Water: Identifying the real tragedy

Water: Identifying the real tragedy

Image: Source: Chido Onumah.

Montgomery County, July 8 – What is the water problem in Montgomery County? Why are our water bills so high? Why is there so much litigation involving water and government entities involved in water? How does subsidence relate to these issues?

The Golden Hammer, Montgomery County’s leading daily newspaper finished a four part series on subsidence in yesterday’s edition. Please see “Is The Ground Falling? Should We Care? Part 4 Of 4: LSGCD, Property Rights Advocates Present Their View Of Subsidence,” The Golden Hammer, July 7, 2019.

The summary of this newspaper’s findings from the four part series on subsidence follows:

  • Subsidence of the surface of the Earth is real, particularly in areas of southern Montgomery County but not only in that area.
  • The Gulf Coast stratigraphy consists of the Chicot Formation at the surface, the Evangeline Formation below the Chicot, the Burkeville Confining Unit which is denser and clays and tuffaceous material than sandstones and siltstones, and the Jasper, which is the bottom of the Fleming Formation. A figure directly below this summary shows the layers of the Gulf Coast in the area of Montgomery County, Harris County, and Galveston County.
  • Groundwater production from the Chicot and Evangeline aquifers dominates Harris, Galveston, and southern Montgomery counties. As one moves northward, there is more groundwater production from the Jasper aquifer, which is below the Burkeville Confining Unit.
  • Scientific studies by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Harris-Galveston Subsidence District (HGSD) generally concur that groundwater production from the Chicot and Evangeline aquifers does cause some subsidence. USGS and HGSD also concur that groundwater production from the Jasper aquifer does not cause subsidence, and that’s so, because the Jasper lies below the Burkeville Confining Unit, which does not show longitudinal movement.
  • No one among sources of scientific data and analysis in Montgomery County is willing to connect subsidence to the increase in flooding the Greater Houston area has observed in the past decade. As this newspaper has explained since immediately after the Harvey storm in August, 2017, Harvey flooding was largely manmade from overdevelopment without proper drainage planning. Of course, the uncontrolled release of a torrent of water by the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) from the Lake Conroe Dam down the West Fork of the San Jacinto River without any meaningful warning around 1:30 a.m. on Monday, August 28, 2017, during the Harvey storm didn’t help much either.

This newspaper has previously reported that:

  • Montgomery County has an almost unlimited supply of groundwater. Please see petroleum engineer Kirk Osborn’s article, “Montgomery County is the Saudi Arabia of Water, but you’d never know it looking at your water bill,” The Golden Hammer, November 3, 2018.
  • At current rates of groundwater recharge and assuming increases in production of groundwater equal to population growth, Montgomery County’s supply of groundwater is unlimited, according to the study of the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University in 2012, Professor James D. Griffin and others, “Reorganizing Groundwater Regulation in Texas.”

The primary stakeholders with respect to the water issue are:

  • The beleaguered citizens of Montgomery County who are paying some of the highest water prices in America and facing increases in retail water prices soon.
  • Groundwater producers and owners. Unless individuals have conveyed their mineral rights, if they own the surface land, they own the groundwater as well. Some individuals in the groundwater industry estimate that the value of groundwater in the Gulf Coast Aquifers is $350 billion. Clearly, the right to produce groundwater is an important property right.
  • Surface property owners who may have concerns about subsidence.
  • San Jacinto River Authority, a state agency, which owns the deep groundwater wells in The Woodlands and the surface water of Lake Conroe. SJRA has the duty to prevent soil erosion and to provide flood control, and to impound water to provide it to municipalities, industries, and agriculture, according to its Enabling Legislation in 1937. SJRA has sold over $300 million of bonds and invested those funds into surface water treatment plants as well as transmission pipelines to carry surface water to customers.
  • Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD), whose Board the citizens of Montgomery County elect. On November 6, 2018, the citizens of Montgomery County elected a 7-person LSGCD Board with the clear mandate to deregulate groundwater production as quickly as possible, to reducing spending of public dollars at LSGCD as quickly as possible, and to provide openness and transparency to the public as quickly as possible. LSGCD somewhat expeditiously defenestrated pro-regulation General Manager Kathy Turner Jones (“The Wicked Witch of the Water”). Current the more citizen-friendly Samantha Reiter is the Acting LSGCD General Manager.

