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Houston, Texas: A Big City with a Growing Thirst for Drinking Water

Posted By Karen E. Menard, Wednesday, October 5, 2016

 

Education Division – Consumer Outreach Committee Blog

 

 

All Things H2O                        October 2016 Issue

   

Houston, Texas:  A Big City  

with a Growing Thirst for Drinking Water 

 

In 2015, the United Nations predicted that the world’s population will grow from 7.3 billion to 8.5 billion inhabitants by 2030. By any type of measurement, these are awe-inspiring numbers, but not necessarily surprising. Obviously, there are a lot of people on this planet. 

 

Even young school children are aware that there are billions of people sharing Earth and its resources. Arguably, one of Earth’s most essential resources is water.  Two lessons that Texas children learn in elementary school are that humans have to have water to survive and that there is a finite amount of that liquid on the planet for those persons to use.  Mother Nature is simply not making any more water. 

 

Houston, we’ve got a problem (or two). 

 

For the purpose of this article, let’s narrow our discussion from a global perspective to a state of affairs that is easier to grasp and ask how water providers plan to deliver water in the future to the thirsty citizens of Houston, Texas and its surrounding counties. By examining our state, regional and local water issues and statistics, it may be easier to picture the challenges that lie in the future for Houston’s water planners.  It has been said that water suppliers need to be prepared for whatever the future hands us. 

 

Forecasters envision the number of Texans almost doubling in the sixty years between 2010 and 2070—from 26.5 million to over 51 million citizens. The 2017 Texas Water Plan, prepared by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), estimates a 62 percent increase in municipal water demand by 2070. The demand is expected to be driven, in large part, by the expanding metropolitan areas of the state. 

 

Former head of TWDB, Carlos Rubinstein, wrote on October 21, 2014: “Our expected future population growth compels us to think big and be creative with resources.”  Rubinstein declared that nothing was off the table.  State and local water providers, he said, will need to consider using many different possibilities to provide for their customers such as conservation, seawater desalination, brackish water desalination, direct reuse, pipelines, reservoirs and/or aquifer storage and recovery. 

 

According to the U.S. Census, 5.95 million people lived in the eight metropolitan counties surrounding Houston in 2010 and 2.1 million lived inside the city limits during that year. The Greater Houston Partnership (Houston’s leading business association) anticipates that approximately 23 percent of 2070’s 51 million Texans will live in Region H of the TWDB—the fifteen counties that center on Houston.  As Mike Turco, General Manager of the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, noted in August, 2016, if there is: “… no water, no development.  They’ve got to go hand in hand.”

 

Houston Skyline and Buffalo Bayou courtesy of Michael Smyer

 

As the fourth largest city in the United States, Houston’s sheer physical size (a service area of 640 square miles) adds to the challenge of planning for its population in the years to come. The City of Houston’s Drinking Water Operations’ three major surface water plants and dozens of water wells (Department of Public Works and Engineering and Public Utilities Division) currently produce more than 146 billion gallons of drinking water which is distributed through over 7,500 miles of pipe each year. 

 

Houstonians have long lived with what could be viewed as an overabundance of adverse physical characteristics. These add a multitude of complications to any calculus for Houston futurists.   

 

Houston Bayou Watersheds courtesy of Bayou Preservation Association

 

For instance, hot, steamy, subtropical Houston is flat and only rises about 43 feet above sea level. Twenty-thee major watersheds drain into the twenty-two major waterways that crisscross Harris County. Over 2,500 miles of natural streams and manmade water channels wind throughout the area. Regional rains average 50 to 60 inches per year.  Houston has weathered many record-breaking flood events, but has also suffered through painful droughts. Any hurricane or tropical storms that enter the Gulf of Mexico is a threat to the city and its suburbs due to their close proximity to Galveston Bay and the Gulf Coast. 

 

Houston has historically relied on the large aquifers lying underneath the city for its drinking water. Because of decades of excessive groundwater (as well as oil and gas) withdrawals in the region, the perpetually shifting gumbo clay soil tends to collapse and compact—to subside. Land subsidence has caused the terrain to settle nine, ten or more feet in some sections contributing to regional flooding. 

 

Water Pump and Subsidence courtesy of Billy Shea

 

A locally famous example of the misfortunes caused by subsidence is the Brownwood subdivision on Galveston Bay in Baytown, Texas. The lawns in the upscale neighborhood sank over a period of time and the Bay permanently flooded the homes. Brownwood is no more, but has been fittingly rejuvenated as a wetland center.

