Event Review: Commissioner Cagle Asks WHA Audience to Consider Storing Flood Water in Aquifers

On May 18, 2017, Commissioner Jack Cagle addressed over 120 attendees at the Marriott–Westchase, speaking for the first time at the West Houston Association’s County Issues Forum. Commissioner Cagle managed to wow an audience while discussing ancient Roman philosopher, Tertullian, and divining the latest musings from the Texas legislative session.

Harris County’s flood control plans historically focused on maintaining and expanding the county’s drainage infrastructure.  With the budget for flood control slashed by unfunded mandates and two recent historic floods fresh on people’s minds, Commissioner Cagle suggested that Harris County explore another option.

During his remarks, Cagle detailed plans for Harris county to investigate whether capturing floodwater and storing it underground is feasible. Cagle explained that Harris County is studying whether it can reduce the impact of floods by using high-powered pumps to inject water into aquifers or old oil wells underground and away from the city’s booming sprawl. In turn, this could preserve water for future drought conditions while helping serve Houston’s increasing water demands.

Commissioner Cagle explained that the county has approved funding for a joint study, with the Harris County Flood Control District to research the practicality of using new technology to pump stormwater into underground aquifers in Precinct 4. Cagle said a successful project could also help slow or prevent subsidence, which is caused by removing underground stores of, oil, gas, or water. Harris County’s leading cause of subsidence is the removal of groundwater. Aquifers in the region have lost 300 to 400 feet over the last century, leaving the land to collapse and increasing the flood risk. Additionally, Cagle mentioned that the proposal has the potential to help with saltwater intrusion of the area aquifers, which can threaten drinking water quality.

Commissioner Cagle, said the county may consider additional options if studies show they are cost effective, reduce flooding, and will not contaminate the aquifers. He stated that this could be another tool in the county’s arsenal to fight flooding, but nothing is certain until the study results come in.

Russ Poppe, Harris County Flood Control District’s executive director, said that “sometimes you have to think outside the box and try these things out and put some money behind it to see if it works or not.”

On the other hand, some hydrologists and engineers are skeptical of the plan, citing concerns over water quality and the sheer immensity of the flooding problem.”

Susan Roberts, chairwoman of the groundwater management committee at the American Water Works Association, is mainly concerned about water quality. Pumping dirty stormwater into the ground has a high potential to compromise the quality of drinking water in the ground now. Floodwaters come with a high level of sediment, junk, and anything else it comes across along the way, the floodwater must be filtered before you can think about putting down any injection well.

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

Whether the plan is workable or not has yet to be determined; Cagle hopes the study will answer many questions regarding Harris County’s future flood control and subsidence plans.

Cagle also said that he was willing to consider creative ways of raising funding to fill the funding gap, although raising taxes was not something that he thought necessary.