Tag Archive for: balcom

Erosion: Sometimes Sudden

Erosion can sometimes be sudden. It’s not always a slow process of water grinding away at dirt and dissolving it, or wearing down rocks. This post will examine several examples around us and look at their implications. I intend it as a continuation of yesterday’s post about ditch maintenance.

The Northpark Woods development (right) on the West Fork San Jacinto River (background)

There are four main types of erosion.

  • Hydraulic action – When rapidly moving water churns against river banks and scours or undermines them.
  • Abrasion – Caused by small pebbles moving along a river bank or bed and knocking other particles loose. Think of sandpaper.
  • Attrition – When rocks carried by the river knock against each other. They break apart to become smaller and more rounded. This is how boulders turn into gravel.
  • Solution – When water dissolves certain types of rocks, for example limestone. We often see this in Florida, where sinkholes frequently develop.

Most of these processes happen slowly. But the first can be sudden. One storm. One flood. And boom. That river bank where you used to sit and quietly contemplate nature is gone.

Now You See It; Now You Don’t

Sometimes large slabs of a river bank or ditch suddenly slump into a river, almost like mini landslides. One flood expert commented on the picture above; he said “The owners of those new homes may suddenly find the ditch in their backyards.”

At other times, the size of a flood forces a river to widen. We saw this during Harvey and Imelda. The relentless pounding of flood waters carries away everything in their path. Cutbanks (the outside of a river bend) are especially vulnerable. Water slams directly into them like a firehose and washes them away. This action actually changes the course of a river over time.

Most of the time, it happens so slowly, we barely notice it. But during large floods, it’s sometimes sudden, large, and devastating to homeowners or businesses near rivers.

Three More Examples of Hydraulic Action

Example A: East End Park
East End Park in Kingwood. In 2019, the San Jacinto East Fork removed approximately 50-100 feet of river bank during Imelda, including this part of the Overlook Trail.
Example B: Balcom House and River Migration
Note a long peninsula south of the Balcom House on the San Jacinto West Fork before Hurricane Harvey.
After one monster storm, the peninsula was gone. The Balcoms lost 175 feet of riverfront property.
Example C: River Aggregate Mine on West Fork in Porter

The third example comes from the abandoned River Aggregates sand mine beyond the new development in the first picture above. It’s a spectacular example of river migration.

In this case, the San Jacinto West Fork migrated 258 feet toward the mine’s dike in 23 years. When I first photographed the dike after Harvey, the river had eaten away an average of 12.4 feet per year. At the time, the dike was only 38 feet wide, and I predicted it could soon fail. It did. Within approximately a year.

Image taken on 9/14/2017, shortly after Hurricane Harvey. At the time, only 38 feet stood between the abandoned mine in the background that the San Jacinto west fork in the foreground.
Note how the pond in the foreground disappeared when the river took the last 38 feet of river bank.

Wait a minute, you say! What happened to the pond. After the river bank collapsed, the pond drained, exposing sediment already within it. And the action of draining concentrated more sediment in it, like all the remnants of food trapped in your sink drain after you’re done washing dishes.

History of Pond

The missing, shallow pond in the foreground above used to be the settling pond for River Aggregates.

This satellite image from 2004 shows that River Aggregates used the missing pond as a settling pond.
This is how the mine looked in 2017 after River Aggregates abandoned it. Note river bank is still intact.
This is how the abandoned mine looked in January of 2019. The river bank was gone. The pond had drained. And a steady stream of silty water from other ponds leaked into the West Fork.

Here’s how it looks today from a helicopter.

River Aggregates mine now leaks a steady stream of silty water into the West Fork San Jacinto. This is the same area as above, but from the reverse angle.

Lessons of Life Near a River

Most people never live long enough to see massive changes such as these in rivers. In most places, river change happens on a geologic time scale. But along the Gulf Coast, hurricanes can create floods that make rivers change on a human time scale, as these examples have shown.

What can we deduce from this?

  1. Around here, we need to give rivers room to roam. Parks, green spaces, and golf courses, often represent the highest and best use of land near a river, bayou or ditch.
  2. Building too close to rivers, bayous and drainage ditches can be costly. Disturbing wetlands and topsoil accelerates erosion. That, in turn, can threaten everything in its path. Be prepared to maintain anything you build near a watercourse, including the watercourse itself. And be prepared to fight what ultimately becomes a losing battle.
  3. We need greater separation between mines and the San Jacinto riverKeep mines out of the meander belt. They worsen downstream sedimentation. And as we have seen, that can contribute to sediment build ups that require public money to remove. The alternative, leaving them in place, contributes to flooding.

Here’s a current list of ditch maintenance projects in the Kingwood area.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/18/2020

993 Days since Hurricane Harvey

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.

