Anxiety On Lake Conroe Over Houston's Planned Water Supply Drain

CONROE, Texas - Boats have already grounded on dry land along parts of Lake Conroe, so people who live and work on the lake are afraid of what comes next as Houston prepares to lower water levels even further, Local 2 Investigates reported Friday.

The San Jacinto River Authority is telling residents to expect lake levels to drop as much as ½ inch per day when the city of Houston begins drawing water from the lake next week to bolster the city's lagging water supply.

"Every person kind of has to make their own adjustment based on how fast the lake is being used, and that's why I try to get them that information about a 1/2-inch per day is what we're looking at, 3 to 3-1/2 inches per week," said Jace Houston, deputy general manager for the San Jacinto River Authority.

"There's really not a magic level at which Lake Conroe becomes unusable.  Basically, the skiers kind of adjust. They know the places they like to recreate, the boaters know the places they like to go, but they need some advance warning to know, 'OK that spot's inaccessible. I need to move,'" he said.

He said one boat ramp used by rescue and police boats is already near being dried up beyond use near the Lake Conroe Dam.  Dredging is scheduled in hopes of keeping that ramp ready for emergency crews as the water level drops with Houston's draw on the lake next week.

He pointed to the hydraulic machine that has already been primed to open early next week.  Once the switch is thrown, thousands of gallons will begin pouring down a large pipe to dump water down a large inlet that feeds into Lake Houston, where the city of Houston draws into its intake treatment facilities.

He said Houston drew water from the lake during drought conditions in 1985 and again in 1988, when he admitted it left Lake Conroe at its lowest point in history at 5 feet below normal.

The San Jacinto River Authority reported on Friday that the lake is already 4 feet below normal due to the unprecedented drought.

People who live along the lake are already struggling with docks that are high and dry with no hope of docking their boats this year or possibly even next year.

"Of course we're afraid," said Linda Ward, whose lakefront home no longer has water at her docks near the home she has owned for 20 years.

"If people were really thirsty, I'd say go for it. But if it's just a measure to show they (Houston) can do it, it's sort of disappointing to us," she said.

She worries that Houston draining several inches more from the lake will hurt her property and her lifestyle for years to come.

"It'll mean we'll have nothing, absolutely nothing, left here," said Ward. "The economy is so bad now, you think a lot more people in the recreational area would be out of work."

Another lakefront homeowner, Bill Cruz, said he was troubled by the notion of Houston taking hundreds of millions of gallons while being unable to fix the hundreds of water leaks that pour onto city streets each day.

Cruz said, "If there's frivolous use of water in the city of Houston, yeah, I think that people up on Lake Conroe should voice their concerns about that. If this is a tendency for drought on a yearly basis, things are going to get progressively worse and water's going to be taken out of the lake on a regular basis like that, then, yeah, it looks a little bleak."

"I'd prefer it not to happen," said Cruz, but he said no one along Lake Conroe got to vote on the issue.

The San Jacinto River Authority's Houston pointed out that, while it is certainly an inconvenience, Lake Conroe and most Texas lakes are designed as water supply resources that can be tapped when extreme need arises, and he said this drought is unlike any the area has endured.

He said state law caps Houston's draw at about 67,000 acre/feet total for the year.  That would amount to about 3 feet of water drained off the lake, but he said it's unlikely the city will drain anywhere near that figure.

He said the SJRA commissioned an engineering study that examined historic lake levels and usage scenarios, concluding no major impact would result from 1 to 3 feet of water being taken by Houston.

He said the lake spills about 7 feet of water each year from storms that send water pouring over the dam.  Local water systems are not scheduled to begin using lake water until the year 2016, when about 1 foot per year will be needed.

Houston said he's heard from residents who are concerned that Houston will begin draining from the lake every year as a matter of routine, but he said, "It's just not the case."

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