On Tuesday, February 12th, the Lonestar Groundwater Conservation District Board will discuss and entertain public comment on its new, draft groundwater management plan. It was published on Friday, February 8th here.
A management plan in very simple terms defines the parameters in which groundwater in the Gulf Coast Aquifer in Montgomery County may be extracted and used. The previous management plan set by the now removed board established, among other things, a requirement for all large volume groundwater users (LVGUs for short) to use no more than 64,000 Acre-Feet of water per year. The management goal was to achieve a rate of use which matched its rate of recharge to keep the volume of water in the aquifer constant. In order to hit the target, all LVGUs in Montgomery County had to reduce their groundwater consumption by 30% (the history of which can be found in other articles on this website).
The new board campaigned on a position that the existing management plan was based on erroneous science and restricted access unnecessarily to groundwater. After hiring new hydrologists and legal representation, the next major step board undertook was to enter into a settlement in an ongoing lawsuit between the district and the City of Conroe, Quadvest, Woodland Oaks Utility, and other large utilities which challenged the validity of the groundwater restrictions. The settlement agreement renders the “following provision of the District’s Regulatory Plan invalid:”
- By 2016, each LVGU in the District must meet its Initial Conversion Obligation, which means each LVGU must reduce its annual groundwater production to the greater of either:
- no more than 70 percent of its Total Qualifying Demand, which is based upon the LVGU’s 2009 permitted authorization and actually met not less than 30 percent of its Total Qualifying Demand by implementing water conservation measures and/or using an Alternative Water Source; or
- 10 million gallons.
- For any growth in water demand experienced by an LVGU after 2009 that cannot be met by the implementation of water conservation measures, such increased demand must be met using an Alternative Water Source beginning in 2016, unless:
- The LVGU does in fact timely meet or exceed its Initial Conversion Obligation; and
- the LVGU’s overall annual groundwater production, when averaged over the 2016-2045 planning period, does not exceed:
- 70 percent of its Total Qualifying Demand, or
- 10 million gallons.”
The required reduction of groundwater usage by 30% meant that the shortfall needed to be filled by alternative sources. The majority of LVGUs signed up for a Groundwater Reduction Plan, proposed by the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) to provide surface water via pipelines to major areas, to allow the group in aggregate to meet the goal. It meant that a development served by Quadvest, for example, would continue to use groundwater while MUD 46 in The Woodlands let’s say increased its surface water use to account for the target of both parties. Both entities would pay an SJRA surface water conversion fee which goes to the repayment of the $400M+ of government-backed bonds which were sold to fund the surface water conversion facility. Again, this is oversimplified but the details can be found on our podcasts.
Based on the settlement, the prior regulations are now invalid (and therefore removed from the current management plan) and must be replaced with new language. The board offers the following text in Section 6 on page 10 of its draft plan:
“In order to comply with the final judgment, the District will strike the regulations from its rules and no longer manage the resources in accordance with those regulations. After notice and hearing, the District will adopt new rule(s) to address the void and unenforceable regulations.
The District will evaluate and monitor groundwater conditions and regulate production consistent with this plan and the District Rules. Production will be regulated, as needed, to conserve groundwater, and protect groundwater users, in a manner not to unnecessarily and adversely limit production or impact the economic viability of the public, landowners and private groundwater users. In consideration of the importance of groundwater to the economy and culture of the District, the District will identify and engage in activities and practices that will permit groundwater production and, as appropriate, protect the aquifer and groundwater in accordance with this Management Plan and the District’s rules.
The District will adopt rules to regulate groundwater withdrawals by means of well spacing and production limits, as authorized in Chapter 36.116, as appropriate to implement this Plan. In issuing new permits or amending existing permits, the District will manage total groundwater production on a long-term basis to achieve an applicable desired future condition.
The District will maintain a monitoring well and subsidence station network that will be used by the District to monitor aquifer conditions over time…
…The District will make a regular assessment of water supply and groundwater storage conditions and will report those conditions, as appropriate, in public meetings of the Board or public announcements. The District will undertake investigations, and cooperate with third-party investigations, of the groundwater resources within the District, and the results of the investigations will be made available to the public upon being presented at a meeting of the Board.”
In section 7, you will find additional details describing the lack of a valid DFC. A DFC is a set of Desired Future Conditions which groundwater policy must support. An example of a DFC would be for the level of Aquifer X to be no more than 10 feet lower after 6 years. In order to test a groundwater management policy, a groundwater availability model is used to determine its effect on the aquifer level (it takes into account the groundwater management policies in surrounding districts that comprise what is called the GMA14). Again – more details in our podcasts. Bottom line, the position of the LSGCD is that there does not exist a valid DFC or groundwater availability model because the settlement of the lawsuit codifies that the prior management policy was invalid. The draft policy states in section 7, “Because the District Board of Directors has changed its policy goal for aquifer management as set forth above and has already voted unanimously to pursue changes to the DFCs that are the subject of the DFC appeal, those DFCs are no longer reasonable.” It goes on to say, “Given these circumstances, the DFCs that apply to the District remain unresolved. Thus, no reasonable DFCs are available for inclusion into this Management Plan. When the District and GMA 14 successfully adopt DFCs that are deemed reasonable, then the District will update this plan.” Last it says, “Because the modeled available groundwater in the district is to be based on the desired future conditions established under the joint planning process, and the District, at present, is working with GMA 14 to adopt new DFCs applicable to the District, the District presently does not have a justifiable value for the Modeled Available Groundwater for the District’s regulatory purpose.”
Why does this matter? The draft management plan for review does not actually have a management plan. Rather it states how the board will develop its plan when it does and offers the triggers for when it will develop one in full (stated partially above).
So, what does all of this mean? I *think* it means that because of the settlement, the following things are true:
- The board will no longer regulate large volume users in the same way (through pumping limitations).
- The board will implement some sort of well spacing policy and define fair use. This will give landowners sufficient information (I think) to value their water rights. The permitting process will change to support this.
- Once the board deems a reasonable DFC has been set by the GMA14, it will respond with any needed additions to its management plan.
The board is acting consistently with the viewpoints expressed by each candidate and Restore Affordable Water during the campaign. The new hydrologists, Bob Harden, and Mike Thornhill hold views that are demonstrability different from those of the prior board and other hydrologists. They indicate that wells given proper spacing do not interact with one another and that the aquifer is essentially (my interpretation of their words) infinite with regard to informing regulatory policy. Right or wrong, these views will inform the district’s policies moving forward.
I can also tell you with no uncertainty that contrary voices are not being heard by the board whatsoever in public comments. Why? Not because the board is stifling them but rather no one is actually coming to the meetings to voice concerns. Instead of discussions about water policy or science, the most heated public debate so far has been over the use of public monies to hire a lobbyist to represent the district in Austin. At the very least, I hope that other views and opinions might be shared by the public to ensure at least the board has access to any and all information from the constituents and make the best possible decisions.