Project Spotlight | WHCRWA & The Harris Galveston Coastal Subsidence District
Updated: Apr 20, 2021
In 1973 a strange phenomenon was causing tidal flooding adjacent to Galveston Bay in the greater Houston region. The Brownwood subdivision had to be condemned after normal tides flooded streets and homes. Burnett, Scott and Crystal bays on the north end of Galveston Bay threatened other subdivisions. At the same time, industries along the Houston Ship Channel were experiencing flooded docks. Roadways around the bay area, including Interstate Highway 45 were sinking. This meant that a hurricane event could cut off escape routes and cause loss of life. People affected knew something was wrong but did not know what.
Federal agencies knew the ground surface elevation was going down but did not know why. Was this a giant sinkhole at the north end of Galveston Bay? Finally, Nassau Bay City Councilman, Chuck Bowcock, took an interest in figuring out what was going on before his city was affected. He went to the state legislature to ask for help. State officials suggested that he find a regional entity to tackle the problem. The Texas Legislature passed legislation authorizing the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority (GCWDA) to study the problem and report back to the legislature on their findings. There was only one problem, they failed to put money in the appropriations bill to do the study. A local individual, Judge John Wildenthal, who was serving on the GCWDA Board of Directors, decided to take a long shot. He contacted a civil engineer he knew named Jim Dannenbaum whose firm was working for the GCWDA. Wildenthal explained the situation and asked if there was any way Dannenbaum could help. He agreed to see what he could do and asked one of his project managers, Paul Celauro, to undertake the task of figuring out what was happening and what to do about it. Celauro contacted a close friend and geotechnical engineer serving with him on the Water Supply Committee of the then Houston Chamber of Commerce. Frank Marshal of McClelland Engineers was well up to speed on the issue and had been studying it as a hobby with the U.S. Geological Survey and a man named Bob Gabrysch.
The three engineers got together for lunch and shared all they knew. As the agency responsible for the physical characteristics of the ground, the Geological Survey had a substantial file on what was going on. They offered that the ground was actually sinking due to groundwater withdrawal. New industries were drilling wells and pumping enormous amounts of water and new subdivisions were drilling wells for residential drinking water. While the phenomenon was most noticeable along the bay, it was also occurring upland in Houston proper and in the north and west Harris County. The phenomenon was termed “subsidence”. Like a sponge, the top layers of the earth were expanding when wet, then shrinking when dry. The team consolidated all they knew into a report titled “Land Subsidence in The Houston Gulf Coast Area”. The Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority submitted the report to the 64th Session of the State Legislature under the direction of House Bill 705 dated January 1975. Acting on the findings, legislators established a new local agency, the “Harris-Galveston Coastal Subsidence District” (HGCSD), charged with regulatory powers to deal with groundwater pumping. The new agency had a lot to do to get up to speed. By the end of the decade, it had hired staff, built models, and developed a program to regulate groundwater pumping. In 1981 the district started publishing its findings that groundwater withdrawal needed to be substantially reduced. This meant that municipal utility districts providing well water to thousands of homes could not continue the status quo. The problem was there was no other source of water. Nothing happened.
In 1982 the district sent regulatory letters to all entities with groundwater wells mandating that if they wanted to renew their well pumping permits, they needed to produce a plan to convert to surface water.
Regional Water Authorities
A young attorney named Jim Boon, of Vinson & Elkins, who represented several municipal utility districts in western Harris County started getting calls from his districts about the HGCSD letters. He called Mr. Celauro who he knew had some knowledge of subsidence and represented some of these districts. Boone told him, “We have a problem. There are 230+ districts. Is each one going to come up with a plan?” The two met and decided that a reasonable solution was to somehow get all those districts to work together and come up with one plan for all of western Harris County.
A study and entity, West Harris County Surface Water Supply Corporation (WHCSWSC), was conceived to look at three possible sources of surface water for the region, including, the Trinity River, San Jacinto, and Brazos rivers. The attorney/engineer team realized substantial money was needed for such a study so the two developed a presentation made to directors of the districts. They were soliciting funding for the study and had the help of a developer named Jim Box of the Miescher Corp. who had the task of getting matching funding from the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB).
The districts volunteered $350,000 for the study and the TWDB matched it. The community now had the ability to develop the study. The study concluded that each of the three rivers had issues. The Brazos seemed the most cost-effective source, but a storage reservoir was needed. The only logical site for a reservoir on the Brazos in this area was at Wallis and a site owned by then Houston Light and Power (HL&P) destined to be a power plant cooling reservoir. So, the engineers approached HL&P about joint use of the site. HL&P informed them they had canceled the project and the site was for sale. Great news, but who had $20,000,000+ to buy it? Enter the City of Houston who borrowed the money from the
TWDB and bought it. This might have been the most cost-effective water available to the project, however, there was a new problem. The city had invested their water dollars in a program to use Trinity River water and was looking at infrastructure to pipe and pump the same across the city. At the same time, they told the engineers they would not sell their San Jacinto River water, as Lake Conroe was their backup for Lake Houston. So, the WHCSWSC became the West Harris County Regional Water Authority (WHCRWA) and negotiated a partnership with the City of Houston to jointly build the pipelines and pumping stations to transport water across Houston.
Today the WHCRWA is under construction at $1 billion and may well be the largest water supply project in the nation. The subsidence district and the U.S. Geological Survey have benchmarks throughout the region where they monitor changes in natural ground elevation. They have piezometric wells where they monitor groundwater levels to ensure that the sponge doesn’t dry out. The project represents how ordinary citizens faced with a regional problem using good judgment, and planning were able to undertake and solve a problem.