Students' design for water district facility emphasizes conservation

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Kathy Turner Jones
Kathy Turner Jones

In groundwater-dependent Montgomery County, Texas, the agency charged with monitoring and conserving this hidden resource received help last spring from Texas A&M landscape architecture students who provided a master plan for converting the agency's 4.9-acre Conroe headquarters into an educational facility for demonstrating the latest groundwater conservation techniques.

"Groundwater is so mysterious, it’s hard for people to understand where the water comes from or how recharge works," said Kathy Turner Jones, general manager of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, which serves this rapidly growing suburban area north of Houston. "With the help of this master plan, the district’s headquarters can be a site where people learn about groundwater and see that conservation solutions can be aesthetically pleasing too.”

The need to conserve groundwater throughout the district is urgent, according to a 2012 Texas A&M urban planning study, which noted that Montgomery County's water supply comes almost exclusively from freshwater aquifers that are being depleted faster than they can recharge.

The conservation district faces a daunting task, the study said, of weaning the area's fast-growing population off of groundwater, targeting by 2016 a 30 percent reduction in groundwater pumping from 2009 levels. In the meantime, the county's municipal water districts are racing to acquire rights and build infrastructure needed to provide water from alternative sources, such as 20,100-acre Lake Conroe.

The detailed plan for converting the LSGCD facility into a public education space was developed in a graduate studio directed by of Galen Newman, assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M University.

Newman said his students initially worked in separate teams, developing three unique solutions for the site. Then, based on feedback from conservation district personnel and debate amongst themselves, the best ideas were merged into the final master plan, which showcases dozens of techniques and materials conducive to groundwater conservation in both residential and commercial developments.

The final plan includes numerous schemes to help stormwater find a way back into the ground rather than be forced off the property, which Jones said is how developers have traditionally dealt with rain, to the detriment of recharging the groundwater onsite.

For instance, the students' design calls for a detention pond to hold overflow rainwater collected from across the property for subsequent infiltration; parking areas constructed from permeable materials that allow rainwater to pass through; and rooftops outfitted to route rain into cisterns where it’s held for irrigation purposes.

“There were so many fantastic ideas proposed by the students it will be hard to pick and choose which ones to include in our final master plan,” said Jones. “We were just blown away by the quality of their designs.”

Public conservation displays like those developed by the Texas A&M students are important, she said, because they help change the way people think about water use.

"The students’ designs bring a visual element to groundwater resource education that helps dissolve the divide between who’s ‘green’ and who's not, underscoring that we all need to be on the conservation bandwagon,” said Jones. "The displays introduce a new vernacular to people who have never heard of things like porous concrete or rainwater harvesting."

At the LSGCD's June meeting, Jones told board members she was eager to form committees to consider implementing the students' proposal or at least portions of it.

“The major impact of the students’ final presentation on board members was obvious,” she said. “I don’t think there was anything in their final master plan that doesn’t fit what we’re looking for.”

Other water-saving features in the students' proposal included:

  • Slightly elevated walkways, rather than sidewalks made with impermeable materials,
  • A xeriscape garden to demonstrate aesthetic landscape treatments requiring very little water,
  • Residential-style rain barrels,
  • The use of plants requiring the least amount of water,
  • Informational kiosks equipped with green roofs and living walls,
  • A greenhouse and garden, and
  • An air conditioning condensation collection system.

At their last meeting, Jones urged the students to continue their advocacy for water conservation in landscape and building design.

“It’s not a matter of forcing people to go down a road they wouldn’t have chosen," she said, "it’s giving them knowledge and choices for making better decisions.”

The Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, created in 2001 and funded by fees from water users, is one of 97 existing and pending water districts in Texas created since the state legislature began authorizing them in 1949 to conserve, protect, and regulate their respective water resources.

Statewide, Texas is faced with dwindling water supplies and increased demands. According to a 2011 Texas Water Development Board report (4.6 MB PDF), a 10 percent drop in the statewide water supply is projected between 2010 and 2060, while water demand is expected to rise 22 percent, due mostly to a projected population increase to 46 million people.

Should a drought similar to the dry spell that parched the state between 1947 and 1957 occur again, the report says the demand for Texas water will exceed the supply.

posted June 24, 2013