In three years of writing about flooding, this is one of the most dramatic case studies I have seen about the value of wetlands. It starts with a developer clearing wetlands and ends with the developer at war with a neighboring town.
Wetlands as Protectors
Michael Shrader lived in a modest home in Plum Grove in Liberty County. It was an idyllic, rural lifestyle in many ways. He did tech work remotely while raising animals on his small plot of land near the East Fork of the San Jacinto and Maple Branch. Shrader never flooded for the first 29 years he lived in Plum Grove despite living on a creek. Not in 1994. Not in Allison. Not in Rita. And not in Ike.
Forests filled with wetlands surrounded him. Water ponded during heavy rains. Much of it soaked in and was absorbed by tree roots. The creeks ran clear.
Before Colony Ridge
In this 2008 Google Earth image, you can see the vibrant greens. And if you look closely enough on a desktop display, you can even see the ponds and wetlands east of FM1010.
For those reading on smaller displays, here’s the same image, but with data from the US Fish and Wildlife Service National Wetlands Inventory superimposed.
Then Came the Bulldozers
In 2016, the developer of Colony Ridge started clearing land and replacing wetlands with ditches that fed into Maple Branch. It runs right behind Shrader’s home. As the developer filled in more and more of the wetlands, water started getting higher in the creek after every rain, according to Shrader. Harvey, May 7th, Imelda: those were the high-water marks. And the low points in Shrader’s life. He flooded all three times.
By last year, the developer had replaced virtually all the wetlands by this.
Since the satellite image above was taken, even more forests and wetlands farther east and north have been replaced by what is now the world’s largest trailer park.
With the wetlands gone, Shrader’s house flooded in 2017 during Harvey (admittedly an extreme event), and twice in 2019. Not only did his house flood, so did most of Plum Grove, including the City Hall. Now, Shrader says, many homes are vacant.
The fence below, immediately downstream from the Camino Real Subdivision in Colony Ridge, was pushed over three times by the increased flow of floodwaters coming down Maple Branch. The owners of the red-roofed house bought this property just before the first of three floods.
The Domino Effect
To make matters worse:
- According to the TCEQ and residents, creeks have filled with sediment because of the developer’s management practices.
- FM1010, a major access road for Plum Grove residents, has washed out because of uncontrolled stormwater from the development.
- The developer sued the woman who is now Mayor for claiming he filled in wetlands (then lost the suit and had to pay her legal fees).
- I have photographed sewage bubbling up out of the ground, most likely caused when shifting soils broke sewage pipes.
- TCEQ has documented repeated raw sewage leaks into the surrounding environment.
- City of Plum Grove is suing the developer for floodwater trespass and sewage leaks.
- Plum Grove has experienced a population loss.
- At least one investigative journalist is exploring alleged predatory lending practices.
- Allegations of corruption in Liberty County politics abound.
- Commissioner’s Court and City Council meetings have degenerated into heated shouting matches.
Sadly, a little more respect for Mother Nature could have easily prevented all that trouble for the developer. One wonders whether the engineers and environmental consultants whom he hired to obtain permits served him well.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/22/2020
1050 Days after Hurricane Harvey and 398 since Imelda
The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.