Guest Editorial, Simon Sequeira: Norton’s guest epistle deep with half-truths and lies about water, subsidence issues

Supplicants gather in a small portion of the SJRA Board Room with a massive panoramic picture window view of Lake Conroe.

Simon Sequeira, Guest Editorialist to The Golden Hammer

Laura Norton’s recent guest epistle (“Why is Your Home More Vulnerable to Flooding? It’s Sinking,” The Golden Hammer, March 8, 2021 somehow found its way into the editorial section of this news source.  It would have been more appropriately placed in a fiction section, if the Golden Hammer had such a section.  Her writing was replete with SJRA’s half-truths and conveniently forgotten lies. Here’s a sample:

SJRA, through Norton, now claims that it costs more to treat surface water and deliver it, “way more than groundwater—3 times as much.”  But when SJRA was trying to fend off criticism its half-billion dollar boondoggle, here’s what Jace Houston said: “SJRA could have just as well constructed a surface water plant to serve its customers in The Woodlands and left the rest of the county to fend for itself, in the process creating clear winners and losers depending on which water users had easy and affordable access to surface water…”  Houston predicted in 2005 that the surface water system costs would only amount to 76 cents per thousand gallons, a miss of epic proportions.

Norton, echoing SJRA, says that the water rates paid by Woodlands residents are a blend of surface water and groundwater rates that allow SJRA to “use the margin on groundwater pumping to make the debt service on the $500 million dollar surface water treatment plant.”  Properly parsed, that means that the consumers in Montgomery County who are supplied entirely by groundwater are subsidizing the water bills of the folks in The Woodlands, who receive the “blend.”  That’s been true since the inception of this scheme.  So, if the Woodlands residents now have to pay increased water bills to keep their houses from potentially flooding, so be it. The world has a way of leveling out that kind of uneven playing field.

In that same vein, when SJRA implemented its surface water scheme and started charging the groundwater-based consumers a groundwater pumpage fee, their water rates doubled overnight.  And unlike the Woodlands residents, the greater number of other Montgomery County consumers got exactly nothing for the added SJRA fees they have been paying for over six years now. Nothing. No protection against subsidence because that’s a problem seen almost entirely in the Woodlands.  No lake water, certainly, even if they wanted it. No protection against even larger groundwater pumpage fees, which have escalated like Dr. Fauci’s ego.

Norton repeats SJRA’s oft-used scare dogma that “water tables are dropping,” and “this trajectory is not sustainable.”  SJRA knows that both statements are wholly false, but some history will lead the gentle reader to be truly appalled at its bold mendacity.  When SJRA first conceived the surface water project, its premise was that groundwater use should be limited to the amount of annual recharge of the aquifers of the Gulf Coast aquifer system.  That amount, it claimed, was 64,000 acre feet per year. (In the world of water planning, professionals speak in terms of acre feet of water, not gallons.  An acre foot is 325,851 gallons, or enough water to cover one acre of flat land with one foot of water).  That number suffered from two major falsehoods.  First, no one knew where the number 64,000 came from, but that did not stop SJRA from using it repeatedly in brochures and ads filled with shrill warnings about exceeding that amount.  Second, and more importantly, the Texas Water Development Board was charged by the Legislature with determining the total estimated recoverable groundwater under each Texas county. For Montgomery County, that number was estimated to be somewhere around 180,000,000 acre feet of water.  Put differently, there’s plenty of groundwater under Montgomery County to last for centuries.  SJRA immediately attacked the legislatively mandated number, claiming it was not to be believed at all.  Why?  Because it made the surface water boondoggle look like what it was.

And not a single expert has ever supported SJRA’s claim that water tables are dropping in Montgomery County.  What they have said, and what everyone knows, is that if you pump water from a wellbore in an artesian aquifer, the resulting low pressure area in that wellbore will cause a drop in the water level in the wellbore, measured as a decrease in artesian pressure.  But as every expert will agree, a drop in artesian pressure is NOT a drop in the water table.  The water TABLES in Montgomery County have not dropped.  Studies show that with all the groundwater pumping in MOCO since 1900, the decrease in actual water stored in the aquifers may be around 1%.   This information is in the hands of Ms. Norton’s handlers at SJRA.  Why do they continue to claim there is a drop in the water tables?  To scare you.

When it became apparent that the “water table is dropping” story was not going to pass expert muster, SJRA switched to the current mantra: your house is sinking and the only way to save you is to stop pumping so much groundwater.  That’s right—subsidence was not its first choice of scare tactics. It’s just the one that it now uses to whip up a frenzy among the idle class in The Woodlands.

Finally, Ms. Norton wants you to believe that if the groundwater suppliers in MOCO would just stop producing groundwater, all subsidence in The Woodlands would stop.  She and SJRA both know that’s false. And here’s where the real water hits the wheel.  Harris Galveston SUBSIDENCE District is charged with stopping “unreasonable” subsidence in Harris and Galveston Counties, and Fort Bend SUBSIDENCE District is likewise supposed to concern itself with slowing subsidence in that county.  Those three counties have a real subsidence issue of long standing.  Do either of these SUBSIDENCE districts mandate the complete halt of groundwater pumping in their respective jurisdictions?  No.  In fact, they don’t actually have groundwater production limits.  Do either of these SUBSIDENCE districts advocate the complete halt of subsidence?  No, they both anticipate what they think is a tolerable level of subsidence over the next half century.  If Montgomery County banned all groundwater use today, would The Woodlands be out of the subsidence woods?  No.  Pumping will continue in Harris County.  Pumping will continue in Galveston County.  Pumping will continue in Fort Bend County.  That pumping is from aquifers that are hydrologically connected to the aquifers of Montgomery County—they are the same aquifers.  Every expert agrees that pumping in north Harris County will affect The Woodlands.

So the “solution” advocated by Norton and SJRA solves nothing.  It only solves the problem that was created when SJRA could no longer rely on invalid regulations of the Lone Star GCD to support its pet project of surface water conversion.  And that problem (aside from eggy faces) is purely economic. Because the groundwater-based utilities are no longer receiving any benefit from their GRP contracts with SJRA, they’ve asked a court to rescind them. If they are successful, the lake water project will sink SJRA.  Hence the concerted effort to persuade you that the sky is falling. Or sinking.  It’s not.


Simon Sequeira is the Chairman of Restore Affordable Water, a property rights citizens group, and President of Quadvest, a utility company and groundwater producer.



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