As Lake Conroe’s waterline sinks, concerns rise

By LINDSAY PEYTON, HOUSTON CHRONICLE CORRESPONDENT
Published 12:35 p.m., Tuesday, August 30, 2011

When the city of Houston ordered a gradual release of water from Lake Conroe on Aug. 15, concerns about the lake’s future began to rise as water levels started to drop.

On Aug. 16, the San Jacinto River Authority released 50 million gallons of water into the San Jacinto River, and the amount increased throughout the week to reach a daily rate of 150 million gallons. The water flows downstream to Lake Houston, so that reservoir remains deep enough to keep Houston’s water purification plant there operating.

Stew Darsey, president of the Lake Conroe Area Chamber of Commerce, said that the resulting lower lake levels could hurt area business owners.

If visitors to Lake Conroe opt to travel elsewhere for weekend getaways, Darsey said it could hurt service stations and hotels, as well as lakeside attractions.

Several business owners on the lake, however, maintain they are not worried.

Jim Winkler, a developer in the Lake Conroe area for more than 20 years, owns a land development on Texas 105 housing several waterfront businesses.

“It’s just what goes with lake territory,” Winkler said. “It’s what a lake does.”

Houston taxpayers years ago paid for the construction of both lakes on the San Jacinto River to secure the city’s water supply. Lake Houston, covering 12,000 acres in northeast Harris County, began operations in 1953, followed by the 21,000-acre Lake Conroe in Montgomery County in 1973.

Lake Conroe is used to hold water in reserve until it’s needed by Lake Houston’s water plant.

Winkler’s development includes the Marina at Waterpoint, offering personal watercraft and boat rentals and boat storage.

He said experience has taught him not to be too concerned. “We don’t get upset about the lake like we used to,” he said. “In business and on the lake, we go through ups and downs. We’re just going through a low right now with lake levels.”

Conroe’s current lake level is 196.6 feet above mean sea level, which is 4.4 feet below its normal level of 201 feet. The lowest the level has ever dropped is 5 feet below normal in 1989, the only other time the city of Houston ordered water withdrawn for seven months, said San Jacinto River Authority’s deputy general manager, Jace Houston.

However, if Lake Conroe is drained of this amount for two months, the lake’s water level will quickly plummet to a new all-time record low.

Houston explained the city owns two-thirds of the lake’s water and may use up all 67,000 acre-feet if there is no relief from the drought this year. The San Jacinto River Authority owns the remaining third of the water.

At the current rate of 150 million gallons released per day, the city would use its allotment sometime in January.

The city is then entitled to draw another 67,000 acre-feet per year.

“Lakes are designed to yield a certain amount for seven years,” he said. “We would have to have a seven year drought to dry up Lake Conroe.”

Houston said that the city is not using the lake at maximum capacity. The water release equates to a loss of three or four inches per week. Adjusted for evaporation during the drought and with summer heat, the lake level could decline five to six inches a week.

“It’s a hardship on residents. It’s hard for boaters and local businesses that rely on the lake, but we have plenty of water on supply,” he said.

Winkler said that when the lake levels are down, it affects real estate sales of waterfront properties.

“It makes buyers unsure, especially if they don’t have any history on the lake,” he said.

When the levels return to normal, Winkler predicts that sales will also rise.

“Everyone will forget the lake was ever low,” he said. “The water level will get back really fast when we see rain. We just haven’t seen rain for awhile.”

Gary Richardson, a partner at the Palms Marina located on FM 830, agrees that fluctuating water levels should be expected.

“The lake will fill back up. People need to realize that,” Richardson said. “All it takes is one big rain.”

Richardson said that marinas located in deep water could benefit from lower lake levels. He said people will still be able to launch their boats from those marinas.

“You just have to navigate carefully along the shoreline,” he said.

Richardson, also a broker with Prudential Gary Greene, said that negative publicity about the lower lake levels has slowed down home sales, but he also blames discussions of state and city budget issues.

“I think all real estate has slowed down. Everyone seems to not want to spend money right now,” he said.

Richardson said sales around Lake Conroe have been up from the previous year, if only a marginal amount.

“Still, it’s going in the right direction,” he said. “I think people still want to move here.”

Richardson said he and his brother have operated businesses on the lake since it was established in the 1970s and that lake levels have been fairly constant. “I watched the lake go up,” he said. “It’s been low one time before and that filled up in a few months.”

Richardson said the marina will still prepare for the worst case scenario, digging deeper down just in case the water level continues to subside.

David Mosberg, general manager of April Sound Country Club, said the largest problem he has faced is the effect on the club’s aquatic golf range.

He said the first ten feet of the range are no longer in water.

Mosberg said for April Sound residents, the issue is mainly aesthetic, but he said the views from the country club have not been affected.

“It really hasn’t affected a lot of our views,” he said. “From our dining rooms, you can’t see much of a difference.”

Some of the residents of April Sound cannot launch their boats from their own slips and some waterfront homes could now better be described as beachfront.

Darsey believes that Houston’s call for water should serve as a wake-up call for Montgomery County residents.

“I’m confident that what’s happening now will make us sit up and realize that we need to do something to establish an alternate water source,” he said. “If we wait longer still, shame on us.”

With an eye on long-term growth in the county, Darsey said water is a top concern.

“If we don’t have enough water to support the people who live here, we can’t grow,” he said.

Accompanying Photo and Caption

Lake Conroe's Low Lake LevelWaterfront homeowners in La Torretta, on Lake Conroe’s Lake southwest side, can’t use their boats or boat docks because of the low water conditions. Conroe’s current lake level is 197.3 feet above mean sea level, which is 3.7 feet below normal. The lake may be drawn down even more if the City of Houston starts drawing water from the lake. Some lake front homeowners are unable to use their boats dock and boaters are being warned to be extra careful while using the lake. Photo by David Hopper Photo: Freelance, David Hopper / freelance

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