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Work On Nation's Largest Water Infrastructure Project Set To Begin

Houston's flooding problems may make headlines, but there is another water issue beneath the surface. Regional aquifers, a lifeline for the area, are being increasingly strained, raising the threat of flooding as more and more land is lost to subsidence. A massive new $3B project will carry water more than 40 miles to ease the burden on Houston's aquifers, fundamentally shifting how many Houstonians get their water. 

Pipeline

"There is a finite ability of the Gulf Coast Aquifer to produce water," Coastal Water Authority president Wayne Klotz said to the Houston Chronicle. "Nobody has ever determined what would happen if we pumped it so hard that the water pressure sunk below the aquifer, and nobody wants to find out."

Since its inception, settlers, developers and entrepreneurs have made generous use of the area's vast underground water stores. As the decades have passed, usage has soared, surpassing 450 million gallons a day. Over the last century, aquifers here have lost between 300 and 400 feet, leaving the land to collapse.

Depleting Houston's aquifers has exacerbated subsidence across the area. Spring Branch has dropped four feet since 1975. Jersey Village is almost two feet lower than it was in 1996. And Greater Greenspoint has given up about two feet in the last decade alone, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. 

"When you lose that much, it makes an area prone to floods when they weren't historically," Mark Kasmarek, a hydrogeologist for more than 30 years with the USGS, told the Houston Chronicle. That is exactly what Houstonians have been dealing with. 

Houston Flood

Planning an intricate drainage system relies on knowing an accurate grade. Shifts in elevation brought on by subsidence ruin the efficiency of a city's drainage system. In his work, Harris County engineer John Blount sees the changes firsthand. 

"We noticed that drainage lines weren't at the grade they should've been, and they weren't allowing water to drain as quickly as they should," he said to the Chronicle. "It's because the ground wasn't at the same level anymore." 

After decades of meetings and consultations, a $3B solution to Houston's water subsidence problems will finally be getting underway this summer. The three-part chain of infrastructure projects will carry water via pipelines and canals more than 40 miles westward from the Trinity River to Lake Houston, then further west to provide for the booming suburbs from Spring to Katy. The project will also increase the 27-acre water treatment facility at Lake Houston by more than 90 acres, increasing capacity from 80 million to 400 million gallons. 

The construction and related work should employ about 2,500 people, according to estimates from the city and the builder of the canal.

Water Faucet

"It's the biggest water project in the country right now," R.G. Miller Engineers manager Michael Bloom told the Houston Chronicle. "It's a world-class project, really visible if you're in the water sphere."

The Texas Water Development Board has pledged about $3.2B in low-interest loans from the State Water Implementation Fund of Texas to get the project off the ground. Costs will be split between the City of Houston and five regional water authorities in Harris and Fort Bend counties in an effort to meet long-term needs.