Beginning in 2009, LSGCD, which at the time was an appointed Board largely under the control and leadership of SJRA, began to implement Groundwater Reduction Plan regulations to force groundwater producers to reduce their production by 30%. Those regulations have driven many utility companies and municipalities into forced contracts at very high prices with SJRA, which provides surface water and assists those entities and groundwater producers with their LSGCD regulation compliance by establishing a consortium of water users who, in toto, reduced their groundwater production and usage to comply with the strict LSGCD regulations. SJRA has essentially unilateral authority to raise its water prices under its contracts with municipalities, utility companies, and other large groundwater producers and users.

As a result, it’s not too surprising from the confluence of money and regulations, that LSGCD, SJRA, and the groundwater producers found themselves mired in lawsuits and regulatory rulings.

There is no question, however, that, by encouraging LSGCD to impose restrictive regulations of groundwater, SJRA has forced many water purchasers to buy surface water from the state agency. As SJRA had to pay its bond debt, supported massive operating expenses, and largely cornered the Montgomery County water market, it’s little surprise that these monopolistic practices have resulted in substantially higher prices.

The Tragedy of the Commons

British economist William Foster Lloyd first presented the economic theory of the “Tragedy of the Commons” in an academic paper in 1833.

In its original presentation, the idea was:

  • Kelli the Cattlelady has three cows which she brings to the grassy center of town to allow them to enjoy the grass.
  • Greg the Cowboy sees how much Kelli’s cows are enjoying the common grass, so he brings his 16 cows there to dine on the grass as well.
  • Everything is wonderful, because the Town Commons grass can easily support up to 20 cows, so Kelli’s and Greg’s cows are fat and happy.
  • Kelli’s and Greg’s cows are fattening themselves nicely, so Marauding Mark decides he wants to bring his 30 cows to the common grass area as well.
  • Unfortunately, the common grass can only support 20 cows, so eventually all of the grass dies off, never regrows, and all of Kelli’s, Greg’s, and Marauding Mark’s cows die from starvation as well.

Pro-government regulators would suggest a solution to the “Tragedy of the Commons,” which is to limit the time and number of cows of each of Kelli, Greg, and Marauding Mark in their use of the Commons.

The idea behind groundwater regulation is quite similar. The concept of groundwater permitting, in which LSGCD engages, is to limit the amount of water groundwater producers may draw from the available water in an aquifer. LSGCD didn’t seem to focus on controlling subsidence as a basis behind its regulations until recently. Nevertheless, clearly, conservation of groundwater was a major purpose behind LSGCD’s permitting process and limitations on groundwater pumpage.

When LSGCD became serious about groundwater production in the 2009 time frame, however, it seemed that the impetus of the regulation was a group of its Board members who supported the endeavors and goals of SJRA to take over as the primary water provider in Montgomery County.

SJRA stepped into the situation, and, through control of LSGCD’s Board, overwhelmed the “commons” of groundwater production altogether and seemed to endeavor to drive groundwater producers out of competition with SJRA altogether through regulation.

San Jacinto River Authority steps in to change the configuration of the Commons a bit. The Commons of groundwater production largely disappeared due to LSGCD’s pro-SJRA restrictions and regulations on groundwater production.

Now, as LSGCD seeks to meet its pro-citizen, pro-property-rights mandate from the November 6, 2018, General Election, LSGCD finds itself mired in pro-regulatory forces, urged on by SJRA, to continue to restrict groundwater production in order to enable SJRA to corner the wholesale water market.

The giant foot of SJRA has – at least temporarily – removed the “Commons” of water production altogether. The issue before Montgomery County citizens is whether a pro-property-rights LSGCD Board has the courage, guile, and smarts to overcome the attempt at monopoly through regulation and lift up SJRA’s giant foot from the groundwater “commons” of the citizens.

 

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