Let’s begin by describing the dilemma – a very large (350 square mile) geographic area in the City of Houston’s extraterritorial jurisdiction– is experiencing water problems that 95% of the residents know nothing about.
When the faucets are turned on…water comes out. People are blissfully unaware that the ground is sinking in their neighborhoods, and the aquifers that have provided what seemed like an endless supply of drinking water are beginning to decline.
Historically, the area’s drinking water had always been provided and delivered to homes and businesses by hundreds of individual MUDs – municipal utility districts – from wells that might have been built as early as the 1950’s and 60’s. Thousands of people discovered this well-kept secret with the desirable quality of life…and soon moved into the quiet, wooded area during Houston’s energy and aerospace population boom. By 1975, The Wall Street Journal called the “FM 1960 Area” the fastest growing residential community in America.
Between 1970 and 1979, about 100,000 new residents moved to the area, a staggering 245 percent population growth. There were no real “boundaries” to the FM 1960 area – and no single umbrella government, either. Those who lived there might very well have considered themselves a “community” but they certainly didn’t all speak from a single “page”. Subdivisions were popping up like mushrooms…each with its own Homeowner Association…but with little cohesiveness between them.
The City of Houston’s annexation of the prize retail tax base of Willowbrook Mall had the unintended consequence of providing a common foe for anxious subdivision, business and community leaders. By the mid-1990’s, some of the neighborhoods seemed ripe for the picking by the City of Houston…and “Not here, not now” became the common battle cry. Water became an integral issue in the struggle, with annexed areas facing giant water bill and tax increases with the introduction of City water…But that is another story.
Coincident with the annexation scrimmages, the drums were signaling the very real potential for the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District to extend their surface water conversion mandates northward. The District’s successful experience with reducing groundwater withdrawals in the Texas City/Baytown area had the desired result of arresting subsidence, so it was logical to aim for similar results in the north and west Harris County regions.
By the late 1990’s some MUD directors, a handful of private citizens, and the City Managers of two cities had begun to grasp the magnitude of long-term water supply issues and formed the Spirit of North Harris County Coalition. As a group, we began to work with our local legislators with the goal of creating an entity to be responsible for planning, engineering and building a system to bring surface water to our area.
In 1999, the Subsidence District did indeed issue its Regulatory Plan that included a phased mandate for the Northwest Harris County area to convert 30% of our groundwater usage to alternate sources -- namely surface water -- by January 2010; 70% by 2020…and finally 80% by 2030.After a few false starts in earlier sessions, the 76th Texas Legislature passed HB 2965 creating the North Harris County Regional Water Authority, encompassing approximately 160 Utility districts with 320 regulated groundwater wells, two cities, and a quarter million residents. With the exception of some local “interconnect” agreements, these 160 entities are independent -- not linked together -- making it virtually impossible for them to make the conversion to surface water on their own.
As required by the enabling legislation, a special election was held in January 2000, and the Authority was overwhelmingly approved by the voters. Board members were elected to represent the five voting districts with staggered four year terms. The primary mission of the NHCRWA was to secure adequate surface water and develop a system to facilitate the transition to surface water in compliance with the mandated timeframe.At this point, the one thing that would really have come in handy was an Instruction Manual giving us some clue where to begin!
For starters, none of us elected to that first Board of Directors were engineers. We knew we had a water supply conversion mandate to meet, and we knew that the legislation gave us the means to fund our projects and operation…but that was about it. It is true that the vast majority of voters gave the Authority a decisive thumbs-up, but we had a significant – and very vocal -- group of MUD directors who wanted nothing to do with the Authority. When we held our first public board of directors meeting in February 2000…there were over 400 folks in the audience who were prepared – and in fact promised -- to inspect all of our actions under a microscope. This is the point in time that we began writing our own User’s Manual…with course corrections as warranted along the way…plenty of them!
You can’t know where you’re going without a road map…so the first task was to adopt a MISSION STATEMENT. Here’s what we came up with…• To find and assure a long-term supply of quality drinking water at the lowest responsible cost.O Promote water conservationO Identify/provide cost effective alternative water sources.O Maintain regulatory complianceO Encourage intergovernmental cooperationO Develop and implement a strategy for complying with HGCSD 1999 regulations
We hired a legal firm to help chart the course, an engineering firm to handle overall project management, and a general manager to tie it all together. Then came the daunting challenge of figuring out where to get the water we would need to take nearly 30 million gallons of water a day out of the mix by 2010. The second hurdle would be negotiating a fair and firm price for a long term supply.
