Gulf Coast Water Authority: E Pluribus Unum
A History

By James Lee, Texas City. Last updated Feb. 25, 2013. The incubation process for what would become Gulf Coast Water Authority (GCWA) started in 1908 when the Cane and Rice Belt Irrigation Company, along with a pump station, was established. In the early 1930’s, additional extensions of the system were completed, eventually reaching more of Galveston County with additional pump/lift stations and extension of the canal system. Slowly but steadily in 1931 all pump stations were converted from steam to electricity. This happened just prior to the establishment of the Briscoe Irrigation System in 1940.

Through other acquisitions and exchanges, the Industrial Division was acquired by the Galveston County Water Authority in 1972 and the Canal Division (for rice and sugar cane irrigation) was purchased from the Brazos River Authority in 1988. This allowed GCWA to provide a seemingly perpetual supply of water for industry, irrigation and consumer use in what had now become a three-county area of Brazoria, southern Fort Bend and Galveston.

Industrial Division and Growing Needs

During the mid-40’s, the Industrial Water System was established to provide for Texas City’s multiple industries and to Monsanto at Chocolate Bayou in neighboring Brazoria County. The canal system has been known by many names since the late 1950’s and was purchased by the American Canal Company of Texas in 1958.

From its beginning in 1965 until the time of the purchase of the Industrial Water Company in 1972, GCWA had no income and paid no one any fees or expenses. The lawyers, fiscal agents and engineers all performed services pro bono. They did not expect to get paid until a project was funded because GCWA had no taxing power and no appropriation from the county or state to pay for services rendered.

Meetings were held in the beginning at lunch, most of the time at John’s Oyster Resort (since demolished) in Galveston on Offats Bayou, and the “Treasury” consisted of what monies were left over after everybody who attended “chipped in for lunch and tip.” No director prior to 1972 was ever paid any money for their work.

Through an arrangement with Amoco, Marathon and Carbide, which became AMC Company, GCWA was furnished with a secretary, Mrs. Ida Crutchfield, and Mr. Bennie Broussard, an accountant. AMC Company employed Mr. Joe Wilhelm and provided him to GCWA as its general manager.

In order for GCWA to have a viable and workable organization, it was agreed that as part of the purchase of the Industrial Water Company, industry would pay $100,000 as “working capital” to GCWA with the agreement that each year thereafter they would use it as a “cost of water.” The GCWA could then use money from the working capital fund, and each year it would be replenished. This agreement continued until GCWA was able to establish a Municipal, Industrial and Canal Division when a pro-rata share was established and each customer paid for their individual water usage.

The “S” Word Is Bad for Water

Honorable Charles B. Smith

Subsidence was the most pressing problem for developing surface water sources for Galveston County, and ultimately for other counties around the Texas Gulf Coast. Subsidence, or the settling (or lowering) of the earth around or near underground water wells, was becoming a substantial problem. Compounding this was the inevitability of underground water wells running dry and not being able to keep up with the increasing demands of a growing population, and industrial and crop irrigation needs. A surface water solution had to be created. That’s how folks like Judge Charles B. Smith and others enter the picture by creating what would become the Gulf Coast Water Authority back in the early 1960’s.

Through expansions, acquisitions, mergers, consolidations and purchases, GCWA has grown to be one of the major players in the treatment and distribution of industrial, agricultural and consumer water in Texas and certainly along the Texas Gulf Coast. Its intricate system of canals, pipelines, pump and lift stations and reservoirs are something to behold. It delivers water, a diminishing yet life-giving essential natural resource, to irrigation, industry and people.

GCWA directly provides water for three counties in Texas― Brazoria, southern Fort Bend and Galveston. It is Texas’ oldest water authority and has served as a model for water process standards for the federal Safe Drinking Water Act regulations in the United States. At the time of its inception, it was also the first water authority to introduce a new technology to electronically monitor the taste and smell of consumer (potable) water. Additionally, Food & Wine magazine recognized its Thomas S. Mackey Water Treatment Plant (in Galveston County, Texas) as one of the best in the United States.

The problems associated with subsidence have now largely been solved. Static levels (the level in a water well when it is not pumping) in Galveston County have increased between 20 and 100 feet in the last 10 years, indicating that the conversion from underground wells to surface water has completely eliminated subsidence.

Enabling Legislation Passed in 1965

Texas State Senator A. R. “Babe” Schwartz

With the invaluable help of Texas State Senator A.R.”Babe” Schwartz, the legislation was introduced to formally establish the Galveston County Water Authority in 1965. The GCWA, with original boundaries being the same as those of Galveston County only, now services Brazoria and southern Fort Bend County, with the name subsequently changing to Gulf Coast Water Authority.

