Is the ground falling? Should we care? Part 1 of 4: The Players: Water users, groundwater producers, SJRA, and LSGCD

Is the ground falling? Should we care? Part 1 of 4: The Players: Water users, groundwater producers, SJRA, and LSGCD

Image: The Peter Pan Records version of the fairy tale “Henny Penny” who feared “the sky is falling!”

Montgomery County, June 30 – In the 1823 Danish children’s fairy tale, Kylling Kluck, a chicken named “Kluck” was traveling through the forest when a nut fell from a tree and hit poor Kluck upon the back. Terror seized Kluck who began to run through the forest shouting “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” The story, of course, also has borne the name Henny Penny or Chicken Little.

On Monday, April 22, 2019, in at The Woodlands Community Center in Montgomery County, Texas, a large group of surface water users, many utility company officers, a majority of the Board of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD), and a very small smattering of private citizens gathered for a so-called “town hall” meeting of the LSGCD. Strangely, none of the LSGCD Board members uttered a word. Instead, individuals in the audience spoke of dire geological conditions in Montgomery County to the import that “The ground is falling!”

Subsidence that is. Subsidence is the sinking of land with little horizontal motion.

Some unaffiliated citizens at the meeting expressed fears at the meeting that subsidence is occurring, that it’s causing drainage problems and outright flooding, and that it seems as though it will continue to occur.

Subsidence seems to have arisen as an issue which has come to the foreground of public discussion just recently. It’s unclear whether it’s just political propaganda or a genuine phenomenon about which Montgomery County residents should take heed. If subsidence is real, it’s also unclear whether the significance of the phenomenon is great or whether it’s merely the 2019 equivalent of Kylling Kluck running through the forest after a nut fell from the proverbial tree.

This four-part series will try to address some of those issues and how local politics, particularly in Montgomery County, impacts the discussion, which should be a serious topic rather than a “political football.”

The basic subsidence argument proceeds as follows:

  • Removal of groundwater reduces the hydrostatic pressure of rock layers which have high porosity (spaces between the rock particles);
  • Reduction of the hydrostatic pressure results in more rapid compaction or diagenesis (low grade metamorphosis) of the rock strata;
  • The rocks respond with compression from the downward force of gravity;
  • The compression is horizontal movement, without lateral movement, thereby constituting subsidence;
  • With the ground levels lower, the risk of irregular drainage or even flooding increases.

The basic anti-subsidence argument proceeds as follows:

  • Removal of groundwater doesn’t reduce hydrostatic pressure in its practicality, because groundwater recharge equals or exceeds actual groundwater production;
  • There is not a one-to-one correspondence between groundwater removal and stratigraphic rock compression;
  • Compression may occur from non-human forces, such as normal rock compaction or diagenesis;
  • Montgomery County is far enough from the Gulf Coast that subsidence likely doesn’t occur;
  • Increases in flooding in Montgomery County arise from surface development and changes in weather patterns, as opposed to groundwater removal.

What is the politics behind these arguments? It’s intense.

During the 85th Legislative Session in 2017, State Representative Will Metcalf, Republican of Conroe, was the primary author of legislation to allow the citizens of Montgomery County to elect the entire Board of Directors of LSGCD beginning in November, 2018.

Prior to November, 2018, the entire LSGCD came from appointments by SJRA, which appointed SJRA General Manager Jace Houston, a professional engineer and attorney, from the Montgomery County Commissioners Court (the source of much local corruption), and from local utility districts. Between approximately 2006 and 2018, proponents of substantial regulation and restriction of groundwater production dominated the LSGCD Board.

LSGCD proposed very restrictive regulations which required a thirty percent (30)% reduction in groundwater production between 2009 and 2012. The Texas Water Development Board, and its regional regulatory committee, called “GMA 14,” approved the restrictive regulations, which ultimately forced large groundwater producers, utility companies, the Cities of Conroe, Magnolia, and Splendora, and others to shift the source of their water supplies to the purchase of surface water for water and sewer purposes.

Who was the purveyor of surface water ready, willing, and able to provide the increased necessity for surface water as a source of supply? None other than SJRA, which held a seat on the LSGCD Board and seemed to dominate and control a majority of the LSGCD’s Board members.

SJRA’s primary source of surface water supply is, of course, Lake Conroe, the man-made lake which resulted from the damming of the West Fork of the San Jacinto River at the current location of the Lake Conroe Dam in the City of Conroe.

According to SJRA’s latest audited financial statement, which covers the Fiscal Year ended on August 31, 2018, SJRA has issued over $626 million of long-term debt in the form of bonds to develop an infrastructure of water treatment facilities and pipelines to deliver surface water to wholesale customers, including local utility companies, municipal utility districts, the Cities of Montgomery County, and the City of Houston, among others.

