San Jacinto River Authority: Preparing Water for Texas’s Future

In 2010 and 2011 Texas saw its driest period in recent history, and Montgomery County hit the driest it has been in over 116 years. For most in the Lone Star State this type or parched weather is nothing new, but thanks to organizations like the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) communities still have access to water.
 
One of 10 major river authorities in Texas, the SJRA develops, conserves and protects the water resources of the San Jacinto River watershed, operating along tributaries through Montgomery County and parts of Walker, Waller, San Jacinto, Grimes and Liberty Counties. As a government-owned water entity, the SJRA maintains water rights in Lake Houston, Lake Conroe and some in the Trinity River, providing industrial and municipal customers in East Harris County, The Woodlands Township and greater Montgomery County with the water supply, water quality management, wastewater treatment and water and soil conservation services essential to modern life.
 
Historically, Montgomery County was slowly draining its groundwater supply, putting the region at risk for permanent drought conditions before the creation of the SJRA. However, smaller cities could never afford to build the necessary infrastructure to stabilize water supply and prepare for future water usage. The SJRA was founded by the Texas State legislature in 1937 precisely to create a reservoir system that would supplement the area’s water needs, preparing for future water usage years and decades ahead of expected demand increases. Jace Houston, deputy general manager of the SJRA, is quick to point out that the company is not a municipal water authority.
 
“Our clients are always long-term regional customers and we were formed by the State legislature to prepare water reservoirs with favorable financing, to bring water to the area more efficiently and at a lesser cost,” asserts Houston. While the SJRA does count municipalities amongst its customers, it is not exclusive in its contracts and provides water to customers countywide at the same cost across the board. It receives no money from the state, nor does it collect any type of taxes. Income is primarily derived from the sale and distribution of water and treatment of wastewater. This revenue covers the cost of operation and maintenance as well as outstanding debt. Revenue bonds are sold to finance projects.
 
Behind the Scenes
The SJRA has been quietly preparing for the future by acquiring water rights and building reservoirs for decades. The company now has four main divisions. The Woodlands office caters primarily to wholesale customers in need of water and wastewater treatment service, with municipalities buying water from the SJRA and then returning it to be treated by the company. The Highlands location primarily deals with large industrial customers across East Harris County, such as Exxon Mobile and Chevron. The Lake Conroe Division focuses on maintaining the dam, spillway structure and service outlet at the lake, as well as the inspection and enforcement functions related to on-site sewage and the permitting of residential docks, piers, marinas, commercial operations and marine sanitation facilities.
 
The SJRA’s fourth division is still in the initial planning stages, but Houston maintains that the impact of its Groundwater Reduction Program (GRP) will be far and wide. “The GRP is going to change the way we use water in Montgomery County,” asserts Houston. “It’s set to start construction in 2013 and represents the largest single public works project in the county so far, to help reduce the use of groundwater by 30-percent countywide.”
 
The $500 million investment will create a surface water system to deliver 25 million gallons of water a day, offsetting the amount of water sourced from the groundwater, complete with a raw water pump station, water treatment plant and finished water pumping station to be distributed across 55 miles of distribution line.
 
Of course, even if the SJRA builds it, there is no guarantee customers will come. However, the participant-to-usage ratio is in the project’s favor. “We have 200 large water users in the area, and so far only about 135 of them have signed on to our program. We can put it out there, but it doesn’t mean that everyone will join,” explains Houston. It may seem like that 67-percent membership rate is modest; the actual figure in terms of water usage is closer to 80 percent. The SJRA deals with customers across a wide expanse making the difference actually offset groundwater usage by 60 percent. And the SJRA has established a plan that will allow the project to proceed without wasteful efforts.
 
“Instead of building distribution lien to every one of our customers, which would be cost-prohibitive, we’re only going to build lien to a handful of them, maybe seven or eight customers,” says Houston. By increasing the efficiency of the distribution lines, SJRA meets the 30-percent reduction goal and saves money by not having to build the amount of line it would take to meet every individual customer’s needs.
 
Those customers who don’t join the GRP program will either resort to building their own supply or are able to meet the 30-percent reduction simply by restricting water usage. In the case of golf courses and homeowners associations, reducing water consumption by 30 percent is an achievable goal and an environmentally responsible alternative at that.
 
Beyond being perfectly timed to contend with the drought conditions in Montgomery County, SJRA’s infrastructural investment comes during an economic climate that allows a project on this scale to be profitable. “It was pure luck that we ran into this kind of economic climate while planning the GRP. The construction firms are all hungry for work, which means prices are down and the interest rates on loans are just phenomenal. It’s a great time for us to be sorting out the financing and budgets for a project like this,” explains Houston.
 
The GRP represents the largest investment the SJRA has made since it completed Lake Conroe in 1973 as a water supply reservoir through a joint venture with the City of Houston, and if the past 40 years are anything to judge by, the GRP will grow to be a cornerstone of the region’s water supply.
 
Raising Awareness and Responsibility
The SJRA has become the steward of current and future water supply in its region. The company is also responsible for making decisions and developing programs that will maintain the water’s integrity for years to come. In 2011 the SJRA began reintroducing native vegetative species back into the reservoirs, stimulating the ecosystem and encouraging better oxygenation, stabilizing the lake bottom and providing food for native birds and fish species, solidifying the natural balance of each ecosystem.
 
The SJRA also provides substantial information on water conservation it its website, and it coordinates with local school boards to educate elementary and middle school children about the importance of conserving water usage and groundwater conservation. “One or two years ago we started the Texas Water Hog program to educate elementary school kids and it grew like gangbusters, so we started the Windmills & Barbed Wire program for older kids,” explains Houston. “We use all of our own funding and sponsorship to run the programs and it’s a win-win program.”  
 
With the help of Barbara Payne of Save Water Texas, the SJRA now runs a complete “edutainment” program complete with period novels, a DVD and classroom materials for teachers to instill good habits and awareness early on.
 
As the SJRA prepares to begin building its largest project in almost half a century, focusing on community awareness and preparing for future water demands will continue to direct the course of its operations. Over the course of the next few years, the San Jacinto River Authority will be proactive in raising public awareness, through school programs, digital and social media, working tirelessly to keep communities and families across Montgomery County afloat.