To hear the City tell it, we’re days away from agreement to dredge 1.5 million cubic yards of the mouth bar. To hear Congressman Dan Crenshaw tell it, the permit application hasn’t even been filed yet.
So where do things really stand. A reader asked last weekend, whether the Houston Chronicle story about the meeting was accurate.
The Chronicle headline said, “Crenshaw frustrated with delayed application for federal funds to remove notorious Kingwood mouth bar.”
Specifically, the reader asked, “Based on your knowledge, is this factual (City of Houston dragging its feet) or just politicians pointing the finger at each other?”
Before I step into the cross-fire, let me say this. Officials have conducted most meetings on this subject behind closed doors. But I shall attempt to answer the reader’s question based on public statements and documents supplied by Houston City Council member Dave Martin and the Army Corps.
Mouth Bar Chronology
To answer the “Is it foot-dragging or finger-pointing” question, I need to go back to the period after Harvey and put this subject in a historical context. Foot dragging depends on where you want to start the clock ticking. So bear with me.
2017: Post Harvey Discovery and Early Efforts to Raise Awareness
September, 14, 2017 – Two weeks after Harvey, I photographed the mouth bar from a helicopter. In the next few months, I began calling attention to it and other sediment problems every way I could. They included this web site, newspaper articles, and testimony before Texas Senate and House committees. At the House Natural Resources Committee hearing at the GRB, Dave Martin was present.
Early 2018: Early Efforts to Forge Political Consensus
- February of 2018 – Houston City Council Member Dave Martin began calling Governor Greg Abbott for help on an almost daily basis.
- March 6, 2018 – Mayor Sylvester Turner announced at a Kingwood Town Hall meeting that he had on that same day spoken to Governor Greg Abbott about the urgent need to remove sediment from the San Jacinto River.
- March, 15, 2018 – Governor Abbott visited Kingwood, took an aerial tour of the East and West Forks of the San Jacinto and met with local officials. After the meeting, he announced that, using Hazard Mitigation Funds, he was authorizing the Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM) to spend $3 million to jumpstart the engineering and permitting process to determine where dredging should take place on the San Jacinto River.
- April. 6, 2018 – An Army Corps sonar-equipped boat began surveying a five-mile area between Hwy 69/59 and West Lake Houston Parkway.
- April 10, 2018 – The Army Corps announced that it had completed the first leg of its survey of West Fork sedimentation.
- May 9, 2018 – The Corps announced that it had completed the value engineering phase of its Emergency West Fork Dredging Program.
- May 28, 2018 – DRC (under a contract with the City of Houston) began removing debris from Lake Houston to clear the way for dredging.
Mid-2018: Mouth Bar Excluded from Scope, Scramble to Identify Solutions
- May 30, 2018 – The Army Corps announced the scope of its dredging program, was a mere 2.1 miles from River Grove Park to a little east of the West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge. Shocked, concerned residents begin to ask questions about the omission of the mouth bar. The struggle to include it began then. Phone calls and meetings with Corps representatives revealed that the Corps’ main concern was that part of the bar existed BEFORE Harvey. They said that under the Stafford Act, they could only address sediment deposited DURING Harvey. The Stafford Act is the enabling legislation for FEMA. This set the stage for the conflict still at the center of this controversy.
- June 12 2018 – The Lake Houston Area Chamber and Grass Roots Flood Prevention Initiative began to focus on priorities for the upcoming flood bond vote scheduled for August 25. It became clear that additional dredging would have to be including in the flood bond.
- June 22, 2018 – The Army Corps opened bids on the dredging project, but delayed an announcement of the winner because of a wide variation in the amounts. They immediately began vetting the bids.
- July 6, 2018 – The Army Corps award the job to Great Lakes Dredge and Dock.
Second Half 2018: Effort to Save $18 million
- July 19, 2018 – Mobilization for the project officially started. About this time, it became clear that mobilization represented 25% of the total cost of the $70,000,000 job, or about $18 million. If the dredging scope could be extended BEFORE the end of “Phase 1,” taxpayers could save the cost of a massive REmobilization for a second, separate project.
- July 26, 2018 – Members of the Lake Houston Area Flood Prevention initiative meet with County Judge Ed Emmett to discuss priorities for the upcoming flood bond including additional dredging for the mouth bar.
- July 27, 2018 – Tim Garfield and R.D. Kissling, two retired top geologists for a major oil company publish a paper describing why the mouth bar should be included in the scope of dredging.
- August 9, 2018 – Houston City Council Member Dave Martin holds a meeting to line up the support of Senators Cruz and Cornyn for extending dredging to the mouth bar.
- August 21, 2018 – Lake Houston Area Grass Roots Flood Prevention Group meets with Ted Poe to urge extension of dredging.
- August 25, 2018 – Harris County voters approved a flood bond package that included money to extend dredging.
Late 2018: Countdown Clock Keeps Ticking
- September 18, 2018 – The first dredge moved into position.
- October 9, 2018 – At a Town Hall Meeting, Council Member Martin and Mayor Turner announced a meeting to be held in Austin on October 11. Purpose: to determine how to get the mouth bar included in the scope of the current dredging project to save $18 million.
- October 11, 2018 – All parties reach agreement in principle to dredge the mouth bar at the famous “Everybody but Trump” meeting in Austin. Costello’s conference report indicates that USACE was to analyze the most recent LIDAR and bathymetric data to determine the total volume of Harvey-deposited debris in the area and evaluate its inclusion into the ongoing operation.
