Conroe, July 2 – Let’s put the chickens on the table. The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) obviously wants to sell its surface water and has worked very hard to reduce production of groundwater from Montgomery County aquifers through regulation. That regulation came at the instance of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD), the Board of which SJRA controlled until November 13, 2018.
SJRA’s strategy, as it has made clear in written treatises on its website, has been to provide a solution working with LSGCD to the “anticipated groundwater crisis.” As LSGCD Board member Jim Spigener so perfectly elucidated during the 2018 electoral campaign, that crisis never came to Montgomery County, because recharge has replenished groundwater supplies and because, as Spigener and others have described the area, “Montgomery County is the Saudi Arabia of groundwater.”
On November 13, 2018, a citizen-elected Board came into authority at LSGCD. The seven Board members had won their elections through a unified campaign promising groundwater deregulation, respect for private property rights, governmental transparency, and reduced government spending. Citizens of Montgomery County had every good reason to celebrate when Jon Bouche (representing Commissioners Precinct 3), Harry Hardman (representing Montgomery County At Large), Webb Melder (representing Conroe), Jonathan Prykryl (representing Commissioners Precinct 4), Larry Rogers (representing the Woodlands Township), Jim Spigener (representing Commissioners Precinct 2), and Stuart Traylor (representing Commissioners Precinct 1) took the oath of office.
LSGCD’s newly-elected Board had to confront major regulatory issues almost immediately upon coming into office, because the previous Board had left a mess. A State District Court had annulled the previous groundwater regulatory scheme. The previous Board had spent almost $1.5 million in attorney fees only to lose the lawsuit which left LSGCD without a regulatory management plan. The new Board had to enact new regulations which would comply with the Texas Water Code, the regulations of the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), and the requirements of TWDB’s regional regulatory arm known as GMA 14.
LSGCD no longer finds itself mired in litigation thanks to the efforts of the new Board of Directors to bring those expensive pursuits to a close.
LSGCD’s Board now faces a new threat, however. That threat is SJRA, which has begun a campaign to convince the public and their elected servants that, even with an unlimited groundwater supply, groundwater production poses serious risks to Montgomery County property owners from subsidence allegedly resulting from groundwater production from underground aquifers.
LSGCD held a Town Hall meeting on April 22, 2019, at the Woodlands Community Center. It remains unclear what LSGCD sought to accomplish at that meeting. What happened, however, was that SJRA and its allies, such as the Woodlands Joint Power Agency (WJPA) brought an enormous number of utility leaders and surface water advocates to argue that LSGCD’s groundwater deregulation efforts were endangering the citizens of Montgomery County by allowing resulting subsidence from groundwater drawdowns to create drainage and flooding problems which had not existed prior to large-volume groundwater production.
While the intended participants were regular citizens, allies of the San Jacinto River Authority packed the meeting after WJPA General Manager Jim Stinson called them to appear from all of the Greater Houston area.
Very few regular citizens attended the meeting at which sixty-three (63) people gathered. Approximately one-third of the people attending came from outside of Montgomery County. LSGCD Board members were almost entirely silent during the entire meeting.
Stinson, SJRA’s Matt Corley, and their cohorts presented extensive data in their remarks that subsidence is real, groundwater production-related, and a likely cause of flooding the likes of which the community of Montgomery County had never seen previously.
LSGCD provided almost no scientific data to rebut the proponents of the scientific theory that groundwater production-related subsidence has greatly increased the risk of flooding in Montgomery County. While LSGCD’s geological consultant Mike Thornhill and renowned hydrologist Robert Harden seemed to have great familiarity with the subsidence issue, they made clear that they hadn’t studied the issue sufficiently to come to any conclusion.
To the contrary, SJRA’s Jace Houston, its General Manager, who is a Professional Engineer and a licensed attorney, spoke at length with The Golden Hammer last week, presented several hundred pages of scientific data in support of the subsidence theory, and made clear he’s willing to answer other questions as well.
Something strange has occurred at LSGCD. Its Board of Directors has gone silent on this important issue of whether subsidence is occurring in Montgomery County, whether it’s groundwater production induced, and whether it has caused the increased frequency of flooding Montgomery County residents observe.
Rather than responding to Houston, to SJRA, or Stinson, and their numerous pro-surface-water allies, LSGCD’s Board of Directors has gone into hiding.
First, LSGCD seems to conduct most of its business in executive sessions with its attorney in the room. While the Texas Open Meetings Act allows such executive sessions to discuss pending lawsuits or to get legal advice from the attorney, the presence of LSGCD’s attorney, Stacey Reese of Austin, in the LSGCD Board room does not serve as a legal rationale for the LSGCD Board to conduct its business in secrecy.
Second, LSGCD’s Board instructed its staff to draft a “media policy” which urges individual Board members to clear their public remarks with LSGCD’s staff prior to making them. Similar to problems at Conroe ISD, where the administration clearly runs the Board of Trustees rather than the other way around, LSGCD’s Board of Directors seems to have surrendered to the bureaucrats who should work for them, just because some members of the Board want a unified narrative going to the public.
Third, and most harmful of all, at the Tuesday, June 11, 2019, Board meeting voted 4 to 2 to require all LSGCD consultants to execute a Confidentiality and Non-Disclosure Agreement, an action virtually unheard of in Texas where “open government” is the public policy of the State as Chapter 551 and 552 of the Texas Local Government Code make so clear. The Non-Disclosure Agreement requires consultants, such as geologist Thornhill and hydrologist Harden not to disclose any information or communications concerning their work to anyone. The poorly-drafted Agreement would seem to require consultants, such as Thornhill and Harden, not even to disclose any of their work to members of the LSGCD Board of Directors or even to employees of LSGCD.
In other words, LSGCD will pay Thornhill and Harden enormous amounts of public dollars to conduct a study on the subsidence issue and to determine what the scientific data actually reveals. Under the District’s Non-Disclosure Agreement, however, Thornhill and Harden are prohibited from communicating their findings to anyone!
While SJRA’s Houston, WJPA’s Stinson, and dozens of other pro-surface-water individuals argue against groundwater production, because, they claim, it leads to subsidence and drainage issues, LSGCD has drawn the cloak of secrecy over all of its discussions, scientific studies, and analyses of the precise issue, which the public very badly needs to understand.
During an interview with The Golden Hammer, SJRA’s General Manager Houston said, “In the 12 years I’ve been at SJRA, I’ve never seen a non-disclosure agreement. In fact, I’ve never heard of them being used in the government context. I’m more familiar with them being used by companies to keep trade secrets confidential.”
If LSGCD continues along the path of secrecy, while SJRA and surface water advocates provide the details and analyses showing the linkage between groundwater production, subsidence, and drainage problems, the subsidence debate will be a very one-sided discussion.