Back then, the most logical option was the City of Houston, but they did not appear to be in a very cooperative mood. Their price for water they would consider selling us seemed much too high. So, we began shopping around for alternate water sources. We weren’t shy…we looked everywhere and considered many options! The Brazos River, the Trinity River, importing water from other counties, even using desalinated water that a Saudi firm proposed to provide to us. At the same time, we continued talking with the City of Houston, but to no avail. We narrowed in on a potential source of water rights owned by International Paper at Chocolate Bayou. This wasn’t a perfect option, but we did sign a tentative contract conditioned upon a favorable reliability study finding.
That’s when the game changed…we sat down with the City of Houston and talked about water. Negotiations began…and we ultimately signed a contract with the City of Houston to pay for the initial surface water rights and then forged an agreement regarding our ownership and participation in the expansion of COH’s Northeast water treatment plant on Lake Houston.
Challenge number one – source of water – resolved. Time to move to task number two – developing a comprehensive Groundwater Reduction Plan – our GRP -- and get it submitted for approval by the Subsidence District on time.
Hovering in the background was the specter of how would the Authority pay for everything we had on the table. We had no taxing authority, but fortunately we did have the ability to sell bonds without a vote by our constituents, after a public hearing and vote by our Board of Directors. The enabling legislation did two other things: 1. Allowed the Authority to charge a Groundwater Pumpage fee to all well owners within its boundaries, and 2. gave us the ability to set rates for the surface water we would eventually be selling.
Our initial pumpage fee was just $0.10/1000 gallons to generate some much needed start up operating funds. This moved almost immediately to $0.12 and then to $.25. It has risen over the years to our current rate of $1.75/1000 gallons for groundwater pumped, and $2.20 for surface water. And, those rates will increase again in April, 2014 to $2.00 and $2.45.
From the outset, we were determined to keep our customers, the MUDs -- and the actual water users, the home owners and businesses -- fully informed about what we were doing and why the cost of their water would continue to increase for many years to come. We pledged to keep the cost of water as low as possible for as long as possible and that is exactly what we have done. Within 6 months of our first board meeting, we began a campaign to educate folks on how to conserve water and control, to the extent possible, how rapidly their water bills would be increasing.
Knowing that the MUD's would be the point of entry for complaints about fee increases, we strongly recommended that on the customer’s water bills, the MUD's isolate the groundwater pumpage fees we were charging from what was being billed for water and sewer. Most of them did this by adding a separate line on their monthly bills for the RWA fee. We invited customer questions and complaints about the RWA charge be forwarded directly to the Regional Water Authority where we had dedicated people equipped to fully explain the need for water rate increases.
Within the first year, we launched a major website – this was long before social media. Some months at our board meetings, it would be reported that the site had generated 50-60,000 “hits” in just 30 days.
During the first few years, we held more than 25 Town Hall meetings at venues throughout our boundaries, inviting public interaction as we planned how we would comply with the Subsidence District’s conversion mandates. We published a series of “how to” water conservation brochures, and introduced our "Waterlines" newsletter, direct mailed to households throughout the growing northwest community. This allowed an unfiltered and unedited presentation of the facts to our wholesale water customers and their residential/commercial water users.
We made hundreds of presentations to church groups, civic associations, Chambers of Commerce, realtor groups, educators – in fact, to anyone who would listen. Over the years, we also developed some very comprehensive, award winning, water conservation education programs for the schools. The MUD's and our contractors – engineers, operators and attorneys – participate in funding a significant portion of these programs.
Along the way in any project, opportunities or obstacles can crop up. In our case, the EPA had a surprise for about a dozen of our Utility Districts -- they were to accelerate compliance with a significantly reduced amount of arsenic allowed in their water systems. As it turned out, this regulatory dilemma was an opportunity in disguise, and not only called for thinking outside the box, but for throwing the box away altogether! Rather than allowing the Utility Districts to drill new wells, we developed an innovative alternative – the Groundwater Transfer Plan – where districts with surplus capacity could share water with those needing arsenic-free water. We helped meet the EPA deadline for the affected districts, and we got miles of distribution lines constructed ahead of time.
