While many Houstonians have traveled the piney woods northeast of Houston, they may not be aware of the connection that exists between the Trinity River water that flows through its veins and the city of Houston, which lies miles to the west of the river. They might be surprised to learn that about 10 miles north of Dayton and Liberty on the Trinity River, crews are working steadily on a project that will one day bring up to 500 million gallons of water a day (the equivalent of what it would take to fill up 250 elevated storage tanks) from the Trinity River to homes and businesses in north and west Harris County, north Fort Bend County, and Houston. Why? Because the city and its suburbs need it. In this context, the term “need it,” means, “they won’t be able to survive without it.”
If the water is that important, then how does the City of Houston get it from Point A (Trinity River) to Point B (Lake Houston) so that it can be delivered to current and future water users in unincorporated Harris County, which now has almost as many residents as the city itself? It is a question that Houston’s forefathers pondered long ago…and came up with a clever plan that is being carried out today.
The $350 million Luce Bayou Interbasin Transfer Project (LBITP) is a complex name for a straightforward and well-planned water delivery project that held a Groundbreaking Ceremony in February 2017 . The Coastal Water Authority (CWA), a conservation and reclamation district created by the State in 1967, is managing the project in its role as the City of Houston’s surface water provider; i.e., the city owns the water and the CWA builds, operates and maintains the systems, and gets the water where it needs to go. The City of Houston, North Harris County Regional Water Authority, West Harris County Regional Water Authority, Central Harris County Regional Water Authority, and North Fort Bend Water Authority are partners in the LBITP, and are paying their fair share for equipment and pipelines that will treat, transport and deliver the water from Lake Houston to points beyond.
“Water is the fuel that drives the economic engine,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner at the project’s groundbreaking ceremony in February. “Without it, not only will you not grow, but you will be paralyzed where you are.”
Turner said he is grateful that the regional partners are working together, because otherwise it would be difficult to carry out the massive Luce Bayou project.
“If we can dream it we can do it, and we are getting it done,” Turner said.
Crews are currently constructing the 90-acre Capers Ridge Pump Station on the river’s west bank that, when fully functional will be able to divert up to 500 million gallons of water a day from the river and pump it into side-by-side pipelines that could each easily fit a Ford F150 pickup truck with room to spare (8 feet in diameter). The water will flow underground through these dual pipelines for about 3.6 miles to a 20-acre storage and sedimentation basin near the secluded FM 1008, and then into a 100-foot-wide canal that runs 23.5 miles in a slightly southwestern direction across former rice paddies to the northeastern tip of Lake Houston.
The Luce Bayou project dates back to the late 1930s, when visionary Houston leaders realized the need to identify water sources for future Houstonians. Like fortune-tellers, they gazed into their crystal ball and saw people flocking to the city by the bay in search of the American dream. They realized that the water they were pumping from underground sources would not satisfy the appetite of future generations, and that waiting 20, 30 or even 50 years to find other water sources could mean real problems for their successors.
They looked north, south, east and west for options. The saltwater to the southeast in Galveston Bay was plentiful, but expensive to convert to drinking water, and there was the issue of pumping it uphill to where it was needed. Nearby rivers flowing from places north had potential. The San Jacinto River and its two “forks” flowed directly through Harris County on their winding pathways to Galveston Bay. The Trinity River to the east had potential also. The planets started to align when former Houston Mayor Richard H. Fonville wrote a personal check to purchase the land that is now Lake Houston during his 1937-38 term in office. Next, the city acquired water rights in both rivers, and by 1973 had created three reservoirs – Lake Conroe on the San Jacinto River’s West Fork in north Montgomery County, Lake Houston on the San Jacinto River’s East Fork in northeast Harris County, and Lake Livingston on the Trinity River near Huntsville.
The Luce Bayou project is the culmination of that 80-year effort to provide water to the Houston region.