Houston Planning Commission defers approval of “Orchard Seeded Ranches”

In a meeting today, the Houston Planning Commission deferred automatic approval of the general plan for Orchard Seeded Ranches by taking the item off the consent agenda. The Commission then asked the developer to consult with the City Engineer; the Planning and Development Department; and Harris County Flood Control before bringing further requests back to the Commission.

Taking the item off today’s consent agenda should send a strong signal to the developer that rough waters lie ahead. Any proposal will likely be debated publicly when/if the developer returns.

History of Project

Last year, Romerica filed a permit application to build 5,000 condos and several high-rises up to 50 stories tall on 331 acres near the floodway of the San Jacinto West Fork. After a record number of people and groups filed protests with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Corps withdrew the application. But now the developer is back – with a different name – Orchard Seeded Ranches. However, Harris County Appraisal District indicates that the same people still own the land.

Location of Property

The property is identical to the property Romerica tried to develop as The Herons of Kingwood last year. The General Plan below was downloaded from the City of Houston’s PlatTracker website.

plat of orchard seeded ranches
General Plan of Orchard Seeded Ranches in Kingwood filed on 4/20/2020. For high-resolution, printable PDF, click here.

For orientation, the developed area in the middle is the Barrington. The line down the west side is Woodland Hills Drive. And the river at the bottom is the West Fork.

Filing a “general plan” like this is the first step in developing property. The developer has not yet submitted detailed plats showing construction details.

Virtually Entire Development in Floodway or Floodplain

About half of the Orchard Seeded Ranches lies in the floodway of the San Jacinto West Fork. FEMA defines floodways as the main current of a river during a flood. In the map below, that includes everything beneath the red line.

Purple area = Orchard Seeded Ranches. Red line = extent of floodway north of San Jacinto West Fork. Virtually half of subdivision would be in floodway.

Virtually all of the purple area above the red line lies in the floodplain. FEMA defines a floodplain as “storage” for water during a flood. That means water covers the land without moving rapidly.

I created the map above by combining the area to be developed with the FEMA flood map below.

From FEMA National Flood Hazard Layer Viewer. Orchard Seeded Ranches is in middle. Virtually the entire project lies in floodway (crosshatched) or 100-year floodplain (aqua).

Wetlands Issues Also Abound

Every part of the proposed development contains wetlands to some extent.

Note how the areas around the Barrington and River Grove Park are filled with wetlands (green areas). From US Fish and Wildlife Service National Wetlands Mapper.
Active bald eagle nest on Kingwood Country Club Property adjacent to Romerica's planned high rise marina.
Active bald eagle nest adjacent to development. Photo courtesy of Emily Murphy.

US Fish and Wildlife documented another eagle’s nest on the developer’s property. And the Balcom family, which lives near the western edge of the developer’s property, regularly photographs eagles from their balcony.

What’s in a Name

The name sounds as if the development would be lower density than the 50-story high-rises previously planned. But you never know. In the development business, names often have more evocative than literal significance. Look at the Houston Heights. Bridgeland (on the prairie). Mount Houston. You get the idea.

Community Considerations

Whatever the development is, when and if the developer returns to the Planning Commission, we should not forget that:

High water during Harvey at Balcom house on River Bend reached the second story.

A Less Risky, Less Costly Alternative

All of these factors will increase the risk and cost of any development.

Light pole near River Bend in North Shore as Harvey receded. Note the "wet marks" several feet up on pole. Photo by Jim Balcom.
Light pole near River Bend in North Shore as Harvey receded. Note the “wet marks” several feet up on pole. Photo by Jim Balcom.

The safest, sanest course for the developer – before putting more money at risk –would be to meet with community representatives about:

  • Purchasing this land
  • Putting a conservation easement on it
  • Letting it revert to nature and turning it into park land

Harris County Flood Control District has $175 million allocated in the flood bond for partnership projects with “Municipalities, Authorities, and Other Districts in Harris County.” See item Z100-00-00-MUNI.

That money could help purchase such property and turn it into green space forever. KSA, the Lake Houston Chamber, civic leaders and residents should get behind that idea. Judging by the response to Romerica’s last offering, it’s clear that residents would much rather see this area turned into parks than see the San Jacinto turn it into blight.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/30/2020

975 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Jim & Melissa Balcom’s Hurricane Harvey Story: A Cautionary Tale

Interview by Bob Rehak

Jim and Melissa Balcom live in a spectacular three-story home built on pylons 12 feet above the ground and 20 feet above the San Jacinto West Fork. Their home fronts on the north bank immediately west of River Grove Park. They named one son River, another Talon (like the eagles that perch outside their windows), and their dog Rio. To say they love the river lifestyle would be an understatement. But they admit it comes with a high level of anxiety. Jim, who is a contractor, built the house himself on property that Melissa’s father owned for decades. Jim wrangled with the City of Houston and FEMA for TWO YEARS over permits. 