 

Because of land subsidence, Houston area city leaders were mandated to end the use of groundwater in Harris, Galveston and Fort Bend counties and convert to surface water instead. According to its website, the State of Texas created the Houston-Galveston Subsidence District in 1975.  The Subsidence District provides guidelines for, and facilitates compliance with, the mandate. The agency’s mission is “to provide for the regulation of groundwater withdrawal throughout Harris and Galveston counties for the purpose of preventing land subsidence which leads to increased flooding.”  

 

“In terms of subsidence issues, the City has been very successful in reducing dependency on groundwater at the present time; only 20 percent of the City’s water comes from groundwater. In the next several years, that percentage will be further reduced, so the City remains in compliance with subsidence district’s mandates,” stated Yvonne Forrest, City of Houston, Public Utilities Senior Assistant Director in a Texas Water Conservation Association (TWCA) Confluence article in 2016.  

 

The conversion process to surface water is expected to be complete by 2025.  It is anticipated that subsidence should be controlled in 2020 and halted by 2030. 

 

The twin concerns—land subsidence and an exploding population—have become the two major drivers in the quest for additional surface water supplies for the City of Houston.

 

Houston’s Water History 

 

Visionaries in the City of Houston have had a long history of planning for Houston’s remarkable growth. In the past, although Houston almost completely relied on groundwater some leaders looked ahead at potential surface water sources. As the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) states, “Determining the amount of water needed in the future is one of the key building blocks of the regional and state water planning process.”

 

City of Houston Surface Water Sources courtesy of the City of Houston

 

One of Houston’s mayors, Mayor Fonville, foresaw the value of surface water for the City in the 1930’s. When it looked as if the land parcel where Lake Houston is now located would be bought by others, he purchased the Northeast Harris County property with a personal check. Twenty years later, the San Jacinto River was dammed and Lake Houston was formed.  The City of Houston owns 100% of Lake Houston and controls two-thirds of Lake Conroe—also on the San Jacinto River.

 

Water first flowed, by canal, to the newly constructed East Water Purification Plant near the Houston Ship Channel for treatment in 1954. Houston’s first surface water treatment plant has since been enlarged twice and now pumps about 350 mgd to area customers.  

 

In the decades after Lake Houston was completed, Houston still relied primarily on groundwater, but began to add surface water to the treatment and distribution system and deactivate groundwater wells.  The majority of the water that is processed at the East Plant now comes from Lake Livingston on the Trinity River. The City of Houston owns about 70 percent of the lake which was completed in 1969. A smaller percentage of that plant’s water is still provided by Lake Houston. 

Lake Livingston’s water is also fed to the Southeast Water Purification Plant near Ellington Airport.  The Southeast Plant was built in 1989 and subsequently enlarged to its current capacity of 200 mgd. 

 

The Northeast Water Purification Plant (NEWPP) began treating raw Lake Houston water in 2005. The treatment plant was built to comply with the state mandate to convert to surface water and is Houston’s newest and smallest purification plant (80 mgd capacity). Lake Houston water is considered by many to be vital and the key to controlling subsidence in the future.  

 

The City’s three raw surface water plants and remaining groundwater wells provide sufficient drinking water for today’s citizens, but will not be sufficient to meet needed capacity in the future.  Area water providers have, therefore, developed creative alternative solutions and a larger regional strategy to serve their expanding population, mitigate land subsidence and provide for groundwater conservation.

 

Building for Houston’s Water Future 

 

In an effort to achieve such an ambitious stratagem, a trio of massive, multi-year water construction projects has begun that will eventually provide treated surface water to customers across north and west Houston.  Each project is too large for one water provider to fund, so five of them will collaborate. The City of Houston will manage the project and share the costs (from multi-year, low-interest rate SWIFT loans approved by the TWDB), decision-making and ownership with the four area water authorities.  

 

City of Houston and Regional Water Authorities

 

The North Harris County Regional Water Authority (NHCRWA), the West Harris County Regional Water Authority (WHCRWA), the North Fort Bend Water Authority (NFBWA) and the Central Harris County Regional Water Authority (CHCRWA) have existing supply contracts with the City to purchase treated water from the Northeast Plant for their customers. The plant expansion assures that the rising water demands of those customers will be met.

 

The City’s staff and their advisors; the Houston Waterworks team (CDM Smith and CH2M engineering firms); and representatives from the regional water authorities and their advisors have joined forces in the aptly named Collaboration Center and are working towards a successful completion. “This partnership between the City and other regional water authorities is vital in ensuring the success of this project.” Jun Chang, City of Houston Public Utilities Deputy Director stated in TWCA’s Confluence article in 2016. 

 

NEWPP Expansion Project 

 

Aerial Photo of NEWPP courtesy of the City of Houston

The Northeast Water Purification Plant (approximately one mile west of Lake Houston) will soon be booming with construction activity. The billion-plus dollar expansion is considered the largest progressive design-build project of its kind underway in the United States. “This ambitious project will greatly increase the city’s ability to deliver high quality water to its customers, supporting growth while reducing dependency on groundwater,” states the CDM Smith website. Treated water pumpage from the NEWPP is projected to increase from 80 mgd to 400 mgd.