The growth in SJRA’s customer and revenue base during the past decade – and its long-term debt – largely arose from LSGCD’s restrictive regulations reducing the availability of groundwater and increasing the cost of groundwater pumping. Under LSGCD’s regulations and Groundwater Reduction Program, larger groundwater producers must pay SJRA a Groundwater Reduction Program (GRP) fee to produce their own groundwater and pay LSGCD permitting fees as well.

Significant challenges to LSGCD’s and SJRA’s GRP program began when large groundwater producers, the City of Magnolia, and the City of Conroe filed suit against LSGCD for violating Texas Water Development Board statutes and regulatory guidelines for groundwater regulation in August, 2015. In 2018, Senior District Judge Lamar McCorkle ruled in favor of the cities and the large groundwater producers and determined that, as a matter of law, the LSGCD’s regulations were invalid.

Meanwhile, on November 6, 2018, voters delivered a stunning blow to groundwater regulation advocates when seven of the seven LSGCD Board seats went to the candidates who had vowed they would support groundwater deregulation, substantially reduced government spending at LSGCD, and an end to the efforts to force wholesale water users to purchase water from SJRA. All seven of the new Board members – Harry Hardman, Webb Melder, Jon Bouche, Larry Rogers, Jonathan Prykryl, Jim Spigener, and Stuart Traylor, came into office thanks to a grassroots citizen movement to elect them through the efforts of the Montgomery County Republican Party, Restore Affordable Water (RAW), and the Freedom and Liberty Conservatives PAC (FLCPAC). The strong grassroots campaign of the Montgomery County Republican Party’s Victory 2018 Steering Committee, under the leadership of Party Vice Chairman Reagan Reed, Committee Chairman Dale Inman, and Committee Co-Chair Kelli Cook, swept the reformers into office.

Interestingly, neither LSGCD nor SJRA had ever mentioned subsidence as a rationale for groundwater regulation until well after the new LSGCD Board came into office.

Nevertheless, it is clear that there is scientific data which supports the conclusion that some subsidence has occurred in Montgomery County.

The new LSGCD Board came into office on the backs of the work grassroots conservative activists such as Reed, Inman, Cook, and the hundreds of other individuals who campaigned door-to-door for the Republican Party, for RAW, for FLCPAC, and for conservative reform during the November 2018 General Election. Those individuals, by the way, delivered the strongest winning margin in a suburban county in Texas to support United States Senator Ted Cruz’s re-election, while the political establishment (including AWOL GOP Chairman Wally Wilkerson and County Commissioners Charlie Riley and James Metts) either sat on their hands and stayed home or openly campaigns for democrats and liberals.

With respect to the water issue, there is no question that another individual, utility president Simon Sequeira of Quadvest, L.L.C., was a genuine private property rights hero who had a gigantic impact on the outcome of the LSGCD election. Sequeira spoke with his mind, his mouth, and his wallet to ensure that LSGCD reformers would come into office at a time when retail and wholesale water prices are soaring throughout Montgomery County due to the previous, now determined illegal, regulations of LSGCD, and the efforts of SJRA to corner the water market.

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Sadly, there’s been a strange turn of events at LSGCD since the reformers came into office. While at least two of the Board members, Jon Bouche and Jonathan Prykryl, seem to have stayed with their promises to voters to work for deregulation of groundwater, reduced government spending, and overall transparency and reform for Montgomery County’s citizens with respect to water issues, there clearly are elements within the new Board members who seem to enjoy the trappings of power and have chosen to draw a cloak of secrecy over efforts of the Board.

Even though LSGCD is presently in no litigation, secret executive sessions with LSGCD’s expensive Austin attorney seem to dominate LSGCD’s Board meetings. Recently, the Board voted to require its scientific consultants not to disclose their studies or their discussions to the general public, the precise people who elected them into office and who are starved for the truth about water science.

Meanwhile, SJRA’s General Manager Jace Houston has made clear that he is ready, willing, and able to discuss subsidence and other water issues out in the open. Houston made good on his word and provided an hour-and-a-half interview to this newspaper along with hundreds of pages of scientific documents which support the subsidence viewpoint.

Over the next four days, The Golden Hammer will explore the issue of subsidence. Readers will certainly have the opportunity to hear SJRA’s view on the issue. It’s unclear whether the now-secretive LSGCD Board members will respond in kind with their side of the circumstances.

In all fairness, it’s unclear whether Kylling Kluck is right in this instance or whether it’s just a scare tactic.

 

 

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