We sold bonds as I mentioned earlier -- so far, $475 million of them. Having secured the necessary funding, we began the task of actually building a totally new water distribution system.The City of Houston, with us as a major partner, built the water treatment plant. We got a lucky break early on, when the COH began to plan for a water line to Intercontinental Airport and the Greenspoint area adjacent to the Authority’s boundary. We cut a deal to increase the size and to share their pipeline capacity, enabling us to transport the water we would need for the first 20 years. This partnership managed to save the Authority nearly $15 million.
One of our next projects was the acquisition of right of way property for our nearly 100 miles of pipeline. Negotiating sharing Reliant Energy’s rights of way saved both time and money, as did working with Harris County to use County roads and other county property for our pipelines. We built a new 30MGD storage facility and pump and began working with the individual utility districts to convert chlorine disinfectant systems to a chloramines disinfectant system able to handle treated surface water the City would deliver. This also required obtaining the necessary TCEQ permits.
By late 2009, we had completed most of the construction of our 2010 conversion system. We had hooked up 60 Utility Districts to the system and began pumping surface water to them. It wasn’t always easy to convince the Utility Districts how critical it was for them to take as much surface water as we could provide and only use their groundwater wells to meet any excess demand or to use just enough to exercise the wells and keep them operable. This process would ensure a reliable backup source in case anything ever went wrong with our surface water source. We just didn’t expect to use it so soon.
We were able to meet our 2010 mandate of converting over 30% of our water needs to surface water. But as the Peters Principle states, if something can go wrong -- it will. In 2011 we experienced a drought of record. Water levels in Lake Houston, our main source of water decreased by nearly 10 feet and Lake Conroe, the backup reservoir dropped even further. But, the COH treatment plant managed to maintain our nearly 31MGD demand. The problem came, not with the draught, but with the floods that followed in January/February and July of 2012.
The runoff into Lake Houston occurred so rapidly the lake overflowed washing organic materials and other solids into Lake Houston. The volume was so great that the treatment plant could not provide us with safe potable water, and our supply of surface water was totally shut off for over a month in January/February and during another 2 weeks in July. Without our extensive network of backup groundwater wells in good operating condition, we would have had a very serious problem on our hands. The COH has made some extensive improvements to the treatment plant and hopefully it will not be a problem in the future. I can report that we did exceed our 30% conversion requirement for 2013.
Last fall, the Subsidence District revised their conversion requirements which will give us a little more time to meet our next milestone – calling for 65% conversion by 2025. This should make our task a bit easier to accomplish, but currently there is not enough water in the San Jacinto River system to meet our 2025 need and beyond. So, the NHCRWA is working as hard as possible, along with the City of Houston and our other regional partners to secure funding for design and construction of the Luce Bayou Project -- with the potential of bringing nearly 450 MGD of needed surface water from the Trinity River into Lake Houston.
We already have one half billion dollars invested in this critical conversion effort and we anticipate allocating at least that much more by 2025. We are confident we can achieve these goals – it sure hasn’t been easy so far – but we have done it enthusiastically…and without an instruction manual.
Building a new water infrastructure without an instruction manual
BUILDING A NEW WATER INFRASTRUCTURE
WITHOUT AN INSTRUCTION MANUAL
Presented by Al Rendl
TWCA Annual Meeting – March 6, 2014
NORTH HARRIS COUNTY REGIONAL WATER AUTHORITY
To find and assure a long-term supply of quality
drinking water at the lowest responsible cost.
• Promote water conservation
• Identify/provide cost effective alternative
• Maintain regulatory compliance
• Encourage intergovernmental cooperation
• Develop and implement a strategy
for complying with HGCSD 1999 regulations
NHCRWA MISSION STATEMENT:
FINDING A LONG-TERM SOURCE OF WATER
• Initial surface water rights
• Ownership and participation
in COH’s NEWPP on Lake
DEVELOP GROUNDWATER REDUCTION PLAN
D R A F T
AVAILABLE SOURCES OF FUNDING
• No taxing authority
• Ability to sell bonds
• Allowed Authority to
Pumpage Fee to all
well owners, and
• Ability to set rates
for surface water
GROUNDWATER PUMPAGE FEE
2000 Initial Fee = $0.10
Increased to $0.12
Increased to $0.25
Groundwater = $1.75/1000 gallons
Surface water = $2.20/surface water
Groundwater = $2.00/1000 gallons
Surface water = $2.45/1000 gallons
PLEDGE: AS CHEAP AS POSSIBLE FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE