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Harris County Eyes Putting Water to Better Use After Recent Floods

Moving or pumping excess rainwater has become widespread across the country, and Harris County now joins a growing chorus of communities in Texas looking to better handle the resource.

(TNS) — In California's Central Valley, farmers channel water from heavy rains onto their land before letting it dissipate into aquifers.

In the Pacific Northwest, water is siphoned from rain-swollen rivers and tributaries, then pumped underground for crops and industry.

In Florida, water managers are considering whether to inject millions of gallons of water into its aquifers to save wildlife and wetlands in the beleaguered Everglades.

Now Harris County, Texas is thinking about how it can put its water to better use after two recent years of devastating floods.

As part of a novel and untested plan, the county is studying whether it can reduce the impact of floods by using high-powered pumps to whisk water into aquifers or old oil wells underground and away from the city's booming sprawl. This, in turn, could preserve water for drought conditions and serve Houston's increasing water demands.

"The question is: Can you do it?" asked Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, whose office is helping lead the effort.

'Think outside the box'

Some hydrologists and engineers are skeptical, citing concerns over water quality and the sheer immensity of the flooding problem. Still, moving or pumping excess  rainwater has become widespread across the country, and Harris County now joins a growing chorus of communities in Texas looking to better handle a resource that can swing from deadly in wet years to precious in dry ones.

"Sometimes you have to think outside the box and try these things out and put some money behind it to see if it will work or not," said Russ Poppe, executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District. "This is another step in the evolution in how we manage excessive stormwater here."

County commissioners this month approved a study to assemble a team of consultants and researchers from Texas A&M University to investigate whether capturing floodwaters and storing them underground is feasible. The county has directed more than $160,000 toward the study.

The idea would be to gather rainwater as it falls, in a pond for example, and use a pump to inject it underground into the aquifer.

The study would show if, how and where the water could be pumped - and what kinds of permits would be necessary, Poppe said. It would also look at the cost or scope of such a project.

If implemented, the project would be a significant departure from the district's traditional flood-control strategy, which has relied on straightening and widening channels, lining them with concrete and building detention ponds.

Help for subsidence

Cagle, the Precinct 4 commissioner, said a successful project also could help slow or prevent subsidence - the sinking of the ground that comes after years of drawing excessive amounts of groundwater to keep the fast-growing region's thirst quenched. Aquifers in the region have lost 300 to 400 feet over the last century, leaving the land to collapse and increasing the flood risk.

The proposal could also help combat saltwater intrusion. When groundwater is pulled from the top of Houston's aquifers, near the northern part of the county for drinking purposes, salty seawater flows in at the southern end, near the Gulf, turning the water brackish and potentially threatening drinking water quality.

Flooding is "driving much of this right now," Cagle said.

Many experts predict climate change will lead to more severe flooding.

Historic rains and floods in spring 2015 prompted Rico Torres to shut down his bayou-tour business during the peak summer season, when families would typically be boarding kayaks, canoes and paddle boards in Buffalo Bayou and other locations.

Then, in 2016, the same thing happened.

"We lost about 80 percent-plus of our revenue because we had to close during the summer," Torres said of his business, which opened in 2010.

The consequences for many were far more severe, as the major spring storms of 2015 and 2016 killed dozens and flooded upwards of 15,000 homes.

Torres has experienced both sides of severe weather.

As the Houston area endured the third-driest year on record in 2011, Torres recalled, boats dragged along the bottom of the bayou at times. Dry, brittle trees even tumbled into the waterway, blocking passage.

Harris County lost approximately 19 million trees during the drought. Fanned by dry weather, wildfires in the Houston region burned dozens of homes.

The swings are not completely new. A record drought in 1996 was washed away by El Niño in 1997. The La Niña that followed put the state back in drought. A big drought in 2006 ended with one of the state's wettest years on record in 2007.

Many other places across the country have experimented successfully with strategies similar to what Harris County is considering, said Susan Roberts, chairwoman of the groundwater management committee at the American Water Works Association.

San Antonio, for example, draws drinking water from its main Edwards Aquifer during times when water is plentiful and shifts it to a deeper one, the Carrizo, for storage. City water system officials take water back out during times of scarcity, a system that has worked for more than a decade, Roberts said.

Kerrville and El Paso also store water in aquifers - the only other such operations in the state.

State officials are increasingly interested in the concept.

Water quality concerns

In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill amending the water code to give the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality authority over aquifer storage programs, part of an effort to make it easier to pursue them. Several other localities are now looking at storing water in aquifers.

The Legislature also may try to clear up confusion over water rights when stormwater spills into rivers so that it can be more easily taken out and stored. It's also considering a bill directing the water development board to study the areas where the strategy makes sense.

Still, some are skeptical that such an approach would be effective in the Houston area.

For starters, Roberts said, there is concern over water quality: Pumping dirty stormwater into the ground has the potential to compromise the quality of drinking water in the ground.

"Because the floodwaters come with the debris — high level of sediments, junk, potentially anything that's in its way comes along — you've got to filter that out before you think about putting down any injection well," she said.

Phil Bedient, a Rice University civil and environmental engineering professor and hydrologist, also questioned whether the pumps could affect floodwaters.

Said Bedient: "You're dealing with rates and volumes of water in a big flood, a big runoff event, where you're just not going to be able to put that water in there very easily."

Officials say they expect the study to answer many questions about whether the plan is workable.


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