 

Surface Water Supply Project (SWSP) 

 

After construction, a jointly shared 108-inch transmission pipeline will move treated water about 17 miles westward along the Sam Houston Parkway from the newly expanded NEWPP to the City’s Acres Homes Pump Station ending just west of IH-45. The City of Houston will partner with the Central Harris County Regional Water Authority and the North Harris County Regional Water Authority to build the primary segment of this SWSP line and will also manage this project. 

 

Treated water will also be pumped westward for miles from the NEWPP through another new large diameter underground transmission line across northern Houston into fast growing Fort Bend County.  The West Harris County Regional Water Authority and the North Fort Bend Water Authority are working in conjunction with the City of Houston on the ownership, cost-sharing, design and construction of these new stretches of pipelines. Each of the two water authorities will construct their own distribution systems stemming from the SWSP. 

 

Luce Bayou Project (LBP) 

 

The City of Houston cannot meet its own and/or the needs of its regional customers without an additional source of water. Lake Houston doesn’t hold enough water to provide an additional 320 mgd of raw water to the NEWPP.  The plant expansion and the miles of new transmission lines will be for naught if there isn’t a sufficient water supply. 

 

The Luce Bayou Project was originally conceived of in 1938, was designed and ready for construction in the 1980’s and has been in the State Water Plan since 2001.  Urgency grew during the drought of 2011 and with the influx of new people moving to the area. The timing wasn’t right until now.  This project will provide the water to make the other two projects work. 

 

In 2014, the Houston Chronicle called the Luce Bayou Project “a mega-plumbing job” for Houston and its suburbs which would assuage their “growing thirst.” A year later, Al Rendl (President of the Board of the North Harris Regional Water Authority) declared, “It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the project.  Without it, development within the Houston area would be stifled for any future growth….We just would not have the water in the future.” Mr. Rendl spoke out again later in 2016 in support of the endeavor.  “The LBP is an absolute must to meet the needs of the growing population. There’s not enough water in the San Jacinto River Basin—which is Lake Houston and Lake Conroe—so we’re bringing it from the Trinity River through the Luce Bayou.” 

 

Without using any “new” water from other lakes or streams, a pump station at Capers Ridge near Dayton, Texas in Liberty County will feed a network of canals and underground pipelines between the Trinity River through a small bayou (Luce) into the back waters on the north end of Lake Houston. When complete, raw water from the Trinity River will blend with the supply in Lake Houston and fill the basins at the NEWPP.

 

The Luce Bayou Project states that its purpose is as follows: “The need for the LBITP {the project was formerly called the Luce Bayou Interbasin Transfer Project} is to meet the projected water demand and to increase available water supplies to comply with contracted future demands identified by the City of Houston.  A secondary objective of the LBITP is to assist with the conversion of groundwater to surface water supply sources to control land subsidence that has occurred from excessive pumping of area groundwater aquifers.” 

 

Projects such as the three that the City of Houston, four water authorities, the Subsidence District and other related entities have embarked upon will work because visionary water providers looked at the future and planned for what’s to come.  In ten years, the Houston region’s population will have grown, but there will be a steady, plentiful supply of drinking water, the aquifers will have stabilized and the land under Houston will have stopped sinking.  It will have been worth all the time, money and effort.

 

About the author: Susan H. Smyer

 

For the past ten years, Susan has followed rewarding dual career paths as both a water professional and a museum professional.  Her two interests intersect beautifully in her current position as manager of the City of Houston WaterWorks Education Center.  The WaterWorks is an unusual museum with a mission to promote water education, conservation and stewardship to our next generation of citizens.

Susan was born and raised in Arkansas and graduated from Hendrix College with a BA in History and Political Science.  She then received a MA in History and a graduate level Museum Studies Certificate from the University of Delaware.  Susan and her husband Tom have lived in five different states and have raised two children together.  She attests to the fact that having two adult techies in the family is extremely helpful.

After Susan and Tom settled in the Houston suburb of League City, she took a break from her museum career to be a stay-at-home mom for a number of years.  She then came back to the museum field and has since worked at the Moody Mansion, Rice University and the Battleship TEXAS State Historic Site before opening the WaterWorks Education Center.

Susan lives to travel and she and Tom explore the world at every chance they get.  She is currently researching sources before writing a book about a little known slice of history concerning the United States’ interest during World War II in protecting the bauxite mines in Dutch Guiana/Surinam and how my family found themselves in the middle of the war effort in South America.

Tags:  houston  NEWPP  population  surface water 

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