Conroe, January 29 – Conroe City Councilman Duane Ham spoke with The Golden Hammer today about water issues Montgomery County citizens face, particularly as they relate to over-regulation and price-gouging of the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) and the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD). The Conroe City Council voted unanimously on January 26 to allocate $50,000 for Ham to represent the City of Conroe before the 85th Legislature with respect to water issues.
Ham won election to the Conroe City Council in May and took office on June 9, 2016. Almost immediately, Ham focused on the high cost of water to citizens inside the City as well as parts of Montgomery County. Ham had discussed water issues in 2014 when he ran for state representative from the Conroe area. Ham describes himself as a businessman and real estate investor who has worked in the pharmaceutical industry, as a homebuilder of multi-family dwellings, as an operator of a labor company, and as the owner and operator convenience stores, feed stores, and oil and gas service trucks. He admits that he disappointed his father when he dropped out of college to operate a company, which eventually was very successful.
Ham explained that his primary goal during the Legislative Session is to obtain passage of legislation that converts the Board of Directors of LSGCD to one which the citizens of Montgomery County would elect. Currently, the nine-member board members are appointed by various entities with interests in the regulatory issues with which LSGCD deals. Ham told The Golden Hammer, “The District started out as a small group with a small office in a county building back when Ruben Hope and Brandon Creighton served on its board. It’s grown into a $2 million per year operation that has engaged in so many inside deals to make people profits that it’s not looking out for the taxpayers.”
The Legislature created LSGCD in 2001 with the purpose of preserving, conserving, and protecting Montgomery County’s groundwater resources. In 2003, the District’s board voted to permit the pumping of no more than 64,000 acre-feet of water from the Gulf Coast Aquifers in Montgomery County each year in an order known as a Desired Future Condition (DFC). By 2009, LSGCD ordered large volume users, including real estate developments, homeowners associations, water utility companies, and many others, to file Groundwater Reduction Plans (GRPs) to show they will reduce their 2009 demand for water by thirty percent (30%) with a deadline of January 1, 2016.
Ham and others have criticized the DFC because LSGCD completed it during 2009 drought conditions that showed much higher than normal water usage and lower than normal average water pressure in wells within the community. “We’ve only used one half of one percent (0.5 %) of the groundwater in the Montgomery County portion of the Gulf Coast Acquifer during the last one hundred (100) years, so we’re not even close to running out of water, even when there are temporary reductions in water pressure at the wellhead.”
The strict groundwater usage regulations that LSGCD implemented in 2009, however, have had two major impacts. First, the price of water has skyrocketed throughout Montgomery County. Second, the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA), which provides surface water to area users has enjoyed near-monopoly conditions in selling its water at artificially high prices, according to Ham. “We don’t have the water issues that some communities in west Texas suffer from,” Ham said. “We don’t need this over-regulation that benefits the District and the SJRA which largely controls the District’s board. Basically, SJRA has used LSGCD to become a state agency that monopolizes water in Montgomery County.”
According to Ham, State Representative Will Metcalf (R-Conroe) has already authored and filed a bill in the Texas House of Representatives that would make the LSGCD Board an elected one. Ham is working with Senator Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) to move similar legislation forward in the Texas Senate. Ham said he believes that other area legislators have generally been supportive of the legislation except for those with ties to The Woodlands Development Company, which has supported the SJRA’s role in water development and pricing. Jason Millsaps, a staff member in Representative Keough’s office contacted The Golden Hammer to clarify that Representative Keough has committed to join Representative Metcalf as a joint author of the original bill (a procedure which the Rules of the Texas House of Representatives permits).
The SJRA owns and operates the water wells in The Woodlands under a business relationship with Mitchell Energy and Development established in the 1970s when Mitchell began development of master-planned community. SJRA provided the water and sewer infrastructure for development of The Woodlands in return for which Mitchell gave SJRA ownership of the well rights.
“Lone Star and SJRA have taken away our property rights and that’s enabled SJRA to force contracts so that residents and commercial users could get the water they needed,” Ham explained. Ham noted that more than one hundred and fifty (150) municipal utility districts, utility companies, municipalities, and related entities have had to enter into contracts with SJRA at higher than market water prices to maintain access to water, as a result of the GRPs which LSGCD has imposed. “The City of Conroe is forced to use 5.8 million gallons of water per day from Lake Conroe which we have to buy from SJRA, even though water wells in the city limits could easily provide sufficient capacity,” Councilman Ham said.
Ham noted that “the state agencies, SJRA and LSGCD, are spending like mad on lobbyists and attorneys to make sure that the voters don’t get control of Lone Star. That’s why the City of Conroe set a $50,000 budget for me to go and lobby. LSGCD hired an expensive lobbyist, the Sledge law firm, to work against the taxpayers. I’ll go to Austin to support our legislators to ensure LSGCD moves over to an elected board that’s accountable.”
Currently, according to Ham, the LSGCD Board consistently votes 6 to 3 in favor of a DFC which protects the SJRA and its contracts. The three board members who vote pro-resident are Scott Weisinger and Roy McCoy (MUD board representatives) and John Bleyl (engineer whom the City of Conroe appointed to the LSGCD board). Ham stated that the two representatives to the LSGCD Board whom County Judge Craig Doyal has appointed – Richard Tramm and Gregg Hope – vote against the interests of Montgomery County taxpayers. Doyal’s best friend and business partner Bobby Adams is an engineer and vice president of Halff Associates, an engineering firm that conducts extensive business with SJRA. Doyal stated during the January 24, 2017, Commissioners Court meeting that he supports election of the LSGCD Board, however.
The $50,000 budget the City voted to provide Ham for representing the City before the Legislature would “pay for me to be in Austin four days per week, for lodging, meals, working with legislators and their staffs, providing reasonable meals to them, and providing other expenses so that I’ll have access to legislators and their staffs through the time the Legislature ends in May,” Ham said. Ham added that he also hoped to work for legislation that would require SJRA to apply to the Texas Public Utilities Commission for all future rate-setting.
“I’m going to Austin to represent the city on behalf of the taxpayers so they won’t fall victim to the policies of LSGCD and SJRA any longer. It’s costing taxpayers in Montgomery County $10 million per year in price gouging and that’s more than half of everyone’s water bills which goes to those two agencies. It’s got to stop,” Ham concluded.
The Golden Hammer also discussed Ham’s ideas for the County’s appointment of the Board of Director’s position for Richard Tramm’s expiring term of office. That portion of the interview will appear in another article later today.