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West Harris County residents may pay more for water

September 25, 2018

West Harris County residents may expect to see the cost of the water they use increase next year.

At its September meeting, the nine-member West Harris County Regional Water Authority board of directors authorized distributing notice of a proposed rate increase.

Bruce Parker, board president, anticipates a November vote to increase the rates by 25 cents per 1,000 gallons. The groundwater reduction plan fee would become $2.95 per 1,000 gallons and the surface water fee would become $3.35 per 1,000 gallons of water delivered by the authority. In recent years, City of Katy officials have applied a formula to the authority’s rate so that city customers have paid only a portion of the increase. The groundwater rate started at 10 cents per 1,000 gallons in 2001. The surface water fee began at 80 cents per 1,000 in 2005. Rates haven’t gone up every year. The groundwater fee remained at 50 cents 2003-2005 and $1.90 in 2013 and 2014. The surface water fee stayed at $1.25 in 2009 and 2010 and at $2.30 in 2013 and 2014.

The proposed 2019 rate increase will cover the cost of operations, construction and debt retirement and is based on studies by two different firms. Historically, the authority has increased rates gradually, said Parker, who added that from the start, officials decided against offering a very low rate that would be bumped up when a big expense occurred. “It’s better to do little increases every year,” he said, adding that also provides revenue for the authority to pay bonds off early. The authority is run by a board whose members bring expertise in real estate, engineering and utility districts, said Parker, and it has no employees but relies on consultants.

“One of the biggest expenses we have is buying water from the city of Houston,” said Parker, who’s been with the authority since it began in 2001. The authority operates a pump station it built in its northeast quadrant at FM 529 and Eldridge from which it supplies city of Houston water to 44 municipal utility districts that have converted from groundwater to surface water. Once the authority finishes a central pump station north of Fry Road at Clay Road, it will build a network of distribution lines to serve other MUDs. The authority has 107 active MUDs plus the city of Katy.

Parker said the authority is on target to meet the state-required goal to convert from groundwater to surface water use. Its 2025 goal is to reduce groundwater use by 60 percent. That percentage climbs to 80 percent by 2035. For those entities that don’t participate in the authority program to convert to surface water, the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District charges a $8.46 per 1,000 gallon disincentive fee.

“We’re basically a wholesale supplier of potable water to MUDs,” said Parker. When the Texas Legislature created the authority, it also added other goals: water conservation and the control of subsidence - sinking of the land due to the pumping of groundwater.

Parker connects subsidence with an increased risk of flooding. “That’s typically what happens when water always gravitates to the lowest spot.”

“The city of Katy is experiencing subsidence,” he said, and severe subsidence is also occurring around Jersey Village.

Figures from the subsidence district, show north and west Harris County have the highest use of groundwater and subsidence, though last year the area reduced by 1 percent total water pumped to 183.4 million gallons per day. It increased by 4 percent in 2016 to 186.1 MGD.

“We try everything we can to get people to conserve water,” said Parker. “It’s part of our basic mission statement.” The authority offers information on its website, http://www.whcrwa.com/, and offers a water conservation program to schools so that students can take information home to their parents.

“Probably one of the reasons water consumption is going up is because of new development,” he said. The authority must consider that development in its design of a water system. He points to development along the Grand Parkway north of Interstate 10 as an example. The authority partners with the North Fort Bend Water Authority in the water supply project. “They’re experiencing significant growth, too,” he added.

The authority anticipates selling $343 million in bonds this fall. The Texas Water Development Board makes borrowing less costly through its State Water Implementation Fund for Texas. Parker explained that the state buys bonds at a low interest rate of 3 percent compared to higher market interest rates of 4 percent or 5 percent. Construction projects the authority is paying for include the Luce Bayou Interbasin Transfer Project, the Northeast Water Purification Plant expansion, surface water supply project and other infrastructure. Total capital costs exceed $1 billion for the authority.

Construction could start in 2019 on the surface water supply project that involves a 39-mile-long pipeline from the purification plant near Lake Houston to west Houston. Parker said design of the 8-foot diameter pipeline is 90 percent complete. Complicating the three-year project is the need to tunnel the pipeline in some locations, said Parker, such as under U.S. 59 and Beltway 8.

karen.zurawski@chron.com

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