Why is there a need to build this project to get water from the Trinity River when there are two lakes in Houston’s backyard (Conroe and Houston), and in Lake Livingston just outside of Huntsville? The answer is somewhat complicated. In Houston’s early days, its water supply came from wells that pumped water from underground wells, and that took its toll on the very land that homes and businesses were built on. As the water underneath diminished, the ground above began to compact and sink – or subside – into the empty space where water was once stored naturally. Fast forward through some very rough times in terms of sinking land and even a neighborhood disappearing into the Ship Channel, and city leaders started proactively taking steps to replace groundwater with surface water from lakes and rivers.
In 1975, the Texas Legislature created the Harris Galveston Subsidence District (HGSD) to regulate groundwater usage in Houston and Galveston counties to prevent additional land subsidence. The HGSD set deadlines for Harris County water providers to convert to primarily using surface water by 2035. That meant building a huge network of pipelines and pumping stations, and an enormous water treatment plant on Lake Houston, to get the surface water to hundreds of small municipal utility districts that supplied water to neighborhoods in north, central and west Harris County, and north Fort Bend County.
The water in the three existing reservoirs is sufficient for existing water customers for several decades to come. Beyond that, water supplies in the three lakes could fall short of what water suppliers need to convert their water users, particularly if the region falls into drought mode. With regional planners predicting that Harris County will add another 2 million residents by 2040, it is necessary to use the untapped capacity the City of Houston owns in the Trinity River to quench that added thirst.
It is important to plan NOW to build the system that will deliver the water THEN.
In 2005, the City of Houston tasked the CWA with planning, building and operating the Luce Bayou project. It was a logical move, as the CWA is already delivering 640 million gallons of water a day from the Trinity River to customers in east and southeast Harris County, and is a regional intermediary that can bring the project pieces and partners together because it does not sell or buy water.
Though Luce Bayou is a key component of the LBITP moniker, it is important to note that the project will not disturb the natural drainage channel that is known as Luce Bayou, which meanders from the Sam Houston National Forest south to the East Fork of the San Jacinto River near upper Lake Houston.
Don Ripley, CWA’s Executive Director, said that the in-depth environmental studies carried out long before any dirt was turned on LBITP found that using the bayou as an avenue to carry the water from the Trinity River to Lake Houston could disturb its natural environment. The Coastal Water Authority would be required to make up for – or mitigate – those changes, which would mean the project’s cost would skyrocket. The alternative was to dig a new canal to carry water from the pipelines to the lake. The canal would parallel Luce Bayou, with the two approaching each other near FM 2100 where the bayou drains into the East Fork of the San Jacinto River.
Ripley said the CWA conducted a full environmental impact study on the canal option, and purchased a 3,000-acre site on the San Marcos River to mitigate impacts along the canal’s path, which primarily runs through old rice fields. The CWA donated the mitigation land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has property across the river.
So if the bayou is no longer part of the project, why is Luce Bayou still part of the project’s name? It is a nod to the project’s history, which is impressive and extensive. The concept of transporting water from the Trinity River through Luce Bayou was envisioned early in the city’s history, and in fact, was mentioned as a future option for water management in an article in the Houston Chronicle in 1938. In the 1970s, a population boom spurred by Houston’s red-hot oil and gas market prompted Houston city leaders to move the Luce Bayou concept to the project planning stage. The plan that emerged in the early 1980s supported moving water through Luce Bayou because no environmental studies had yet been carried out, and the concept made sense. The vision gained traction after the City of Houston obtained a permit allowing the transfer of up to 940,000 acre-feet of water from the Trinity River Basin to the San Jacinto River Basin each year (one-acre foot equals 326,000 gallons, enough to serve two typical Texas families for one year).
Ripley said the Luce Bayou project plan was shelved in the mid-1980s because of the oil bust that followed the boom.
“There was no demand for the project at that time because the population growth that was once projected was not there anymore,” Ripley said. “The plan was put on the shelf for close to 30 years.”
The Luce Bayou project was resurrected recently for two reasons: One, of course, was the need to set the wheels in motion to secure more water for future generations; and the other involves the not uncomplicated matter of weaning Harris County water providers and users off groundwater. Ripley said the LBITP project under construction today mirrors the water demand, which has shifted to north and the west over the years.
When the project is done, CWA will turn on the pumps and let water flow to Lake Houston. The amount that is pumped through the pipelines and canal will be determined by demand at that time.