The original legislation clearly states that GCWA is “empowered to conserve, store, transport, test and purify, distribute, sell and deliver water (surface and underground) to persons, corporations (public and private) and political subdivisions of the State and others and may purchase, contract or lease all property, works or facilities both within or without the district as necessary or useful for serving its purposes. Management and control is vested in seven (7) (now 9) directors appointed by Commissioner’s Court of Galveston County” (now including Brazoria and Fort Bend County). The statute states that a least 3 of GCWA’s directors must be registered professional engineers.

The Shannons: As Goes Father, So Goes Son

The Shannons, father and son, were a vital part of the history of the canal systems. Mr. Darrell E. Shannon was a remarkable individual who had vision and knew what it took to operate and maintain all components of a canal system; from designing, building and operating pumping plants to building bridges and even operating heavy equipment. He did it all. One of his most significant challenges was the design, construction and installation of a natural gas engine driving a 100,000 gpm pump at the site of the original 1908 pumping station on the Brazos River. This project included a massive tunnel system from the river bed to the building where the pump was located to get the water from the river to the pump. As a result of his vision and dedication to the American Canal Company and later the Brazos River Authority, Darrell Shannon was honored at a dedication service whereby the original 1908 pump site was formally named the Darrell E. Shannon Pumping Station in April 1976.

The entire time Darrell Shannon was working, his only son, Gene D. Shannon, was following in his footsteps and learning all he could. Growing up with and learning from his dad, Gene Shannon knew every square inch of the pumping plants and canal systems. Gene worked his way up from the bottom. He started as an oiler on a piece of heavy equipment and worked his way up to an operator. He became Maintenance Supervisor, learning more about the extensive rights-of-way along Jones and Oyster Creek as well as the many miles of canal systems. Gene was promoted to Canal Manger in 1980. Upon his retirement in 1992, after 42 years of service, he worked as a consultant for GCWA, scanning and documenting many of the easement and rights-of-way documents. He also assisted in preparing a right-of-way book and map still in use today by GCWA.

The Joe Wilhelm Footprint

Joe Wilhelm

In 1972 Joe Wilhelm became General Manager of GCWA and had this as part of his remarks about how subsidence had become an increasing problem: “One significant date was in late 1940 when subsidence was first discovered in the Texas City area, while Amoco and Carbide were constructing inter-plant lines. At the point of connection the lines were not on the same elevation. The two companies pointed fingers at each other accusingly. Yet on a re-check of the benchmarks, which according to Wilhelm had to be checked all the way back to Austin, Texas. Each party was correct on both parts. But the demon subsidence had raised its head, and lowered the measurements all the way to Texas City-La Marque. The decision was made to secure an alternate source of water: above-ground water. The time gap between discovering the problem and taking remedial measures took longer than expected. You see, the U.S. was at the peak of War II.”

In a recent interview for this story, a candid and still amazingly fit Wilhelm, 82, said with a grin that the above story was correct, adding that “putting it (GCWA) all together has been good, fair and equitable. GCWA matured in the proper manner at the proper time. We never built a bridge to nowhere, never became politicized. I don’t think you could do it today,” he said.

During 1987, GCWA bought 25 percent of the Southeast Purification Plant from the City of Houston to ensure an adequate supply of water to the cities of Galveston and League City. The plant is located near Ellington Field in Southeast Houston.

In 1991, The Galveston County Water Authority finally changed its name to the Gulf Coast Water Authority to better reflect its service area and for participation in other Gulf Coast-related undertakings and water-related goals.

Texas City undertook the task of building a major water treatment plant in 1978, which became operational by early 1981. The water treatment plant initially had a capacity to provide 18 million gallons per day. A subsequent expansion in 1991 and 2001 by GCWA was given a rating of 50 million gallons per day.

Water Plant Buyout, and Growing Municipal Network

GCWA purchased the treatment plant from Texas City in May 1983 and uses one of the most sophisticated treatment systems in the United States. After the purchase, GCWA built transmission lines to supply the cities of La Marque; WCID #1 (Dickinson); Bacliff MUD; Bayview MUD; and to the P.H. Robinson Electric Generation Station (then a part of Houston Lighting & Power. Later additions were WCID #12 (Kemah); San Leon MUD; followed by Galveston, Hitchcock, League City, WCID #8 (Santa Fe); MUD #12 (Bayou Vista) and FWSD #6 (Tiki Island).

A Three County Approach

The year 2011 brought new challenges and opportunities to GCWA. The Texas Legislature passed legislation that added one board member each from Brazoria and Fort Bend County. This was prompted by GCWA’s growing presence in these counties as the communities of Sugar Land, Missouri City, WCID #2 (Stafford) and Pecan Grove come on line with surface water treatment facilities, as their source of raw water comes from GCWA canals.

