Montgomery County Floodplain Management Regulations Affecting Sand Mines: Are They Being Enforced?

A friend called my attention to Montgomery County Floodplain Management Regulations.  These regulations govern permitting of sand mines in the county. The thoughts are great. But are the regulations being enforced? Are they actually protecting the people of Montgomery County and residents downstream? You be the judge.

Findings of Fact

The regulations start out with “Findings of Fact.” They state on page 4:

“The flood hazard areas of Montgomery County are subject to periodic inundation, which results in loss of life and property, health and safety hazards, disruption of commerce and governmental services, and extraordinary public expenditures for flood protection and relief, all of which adversely affect the public health, safety and general welfare.” Also…

“These flood losses are created by the cumulative effect of obstructions in flood plains which cause an increase in flood heights and velocities, and by the occupancy of flood hazard areas by uses vulnerable to floods and hazardous to other lands because they are inadequately elevated, flood-proofed or otherwise protected from flood damage.”

When they wrote that last statement, they may not have anticipated the specific problem of the giant sandbar at the mouth of the San Jacinto River, but it certainly applies. The bar is backing water up throughout Humble, Kingwood and Atascocita,  and it was created – in part – with sand that came from mines built in the West Fork floodway.

The second part of that last statement about “inadequately elevated, flood-proofed or otherwise protected from flood damage” also applies.  Common-sense best management practices required in other states could have helped protect us. Those include moving mines out of the floodway, not mining below the thalweg, greater setbacks from the river, wider dikes with more gradual slopes, replanting areas already mined, and more. If only those BMPs were practiced here!

Statement of Purpose

Also on page 4, the next section, “Statement of Purpose,” says, “It is the purpose of these regulations to promote the public health, safety and general welfare and to minimize public and private losses due to flood conditions in specific areas by provisions designed to: 

  1. Protect human life and health; 
  2. Minimize expenditure of public money for costly flood control projects; 
  3. Minimize the need for rescue and relief efforts associated with flooding and generally undertaken at the expense of the general public; 
  4. Minimize prolonged business interruptions; 
  5. Minimize damage to public facilities and utilities such as water and gas mains, electric, telephone and sewer lines, streets and bridges located in flood plains

Just downstream from River Grove Park in Kingwood, a new sandbar has formed on the west fork of the San Jacinto. Boats that draw 18 inches of water can no longer navigate upstream (foreground) past this sandbar.

Primary Threat of Sand Mining

The primary threat from sand mines is sand and sediment that washes out of the mines during floods and accelerates the natural rate of sedimentation. Sand mine pits probably lower floods within THEIR local area by a small amount. No argument there.

However, when the West Fork of the San Jacinto River captures the pits (as it has done repeatedly), large volumes of sediment can be swept downstream and contribute to flooding elsewhere. The professional engineer that certified the development plans of these sand mines should have anticipated this, especially downstream of the Lake Conroe Dam.

Google Earth shows many instances of river capture and not just in Harvey. Much smaller floods have captured pits, too. These repeated captures are caused by building mines in floodways, excavating too close to the river, and using dikes/levees that are insufficient to withstand the volume of floodwaters – especially when the San Jacinto River Authority releases water from the Lake Conroe Dam. Additionally, mines sometimes increase the height of their levees by piling up sand in a way that constricts the floodway.

As You Review these Regulations…

I reviewed these regulations as I thought about the thousands of homes and businesses flooded downstream from the mines, partially as a result of massive sand bars that that blocked drainage ditches and the river itself (see photo above).

Clearly, not all of that sand came from mines, but some did. I flashed on the City Sewage Facility that was inundated, the loss of six buildings at Kingwood College that were contaminated by that sewage, and the $70 million taxpayers will spend on a dredging project…that doesn’t even address the biggest sand blockage on the river.

The most obvious areas to explore for permit violations include:

Article IV

  • Sec (B)(2) Ensure that the proposed … site … will be reasonably safe from flooding (page 15)
  • Sec (C)(2)(c)  Consider the danger that materials may be swept onto other lands to the injury of others. (Page 17)
  • Sec (C)(2)(f) Consider the costs of providing governmental services during and after flood conditions including maintenance and repair of streets and bridges, and public utilities and facilities such as sewer, gas, electrical and water systems. (Page 17)
  • Sec (C)(2)(g) Consider the expected heights, velocity, duration, rate of rise and sediment transport of the floodwaters and the effects of wave action, if applicable, expected at the site. (Page 17)
  • Sec (C)(2)(c) Permits should be denied if there’s a danger that materials could be swept onto other lands to the injury of others. (Page 17)
  • Sec (D)(2)(b) Variances shall not result in increased flood heights, threats to public safety, extraordinary public expense, create a nuisance or victimize the public. (Page 18)
  • Sec (D)(10) Any person or persons aggrieved by the decision of the Commissioners Court may appeal such decision in a court of competent jurisdiction. (Page 19)

Article V

  • Sec (A)(2) All improvements shall be constructed by methods and practices that minimize flood damage. (Page 21)
  • Sec (A)(8) An engineer must certify that the proposed excavation will have no adverse impact to the drainage on, from or through adjacent properties. (Page 21)

Article VI

  • Sec (E)(1) Permits can be revoked in cases where there has been a false statement or misrepresentation. (Page 27)
  • Sec (E)(5) Violators can be fined $100 per day for each violation. (One of those dikes remained open for 3 years and another for 8!) (Page 28)
  • Sec (E)(7) A permit holder in violation may be forced to restore property to pre-existing conditions. (Page 28)
To read the complete regulations, click here. As stated on pg 26,  SECTION F. EXEMPTIONS (5)  Commercial mining and dredging are not exempt and must have a professional engineer certify the development plans of sand mines. Therefore, one would expect that the engineer would have evaluated sediment transport from the mines and the potentially increased risk of downstream flooding – especially downstream of the Lake Conroe Dam.
As always, these are my opinions on matters of public policy, protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statutes of the great State of Texas.
Posted August 6, 2018 by Bob Rehak
342 Days since Hurricane Harvey