020 and no more than 20% of total water demand beginning in January 2030. In other words, conversion to surface water will adhere to the following schedule:

  • 30% conversion by January 2010
  • 70% conversion by January 2020
  • 80% conversion by January 2030

There are significant financial penalties for noncompliance. A disincentive fee shall be applied to any groundwater withdrawals over 20% of total water demand if any of these requirements are not met. This disincentive fee is $3.00/1000 gallons of water pumped which would reflect an increase of approximately 400% to the normal water bill of WFUD consumers. The bottom line is that WFUD must find a source of surface water and begin conversion by the year 2010. All the other MUDs in Area 3 of the Subsidence District had the same problem, convert to surface water or pay a substantial penalty.

The task of conversion to surface water would prove to be formidable for a single utility district, but for a large group of utility districts, it seemed reasonable. The cost could be proportioned so the impact to a single district would be considerably lessened. With this thought in mind, the 76th Texas Legislature created in 1999 the North Harris County Regional Water Authority (NHCRWA). The purpose of the Authority was to find a source of surface water and provide a “Groundwater Reduction Plan” for Area 3. There was a small glitch when the NHCRWA was created concerning the opportunity for certain MUDs that were physically located inside the Sam Houston Tollway to option out of the Regional Water Authority’s jurisdiction. That would not be so important except as with any large governmental agency having the power to levy taxes and fees, there might be a possibility to lessen or eliminate those additional taxes and fees.

In the year 2000, WFUD began paying a fee of $0.125/1000 gallons produced to fund the NHCRWA. During the year 2000 WFUD produced over 179 million gallons of water. The fee that would have been charged to WFUD would have been more than $22,000. The next year, the fee was increased to $0.25/1000 gallons produced and the fee would have been approximately $51,400. By the year 2003, the NHCRWA would be charging $68,000 and due to increasing the water connections in WFUD by the year 2010, the yearly fee would be $75,000. The estimated total that WFUD would have contributed to the NHCRWA from 2000-2010 is over $700,000.

Fortunately, WFUD was one of those MUDs that was eligible to “option out” of the Authority’s jurisdiction and did exactly that in June 2000, but not before paying almost $11,000 in fees to the NHCRWA.

Windfern Forest U.D. was not the only MUD to opt out of the NHCRWA. There were four other MUDs that exercised that option. Rolling Fork Public Utility District, Harris County MUD No. 6 (Carriage Lane area), Harris County MUD No. 23 (Woodland Trails area) and Harris County MUD No. 261 (Woodwind Lakes area) were the other renegade MUDs.

In early 2000, the representatives of these 5 MUDs began meeting to determine if there was an opportunity to form a “Consortium” to accomplish the same goals of the NHCRWA; i.e. to convert to surface water or more specifically, to purchase surface water from an entity that has it. These discussions concluded that not only was it possible to work together as a group of five districts but it was much more efficient and economical than a large entity such as the NHCRWA. The main reasons WFUD and the other MUDs opted out of the NHCRWA included:

  • City of Houston was the reasonable choice for surface water
  • Proximity of our water districts with the water pipelines owned by the City of Houston would result in a lower cost for the Consortium than spreading the entire costs of a large project to all member MUDs of the NHCRWA
  • The belief that a Consortium could negotiate with the City of Houston for water rates favorable to our constituents
  • The NHCRWA seemed to have an adversarial relation with the City of Houston and was reluctant to attempt any negotiations with that entity
  • The NHCRWA had not obtained a source of surface water at the time of WFUD opt out
  • There was a specific window of opportunity to “opt out” or the MUDS would be locked into the NHCRWA forever

In 2000, the NHCRWA was looking for many sources for surface water conversion. This included everything from the Brazos or Colorado Rivers to future reservoirs to the City of Houston. It was our estimation that the only reasonable and economical source of surface water was the City of Houston (the “City”). The City started planning for surface water conversion of the metropolitan area since the early 60’s. For that reason, the City secured water rights for many large lakes and reservoirs including Lake Houston, Lake Sam Rayburn, Lake Livingston, Lake Conroe and others. The City has been converting to surface water for some time and has filed their Groundwater Reduction Plan with the Subsidence District. Eventually, the Regional Water Authority reached the same conclusion that occurred in late 2002 and plans are now being implemented to bring the City’s surface water to Area 3 under the control of the NHCRWA through an integrated infrastructure of water pipelines and pumping stations.

The Consortium’s proactive approach produced a signed contract with the City for the purchase of water in April 2001. The purchase of this water will begin upon completion of a pipeline that is being jointly paid for by the Consortium and the City. The estimated cost for WFUD’s portion of this pipeline is $163,000.

In early 2003, NHCRWA announced that in order to finance the first phase of its required infrastructure, each MUD would be assessed an additional fee based on the ” volume of that MUD. The fee for WFUD would have been approximately $1,300,000.

Based upon only this initial phase of the NHCRWA’s project, the actions of WFUD and the Consortium will save the District approximately $1.1 million in 2003. It is estimated the Consortium as a group will have saved nearly $10,000,000 by the year 2010.

WFUD has filed a Groundwater Reduction Plan (GRP) with the Subsidence District based on our plans to purchase water from the City. The Subsidence District approved our GRP in 2002. The pipeline from the City to the Consortium MUDs is scheduled to be completed in late 2005. The initial purchase of water from the City will begin after the completion of that pipeline. Under the terms of the agreement with the City, the amount of water purchased each year escalate upward such that by the year 2010 the requirements of a 30% reduction of the amount of ground water used will be satisfied. Additional escalations will allow us to meet the Subsidence District requirements of 70% reduction of ground water by 2020 and 80% reduction of ground water by 2030.

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