A Brief History of Lake Houston, the West Fork Mouth Bar and Attempts to Mobilize Dredging of It

Tim Garfield and RD Kissling, two of the world’s top geoscientists, happen to live in the Lake Houston Area. Both spent careers as highly placed executives for one of the world’s largest oil companies. Together, they have led the charge to raise awareness of the growing mouth bar on the West Fork of the San Jacinto where it meets Lake Houston. They have also lobbied long and hard with local leaders and the Army Corps to mobilize an effort to dredge the mouth bar.

On October 2, Garfield gave a presentation to the University of Houston Honors College. Debbie Z. Harwell, PhD, a history instructor at the college and editor of Houston History Magazine, organized the talk. Garfield summarized the history of Lake Houston, the West Fork Mouth Bar and attempts to mobilize a dredging program to remove the bar. The presentation is thoroughly researched and highly interesting. It focuses on the intersection of geologic and human history. Anyone interested in geology, flooding, history or politics should find it informative, fascinating and stimulating.

If you really want to learn what’s happening in the river and why, this is a must read.

You can download the entire 69-page presentation here. It’s titled “A Brief History of Lake Houston and the Hurricane Harvey Flood: The Combined Effects of Record Rain, Human Error and Predictable Geomorphic Processes.”

An Advancing Delta at Your Doorstep

The mouth bar is not just a giant sand bar at the mouth of the river. It’s part of an advancing delta system within the river and now the lake. Garfield and Kissling made careers out of studying deltas like this around the world. They point out that the delta’s growth is inevitable and the result of predictable geomorphic processes. All the more reason to take it seriously and plan for regular dredging to keep that channel open.

Yet attempts to remove the threat have largely been unsuccessful and largely for political reasons. The Corps did mount a nominal dredging program in July and August. But it was largely symbolic. They removed about 20-25% of what it would take to extend the upstream dredging channel through the mouth bar.

A post dredging survey shows that the Corps created an underwater box canyon that continues to slow down water and accelerate the deposition of sediment.

In fact, they left far more sediment behind than they dredged. Why? Was there some science to the decision to leave most of it in place? Have they made public a model for peer review that shows this was a good idea? In a word, NO!

Lack of Coherent Dredging Plan

Kissling and Garfield lament the lack of holistic understanding and a coherent dredging plan. I experienced this problem first hand. Before the Corps started dredging the mouth bar area, I requested their plans. The response I got shocked me. “Plans? What do you mean by plans?” That question came on the day of the deadline for processing my Freedom of Information Act request. I replied, “You know…plans…like the ones you shared for the first phase of dredging. Start points. Stop points. Channel widths. Depths. Objectives.” Twenty-three days later, they sent me a CD with 800 pages of uncatalogued information. Not one page dealt with plans. When I complained, they invited me to submit another FOIA request, saying that the first one had been closed out already. I declined their offer.

Clearly, they didn’t have a plan. Except to force the City to assume responsibility for dredging. The Corps and FEMA felt that if the City had done maintenance dredging years ago, the problem would not have become acute.

Since October of last year, the two sides (City and Corps/FEMA) have been playing a political ping pong match, each trying to get the other to dredge.

Post Script: Dredging Update

When contractors finished dredging 500,000 cubic yards from the mouth bar around Labor Day this year, they waited patiently for local authorities to come up with their own plan. Callan Marine got tired of waiting first. Their dredge was last seen weeks ago heading south on 59 in pieces on flatbed trucks.

Great Lakes Dredge and Dock had a dredge anchored at the mouth bar for six weeks. However, today, their dredge and booster pumps have been pulled back to the West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge.

A crane is dismantling the dredge enough to get it under the bridge and back to the command post. Great Lakes is demobilizing. That will leave no dredging equipment in the river.

As of Friday afternoon, according to Stephen Costello, the City filed another request with FEMA. The request was reportedly to allow the City to apply $9 million left over from its debris clean up budget from Harvey to additional debris removal. Unfortunately, going by past experience, remobilizing a dredging effort will cost far more than that.

Ironically, this latest development comes almost a year to the day after the so-called “Everybody-but-Trump” meeting in Austin. At that meeting, according to Houston City Council Member Dave Martin, both sides reached an agreement in principle to dredge the mouth bar.

Learn More at Town Hall Meeting This Thursday

It will be interesting to see what the City announces at its October Town Hall Meeting at the Kingwood Community Center this Thursday.

Be there. 6:30 PM. On the agenda:

  • Mayor Turner
  • Council Member Dave Martin
  • Stephen Costello, the City’s flood czar, to talk about dredging and dam improvements
  • SJRA’s Chuck Gilman to talk about status of the regional watershed study
  • Public Works and Coastal Water Authority to talk about dam repairs and lower lake levels for the next year
  • Houston Parks Board to talk about an extension of their Bayou Greenways Program south of Hamblen
  • And more

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/14/2019, with thanks to Tim Garfield and RD Kissling

776 Days since Hurricane Harvey