Underground aquifers under stress even before big drought


by Dave Fehling / KHOU 11 News


Posted on June 30, 2011 at 11:26 PM

Updated Friday, Jul 1 at 7:08 PM

HOUSTON -- As the Texas drought continues with no end in sight, there's concern over what effect it's having on where much of our water comes from: hundreds of feet underground.

Water levels are dropping and some homes may be sinking. It's so dry in Houston, the grass crunches when you walk on it.

"We're entering a period of the summertime drier than I think any of us can ever remember," said Tom Michel, deputy general manager of the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District.

The dry conditions mean that more water is being pumped from the aquifers that lay hundreds, even thousands of feet under Houston and its suburbs. Some of those suburbs rely completely on the aquifers as opposed to using water from surface sources like Lake Houston.

But there's a problem. The aquifers are dropping. Geological data gathered by the Federal government show that in areas of northwest Harris County, northeast Fort Bend County and southern Montgomery County, the underground aquifers have declined by 10 to 50 feet in just one year.

“Anything more than 10 feet is considered pretty substantial,” said Michel.

And the data is from last year, when there wasn’t even a drought. Now, with no substantial rain for months, millions more gallons are being pumped from the aquifers.

So will the aquifers eventually run dry?

No, says Michel.

"There's a lot of water there. It's just a matter of digging wells deeper and going further and further for that water," he said

"Quite often, as we say, there's a lot of water, sometimes it's just in the wrong place," said Paul Nelson, with the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District in Conroe.

He has been in the water utility business for years, helping Houston, and now the suburbs, find enough to meet the increasing needs of one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the nation. It’s a quest that's costing millions.

"Hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Nelson.

For example, millions are being spent right now in north Fort Bend County to build a pipeline to bring water in from Harris County. Over a half-billion dollars will be spent in the next five years on a similar project in The Woodlands and Conroe. The purpose of the projects is to pipe water not from the underground aquifers, but from Lake Conroe, Lake Houston and Lake Livingston.

Houston already did this some years ago and it’s one reason why water rates went up. Customers will have to pay more because water piped from miles away is more expensive than pumping from underneath neighborhoods.

But it has to be done for what may, at first, sound unbelievable: it keeps entire subdivisions from sinking, a phenomenon known as subsidence. Areas in northwest Houston have sunk as much as five feet since the 1970s because so much water was pumped out from under them, causing thousands of acres at a time to slowly sink.

That can lead to flooding in places that didn't used to, as it did in Jersey Village in recent years. The area has now stabilized as less water is now pumped from underground. But problem areas clearly remain as seen in graphic maps used by the Subsidence District showing little red triangles where aquifer levels are falling, blue where they’re not.

"Blue is good, red is bad," said Michel as he stood in front of a projection of a map with clusters of red triangles in the north and northwest areas of the metropolitan region.

“We will probably see an increase in 2011, if the conditions continue,”
said Michel, referring to the amount of water being pumped out of aquifers. Not a good thing, especially since summer hasn’t even begun.