- October 16, 2018 – Second dredge reaches its start position near River Grove Park.
- December 10, 2018 – TDEM, FEMA and US Army Corps met with City and Harris County Flood Control. Costello says the Corps told him that they could NOT determine, with any level of accuracy, the volume of material deposited near the mouth bar by Harvey. The City also agreed to meet with the Corps to outline a plan of action.
- December 14, 2018 – According to Costello’s same notes, the Corps recommended that the City contract Dr. Tim Dellapenna, a professor of geomorphology at Texas A&M Galveston. The Corps suggested he could analyze core samples for color and consistency to see if he could find layering traceable to Harvey. As of Jan. 8, 2019, the City still had not finalized a contract with Dellapena.
Storage Permit Controversy and Delays
Costello’s notes on the December 14th meeting also indicate that he had applied to the Corps for a permit to dispose of the dredged material. “A nationwide permit was submitted and subsequently denied by the USACE. We are meeting with all parties involved to discuss the next course of action required to obtain the necessary permits,” says the letter.
It would be another FOUR months before this meeting happened…by conference call.
A confidential source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, indicates a difference of opinion about the permit application. The source says the permit application, filed sometime in November of 2018, was NOT DENIED and that the Corps simply requested more information.
The City still has NOT supplied the additional information, nor has it reapplied for the permit.
Specifically, the Corps wanted to know how much material would be excavated, where it would be stored on the landowner’s property, whether there were any mitigation requirements, and whether there were alternative disposal sites in case the primary site proved unacceptable for some reason. There was also some confusion over the type of nationwide permit (NWP) requested. According to one source, the permit requested was for drying/dewatering the spoils and then hauling them off-site. However, the landowner wanted to keep the fill and use it to raise the level of his property.
On January 14, 2019, Costello told a group of Lake Houston Area leaders that he hoped to be taking core samples “tomorrow afternoon” and have results by the end of January. That did not happen.
It since has become clear that Costello met with TDEM Chief Nim Kidd on February 6th to discuss his data acquisition plan. He summarized it in a memo dated February 8th titled Lake Houston Dredging Analysis Workplan. The plan included three stages:
- Using a high frequency “Chirp-type” acoustic sub-bottom profiler data-acquisition tool
- Core sampling
- Sediment analysis
Note that on five other occasions between mid-January or mid-March, Costello told people that the City would be taking core samples “tomorrow afternoon.” Martin says they finally took the core samples the week before the March 21st town hall meeting.
No explanation was given for these delays. With $18 million dollars in remobilization fees at stake, no one ever even acknowledged the delays.
Core Sample Results
The results that Costello reported at the town hall meeting – $1.5 billion cubic yards – were preliminary estimates. At the meeting, Costello said he expected the final number “tomorrow afternoon” (there’s that phrase again) and that he would send the final report to FEMA no later than Monday, March 25. He vowed to refile an amended permit with the Corps by Friday, March 29. As of 5PM Monday, Costello still has not replied to inquires about whether he transmitted the results to FEMA.
Remember, there are two issues: FEMA controls funding; the Corps controls permitting for the storage.
Note that FEMA wants to limit funding to Harvey-related damage only; but the Corps is looking for a disposal site that could hold far more sediment, i.e., for pre-Harvey material. Other sources (City, County, State) could fund removal of pre-Harvey sediment to restore the full conveyance of the river. Having one site that could handle everything could save considerable permitting work.
Also lost in the Town Hall political pep rally was the fact that the Corps volunteered to prescreen the application to make sure it was complete and that the the city filed the right type of nationwide permit this time.
When the City says “We are moving as fast as humanly possible,” that sounds like a bit of exaggeration. It took the City four months to acquire the core samples needed to determine the Pre-Harvey volume of the mouth bar. Ultimately, they did it in an afternoon when facing the deadline of last week’s town hall meeting.
Next Steps vs. Deadline to Save $18 Million
So will the City be able to save the $18 million. The current dredging program is due to demobilize in a little more than a month, at the end of April. Before then:
- FEMA must rule on findings of the core sampling before it can fund the mouth bar project (or at least the initial phase of it).
- Several parties must audit any grant.
- City must refile the correct type of permit with additional information.
- Corps must review and comment.
- Corps must hold a 30-day public comment period by Federal law.
- Corps must issue final ruling on permit application.
That looks like at least several months worth of work.. So no, it doesn’t look like the City will be able to save taxpayers $18 million unless they can pull off a miracle.
Is the City moving “as fast as humanly possible?” as one city official said at the Town Hall meeting last week.
You be the judge. How long this has taken depends on where you want to start the clock ticking. It’s not as clear as either side would have you believe. Still there are huge gaps in the timetable that need to be explained to the public…especially if we lose $18 million.
Late-Breaking News: Huberty Amendment to CSSB 500 on Mouth Bar
Meanwhile, State Representative Dan Huberty filed this amendment to CSSB 500 on March 22. It would provide $30 million for dredging the mouth bar. (CSSB stands for Committee Substitute Senate Bill. SB 500 is an omnibus spending bill approved by the Senate, now being considered in the Texas House as CSSB 500.) That money, if approved, could go a long way toward dredging the portion of the mouth bar that FEMA doesn’t fund and the rest of the West Fork.
Posted by Bob Rehak on March 25, 2019
573 Days since Hurricane Harvey