Also in 2011, Texas saw the worst one-year drought in recorded history for not only the lower Brazos River basin but for the entire state. Fortunately for GCWA customers, GCWA’s earlier leadership had the foresight to acquire senior rights for Brazos River water, as well as significant amounts of stored water behind the reservoirs further up the Brazos.

As 2011 came to a close, GCWA experienced a complete turnover in board members. The new board clearly embarked upon a new path for GCWA’s future. Under their leadership GCWA is pursuing multiple avenues to “firm up” its water supply and seek alternative sources of water.

Thomas Mackey: A Leader with a Legacy

Dr. Thomas Mackey

In 1994 the largest treatment plant in the GCWA system was dedicated to memorialize Dr. Thomas S. Mackey, a longtime president of the GCWA board and community activist who was instrumental in the purchase of the Texas City treatment plant by GCWA. Not only a professional engineer, Mackey was also a noted metallurgist, attorney-at-law and an incessant note taker.

The Mackey Treatment Facility uses multiple coagulants, aids and compounds to remove odors, plus a corrosive inhibitor and numerous disinfectants. Treatment is monitored continuously to meet the changing conditions of raw water from every source. Staff is always searching for more innovative and cost-effective methods in the water industry.

In addition to other “firsts” GCWA has the first completely automated water plant in Texas. In fact, the plant continues to lead with automated industrial pump stations and raw water pump stations. It is also the first of its kind to use chlorine dioxide, a powerful disinfectant and the first in the country to use electronic odor detection to test finished water. Its staff is recognized at national and international levels for their work.

At the time of the writings by Judge Smith, May 15, 1994, Joe Wilhelm had become a senior consultant to the board of GCWA by developing an assets/improvement plan to see GCWA through another 25 years. Gordon Myers was charged with the duties of keeping the GCWA on track as it organizes for another twenty-five years. Shortly after 1994, Myers became the second fully-appointed general manager.

While GCWA has no taxing authority, it can issue revenue bonds to provide funds for projects. Furthermore, as a political subdivision of the state, they cannot make a profit. All charges to customers are based on bond payments, administration, maintenance and operating costs which are apportioned according to the amount of water used by each customer.

Ivan Langford

GCWA now employs some 50 people with an annual operating cost of approximately $25 million. Ivan Langford is now GCWA’s General Manager, with David Sauer serving as Assistant General Manager. The first general manager was Joe Wilhelm, followed by Gordon Myers and Robert Istre.

The acorn grew into a substantial tree which is watered by the municipalities, industries and agricultural business of Brazoria, Fort Bend and Galveston Counties from surface waters of the Trinity and Brazos Rivers of Texas.

The Honorable Charles B. Smith was one of the visionary founders of the concept for GCWA, and was one of its leaders before becoming a district court judge, took the idea of GCWA and pursued it tirelessly. He said it best when remarking that GCWA was a “wonderful example of private industry and government working together in the interest of community good. It could not be done without such cooperation, and in these days and times could not be duplicated. It is one-of-a-kind and invaluable.”*

Cost-effectiveness is always at the top of GCWA’s mind-set. The only higher priority is the quality of the water it produces, especially potable (drinking) water. It is not a taxing entity and only has a narrow and limited right of eminent domain. This is according to state law and GCWA’s legislative authority.

Readers are encouraged to read the original writings of Judge Charles B. Smith and others about the progressive, yet sometimes complex, history of GCWA. To pick up a copy e-mail Assistant@gcwater.org or call us at 409.935.2438. You may also drop by the main office located at 3630 Highway 1765 (Texas Avenue) in Texas City, Texas 77591. Visitors are welcome. You may schedule a visit by calling the above phone number.

Nancy Matthews

Nancy Matthews

This writer thanks Nancy Matthews, Quality Technical Specialist with GCWA, who had the fortune (or misfortune) of being assigned to this project. She withstood compiling a history, responding to the writer’s repeated inquiries, and arranging various meetings with William May, Joe Wilhelm and others, all key figures in composing this history.

Special thanks also goes to Curtiss Brown for his research and recovery of photos of Judge Smith and Senator A. R. “Babe” Schwartz.

A special employee, Mr. William Joseph May, born in 1920 (and sadly departed this life on January 24, 2013), worked for GCWA for over 66 years, and provided some guidance to this accounting of its history. Many of his comments below are a real-time narrative of history as he experienced it.

The words printed in italic are literal or edited quotes from Judge Charles B. Smith’s extensive writings about GCWA from its beginning through 1994.


Memorable quotes by Mr. William Joseph May:

“Sixty-six years, five months, fifteen days and eight hours…” Mr. May says about the length of his tenure with GCWA.

“I’ve been sold five times (during his work at GCWA) in 1945, 1950, 1952, 1969 and in 2006,” remarks May comically, explaining his feelings about growth by GCWA and his continued responsibility for his job.

William May