Their home now sits about 125 feet from the West Fork. Before Harvey, it was 300 feet. The flood eroded a peninsula and small channel between them and the river. The peninsula used to have a thick stand of trees on it. They’re all gone now. Harvey gave the Balcoms a spectacular view, but it also gave them a constant reminder of the river’s terrifying power.

I interviewed the Balcoms on December 30, 2018, as the river was coming out of its banks for the fifth time last year. 

Permitting Gauntlet and Post-Harvey Repairs

Rehak: You have a beautiful property here. Tell me the history.

Jim: Back in 2007, we started the permitting process through the city and FEMA. We went back and forth with them for two years. They were trying to shut down all building in the floodway and there was a huge lawsuit over it. But since we were in the process before they passed the ordinance about not building in the floodway, they let us finish. But dealing with them was very hard. I always tell people that if you want to buy property out here, you better look into it first. 

It’s very soft sand down here. The engineer told us we would have to go 25 feet down to go 25 feet up with pylons. It’s flooding now at a rate that’s 10 times normal. (Pointing to the rising water) A few more feet and we have to pack our bags and get out of here!

The Encroaching River

Melissa: Before Harvey, there used to be a giant bank of trees just off our property that formed a little canal. You couldn’t even see the river. Harvey took all that out.  

Aerial photo of Balcom property taken two weeks after Harvey.

That peninsula went all the way down to River Grove Park.

Note peninsula along north side of river before Harvey. Now you see it…
After Harvey, now you don’t see it. The peninsula eroded away, leaving the Balcoms almost two hundred feet closer to the river.

Melissa: Now it’s all gone.

Jim: We decided we were going to move in here and we were committed. Our house is all steel framing. We have a hundred yards of concrete in the foundation. The first finished floor is 20 feet above the normal river level, but we still had one foot in the house, which is about where that window ledge is. 

Harvey floodwaters came up more than 20 feet to the bottom of the Balcom’s window ledge.

Pre-Harvey Prep 

Rehak: Tell me about your prep before Harvey. You knew it was coming.

Melissa: We were ready to evacuate. We had our bags packed and were ready to go. We’d put everything up. At 3 a.m., we got a call from a friend in Conroe telling us about the dam release. So, we threw our bags in the truck and rushed over to another friend’s house in Trailwood. Our goal was just to get out. We thought the water would go under the house and everything would be fine. 

That Sinking Feeling

Melissa: But before you knew it, our Trailwood friends were starting to flood.Their house had neverflooded. Then we’re in a panic trying to help them save their house…which is not on stilts. Then we heard that there was water in Kingwood high school and we knew that our house was flooded, because if water got in the high school, it’s high enough to flood us.

Disappearing Neighborhood

Jim: This neighborhood is slowly going away. Pretty soon, it won’t be here. There used to be a hundred homes here. Then it went down to 60 after the ’94 flood. Then 50. Now we’re down to 25. That house on the corner has water in it every time it floods. I don’t even know how they’re surviving. 

Melissa: We moved here because my dad owned the lot for a long time. He’s a CPA by trade and does contracting as a hobby, too, so it was fun to think about building this kind of house. But it took six years to build. Everything took exponentially longer than it would to build a regular house.

Engineering Challenge

Jim: We had to go 25 feet down before we got to any kind of stable ground. The engineer I used was from Galveston. There, they only go 10 feet down. Sometimes less.

He designed an 18-inch solid slab, with three layers of rebar and grade beams around the edge. It all ties into the pylons. We have 4×16 steel beams. It also has an 8-inch thick concrete stairwell in the center. Everything at ground level is designed to let the water flow through, like these louvered shutters.

Rehak: How did you determine the height of the first floor?

Jim: We built this house three feet higher than FEMA required. 

Melissa: It was based on the ‘94 flood. 

Jim: Downstairs, the slab is at 50 feet elevation. 56 is the height of the spillway at the dam. The water elevation is normally at 42.5. Our finished floor was 14 feet above the slab, or 64 feet. We thought we were smart to do that. But still, with all of that, we had a foot of water in the first finished floor. From the ground to where the water came was 15 feet.

So at this spot, the flood reached 65 feet.

A subtle reminder and conversation starter, the Balcoms painted this high water mark next to their front door.

Melissa: The neighbor’s house is set lower than ours. She had eight feet of water in hers. Hers was built 20 years before ours, so FEMA wasn’t requiring what they’re requiring now. 

Rehak: So, they’re not permitting anything down here anymore? 

Jim: After we got our permit, they tried to shut everything down. They let the people who had already applied continue. Then they tried to shut down all floodway permits, but later pulled back on that.

A Home’s Value

Melissa: You may have noticed the for-sale sign down the block. That lot has been for sale the entire time we have lived here. People come out here and they look at it and say, “Wow, look at this. This is really beautiful. It’s great. Then when they go to get the permit, it’s impossible to get because of the location.

