Scientific literature from around the world has identified both immediate and long-term risks associated with sand and gravel mining. These risks underscore the need for tighter regulation of the sand mining industry in Texas, where the industry does not follow best practices commonly accepted in other states and countries. Yet some miners here are pushing to start mining rivers (as opposed to flood plains where they mine now).
Why Don’t We Just Let Them Mine the River?
When looking at all the sediment in the San Jacinto, it’s logical to think, “Why don’t we just let sand miners mine the river?” However, many countries in the world have outlawed the practice of river mining, largely because of the dangers of over-mining. If Texas explores this solution, experience has shown that it should be under strict governmental supervision to prevent excesses which have widened rivers, damaged properties and destroyed the river environment elsewhere.
River mining differs from the type of remedial dredging that we are doing now. The objective for river mining is to maximize profit, which often means pushing limits. The motivation for dredging is to maximize profits by staying within the limits outlined by the client (i.e., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).
The Australian Experience with River Mining
In Australia, the government of New South Whales discussed many of these risks in “The NSW Sand and Gravel Extraction Policy for Non Tidal Rivers.” The executive summary (page 5) describes the situation we face today in the Houston region.
“Evidence of environmental problems associated with river sand and gravel extraction is increasing. So also is the community’s expectation of river systems. Future management decisions must be based on the principle of sustainable development – sustainability not only of the sand and gravel resources but also of other river uses and values.”
The discussion of risks begins with an admonishment. “Management of sand and gravel extraction must ensure that the activity does not conflict with the aims of other component policies.” For instance, they say that, “Wild and scenic rivers, wetlands and designated recreational areas are all places where sand and gravel extraction would have a highly visible and adverse impact. Extraction should not be considered in such areas.” (Sec. 6.1.1, Page 16.)
To that list, I personally would add, “The source of drinking water for millions of people.” A growing body of evidence collected by the Houston-Galveston Area Council suggests that alarming bacterial growth in the West Fork of the San Jacinto can be linked to excess sedimentation.
The Major Risks of River Mining
Other risks outlined by New South Whales include:
- “Excavation below water level disturbs fine grained sediments which are easily transported for long distances downstream.” (Section 6.1.2. Page 17.) In previous posts, we have seen how mining below the level of the San Jacinto river bed has contributed to the breach of dikes and the capture of sand pits during floods in our area.
- “Increased rates of river erosion and other channel changes can occur in the shorter term, due to both natural and human-induced changes. These changes include increases in the size, magnitude and frequency of floods…” (Sec. 6.1.3. Page 17.)
- “…excavation below existing bed level may be a direct cause of bank collapse.” (Sec. 6.1.4. Page 19.)
- “The potential for increased riverbed and bank erosion is especially important in rivers where there are a number of extraction sites. To date the cumulative effect of a large number of small operations has not been controlled.” (Sec. 6.1.4. Page 19.) This is especially true of the West Fork of the San Jacinto where we have approximately 20 square miles of sand mines between I-45 and U.S.59.
- “Most of the finer sediments (sand, silt and clay) released from erosion of alluvial banks will be transported downstream, often for considerable distances. Increased siltation in these downstream areas can cause problems to navigation … and adversely impact flooding in the area.” (Sec. 6.1.5. Pages 19-20.) The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found an increase in flood risk from sedimentation in its value engineering study on the West Fork last spring.
- “If extraction is below the riverbed level, groundwater recharge from rivers to floodplain aquifers may be severely reduced. This will impact adversely on bores and wells in the area.” (Sec. 6.1.6. Page 20.)
- “Extraction of river sand and gravel often involves direct clearing of vegetation (that stabilizes soil). … Construction of access tracks and processing sites associated with the extraction process can also involve clearing of vegetation.” (Sec. 6.1.7. Page 20.)
- “Suspended solids adversely affect many water users and ecosystems. They can significantly increase water treatment costs, especially where they act as a substrate for bacteria and so increase the problems and costs of disinfection in water treatment plants.” (Sec. 6.1.9. Page 20.)
- “There will be some rivers, however, where the value to other users will be such that extraction may need to be precluded. Similarly, where past extraction has over-taxed a river system, future extraction may need to be precluded until the river has recovered sufficiently, if it does so at all.” (Sec. 6.1.12. Page 22.)
What to Do
The Australian report then goes on to talk about the need for sand and gravel to support road building and economic growth. (Sec. 6.2).
Section 6.3 talks about alternative sources for sand and gravel.
Section 6.4 talks about governmental costs to monitor sand and gravel extraction.
Section 7 talks about guidelines for safe extraction when mining in rivers and how to crack down on illegal activity (something we desperately need to do here as well). Here they talk about the opportunity to involve community members as extra pairs of eyes and the need to enroll major purchases (such as TxDoT) in the enforcement effort.
Section 8 talks about permitting procedures.
Section 9 talks about performance measures and monitor programs. Here they have some novel measures that we could learn from. I especially like Section 9.3, Community Monitoring. Inputs include:
- Data collected by local community groups including extractors;
- Reports by local ‘care’ groups and riparian landowners;
- Reports by local environmental or recreational interest groups;
- Reports by local TCM Committees;
- Reports by local government.
Such an inclusive approach helps guarantee that the needs of various interest groups are balanced.
Australian Conclusions: A Cautionary Tale
Section 10, the Conclusion, says on page 36: “There are many natural causes which may increase the rate of riverbed and bank erosion. However, extraction of large amounts of sand and gravel from within the channels has exacerbated the situation in many rivers. Past experience in some areas of the State has shown that crisis point can be reached. In other areas, increasing conflict with other river uses has made extraction of sand and gravel a less viable option.”
If the State of Texas decides to permit river mining, I sincerely hope we can find a workable balance for the San Jacinto that protects everyone’s interests.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/5/2018
433 Days since Hurricane Harvey