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SJRA Highlands Division: Serving Raw Water Needs Since the 1940s

SJRA Highlands Division: Serving Raw Water Needs Since the 1940s

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The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) is best known for managing Lake Conroe and providing water supply and wastewater treatment services to all 11 Municipal Utility Districts in The Woodlands.  But, on the eastside of Harris County the lesser-known SJRA Highlands Division delivers millions of gallons of raw water to petrochemical partners daily contributing to the economic strength of the region.

The SJRA Highlands Division delivers water from Lake Houston and the Trinity River through an extensive 27-mile system of canals and a 1,400-acre staging reservoir to customers such as ExxonMobil, Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, and a number of other industrial, municipal, and agricultural customers pursuant to long-term water supply contracts.

SJRA’s Highlands Division delivers 60-80 million gallons of water per day (MGD)—that’s more water each day than all other SJRA operating divisions combined. 

The Division’s infrastructure was originally built in the early 1940’s by the Federal Works Agency to supply water to the war industry in the Ship Channel area of Houston.  Consisting of a pumping station on the lower reach of the river and canals on both sides of the river, SJRA delivered water to Humble Oil and Refining’s Baytown refinery (ExxonMobil Corporation today) as well as to other important industries to support the efforts of World War II. 

After the war, SJRA purchased the portion of the canal on the east side of the San Jacinto River and the City of Houston purchased the canal on the west side.  SJRA began its first steps in the water business with the canal system and a reservoir in Highlands, Texas. Shortly after acquiring the canal system, contracts were signed with Humble Oil to provide 20 MGD to their Baytown refinery, and soon SJRA began to also provide irrigation water for up to 5,000 acres of rice, soybeans, and grass farms in the northeastern part of Harris County.

Today, the SJRA Highlands Division maintains and operates a pump station on Lake Houston, a canal system running from Lake Houston to a 1400-acre reservoir in the Highlands area, and additional canals running from the reservoir east and south to two large industrial customers.  A number of municipal customers also purchase raw water from the canal including Crosby, Newport, and Barrett Station.  With over 27 miles of canal to maintain, 40-plus road crossings, several large pump stations, and industrial customers that require uninterrupted water supply, the Highlands facility operates 24/7, 365 days a year.

The modern-day SJRA Highlands Division strives to address aging infrastructure and other operational needs through extensive planning efforts, constantly evaluating operations and infrastructure to plan for and meet the level of reliable service and hydraulic capacity needed by today’s customers and stakeholders.

To assist with this effort, the Division’s 10-Year Project Plan is evaluated and updated annually.  This effort begins with a comprehensive technical and geographic field investigation of the entire Highlands system including approximately 27-miles of canals, 54-miles of levees, the Lake Houston Pump Station, East Canal Pump Station, and approximately 55 other crossings, culverts, bridges, and siphon structures.  A Structural Risk Analysis is then completed to assist the Division staff with (re)prioritizing projects. The findings from the Comprehensive Field Investigation and the Structural Risk Analysis are utilized by the Division in determining in-house projects versus contracted projects, along with the budgeting and funding required.  Planning for projects in advance allows staff to take all the immediate and long-term needs into consideration and to begin making the necessary decisions to provide for the Division’s operational needs in the future.

In 2010, a rigorous planning effort began to address aging infrastructure.  The most critical projects included levee rehabilitation, siphon replacement/removal, transfer pump station construction as well as intake and pumping bay desilting, pump and discharge pipe repair.  Recent projects include demolitions and replacements of siphons near Baker Road in Baytown, Jones Road, and Wallisville Road.

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Always in mind when improving access and ensuring reliable infrastructure and hydraulic capacity, is raw water reservation for future use. Staff has to plan well in advance to reserve future contracted water rights to provide for increases in customers’ demand.  This planning provides for adequate water supplies and conveyance capacity in the System. Ongoing collaboration and planning with all current and potential System customers is required.  Additionally, system improvements require coordination and collaboration on projects and possible cost sharing with partners such as the Texas Department of Transportation, Harris County, and Harris County Flood Control District.  System improvements are planned over the next decade to continue to address the remaining 1940’s infrastructure as well as future hydraulic capacity demands.   

In 2017, to further improve the efficiency of the Division’s operations, the SJRA Highlands Division implemented a new control system comprised of computers, networked data communications, and graphical interfaces.  The new supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system not only improves system operations, but allows for collaboration and data sharing with various customers. Through SCADA automation, SJRA operational staff can now electronically monitor and proactively respond to the fluctuating water demands of the Division’s customers.  The implementation of SCADA instrumentation has resulted in timely and more efficient operations within the Division by reducing the need for staff to be in the field manually making adjustments and/or responding to water level changes.

Through significant planning efforts and improvements, SJRA’s Highlands Division has continued a history of reliable service that is integral to our region’s success.  Providing for increased customer demands, coordinating with stakeholders, and improving aging infrastructure through technological advances provides for efficient operations and regional economic growth.  The Division will continue to address aging infrastructure, access and security improvements, and improve hydraulic capacity throughout the System. 

To learn more about the detailed 10-Year Project Plan for the Highlands Division and ongoing improvements to the System visit www.sjra.net/highlands/. One of the major river authorities in Texas, SJRA’s mission is to develop, conserve, and protect the water resources of the San Jacinto River basin.  Covering all or part of seven counties, the organization’s jurisdiction includes the entire San Jacinto River watershed, excluding Harris County.  For additional information on SJRA visit our website at www.sjra.net, like SJRA on Facebook @SanJacintoRiverAuthority, follow us on Twitter @SJRA_1937, or find us on Instagram @SanJacintoRiverAuthoritySJRA.

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