Rehak: Is it impossible or just cost prohibitive?

Jim: It took us two years of steady work with the city. Then they said, OK, now you have to get FEMA’s approval. They did everything they could to talk us out of it. It was just one thing after another – endless stuff you had to do. And that was before Harvey when things were flowing better around here. 

Rehak: So, having gone through all that, living in this gorgeous house with this gorgeous view, is it worth it in your opinion? Would you do it all over again?

Melissa: NO!

Rehak: (Laughing) That was pretty quick.

Jim: It’s really scary to think you could lose your home. 

Melissa: We will never be able to sell our house. It’s worth only what its value is to us. We can’t say, “OK, well let’s move.” There’s no way to get out of the house what we put into it. That’s because of Harvey.

Changes in River Behavior

Jim: We don’t know that for sure. I think anywhere on a waterway, you’re at risk. But what’s bad for us at this point is that it keeps flooding and keeps leaving mud in the yard and it didn’t used to do that. We’ve lived here for a long time. Every once in a while, water would come up in the yard, but nothing like it does now.

Rehak: In the eight years before Harvey that you lived here, how often did the water come up?

Melissa: Three times that we had to leave and go stay in a hotel. At 48 feet, the river starts to get in our yard. Anything over 50 feet, that’s when we have to leave to get our stuff out safely. 

Receding floodwater after Harvey

Endless Mud and Dead Trees

Rehak: What was involved in the cleanup?

After Harvey, sediment covered the stairs up to the second floor. Two to three feet covered the ground.

Melissa: After Harvey there were two to three feet of sediment underneath our house. We had to get a bulldozer and push it all over the yard. Harvey destroyed a houseboat and another house just up the canal from us and left debris all over our yard. Then there were all the trees that fell. We had to pick those up, too. 

Jim: We lost several 100-foot pine trees. They’re dying left and right from all the silt that the flood left on top of everything. 

Part of the tree tangle that the Balcoms had to clear from their property after Harvey

Melissa: That was the biggest part of the cleanup. The dirt everywhere. It gets in your house. 

Rehak: How long did it take you to clean up after the flood?

Jim: We’re still cleaning. With this recent flooding, there are so many branches and so much mud, it’s hard to really get it cleaned up completely.

Eagles Outside Your Living Room

Rehak: You said there were eagles living around here. Tell me about that.

Jim: Lately, we’ve had them flying nearby. Two weeks ago, we had two full grown eagles fly into the tree behind the house. White headed. Full grown. We’ve seen them several times. 

Rehak: Are you concerned about the impact of high rises on wildlife?

Soil Like Baby Powder in a Glass of Water

Jim: Yes, but a bigger concern is people’s safety. After spending two years to get a permit for this house, I can’t imagine how they would get a permit for all of that. The river is out of control. The flooding is out of control.  And then to build a road! The soil is so unstable. It’s like if you poured baby powder in a glass of water. If you’re not from around here, you can’t imagine what it’s like.  They would have to put in pylons. It would cost a billion dollars to do that. I can’t imagine how much money that would cost. 

Untamed Nature

Rehak: Still, you chose to live here.

Jim: My son caught a 44-pound catfish right on that bank when he was ten. We have eagles perching outside our living room window.

Pair of adult Bald Eagles perched in tree outside Balcom’s window.

Rehak: You are big nature people. If you take the anxiety of the flooding away, are you still happy you live here?

Melissa: Oh, absolutely.

Jim: We have the most unique house around. In some ways were the lucky ones. But we’re also the unlucky ones, too. In normal conditions, prior to Harvey, the water would get in the yard occasionally. But we never had to evacuate until the Tax-Day flood, the Memorial-Day flood, and Harvey. And those were followed by five more floods this year!

Future of North-Shore Area: Increasing Isolation

Rehak: What do you see as the future down here.

Jim: I feel like eventually were going to be one of the few remaining here.

Rehak: You’re becoming increasingly isolated. Is that good or bad?

Jim: We like the isolation, but I feel that we’re really at risk because of the river. We could lose everything we have.

Visual warning to high-rise developers. Photo taken by Jim Balcom near River Bend during Harvey. Note wet marks on pole. Water was actually several feet higher than shown here.

Melissa: We budgeted for all the trouble. But we have friends in Trailwood and Kingwood Lakes that should have never flooded. That wasn’t supposed to happen to them. So, it was a lot more devastating to them…even though we live right here.

I thank the Balcoms and leave, thinking about the folly of permitting new structures in such a dangerous area, even as the County and City are buying out and tearing down hundreds of homes nearby that were destroyed by repeated flooding. With all the Balcoms did, they still flooded. And Romerica plans to build 5000 condos EIGHT feet LOWER than the level that the Balcoms flooded at.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/15/2019

563 Days after Hurricane Harvey