On December 22, I received an email from a Montgomery County resident named Jody Binnion. He lives near the Hallett sand mine on the San Jacinto West Fork and can see the mine from his home. Binnion said that the level of a 170-acre pond had dropped at least 2-3 feet and maybe more – overnight. He went to investigate and found a giant repair at a corner of the pit near the West Fork. Hallett had already patched the breach, he said.
Here’s what the patched area looked like from the air ten days later on January 1, 2021.
By the time I shot the scene above from the air, the pond had virtually refilled – either with process water, rainwater, or both.
It’s hard to say with certainty whether this breach was intentional. Binnion arrived after the hole had already been plugged. The TCEQ says it has opened an investigation.
History of Breach
The area had leaked several times before, starting in 2015 according to Google Earth imagery. But the leaks were all relatively minor. The forest between the pond and the river even survived Harvey.
But then, in early February of 2019, Binnion noticed a radical drop in the level of the pond for the first time. Binnion photographed the breach and reported it to TCEQ, but never heard back from the Commission. A Google Earth image taken a little more than 2 weeks later confirms that rapidly rushing water mowed down a 250-foot-wide swath of trees more than 600 feet long. Google Earth also shows fresh repairs in the area. See below.
The Harris County Flood Warning System shows that the HCFCD gage at US59 and the West Fork recorded only about a quarter inch of rain during that week (February 4, 2019).
Ironically, that week I was meeting with TACA, Hallett, other sand miners, the TCEQ, State Rep. Dan Huberty, and Lake Houston Area leaders in Austin that week. It was about greater setbacks from the river for sand mines! But I question whether setback was the issue in this case.
Area Started to Regrow
When I photographed the area on September 2020, vegetation was growing back in.
Aerial Photos of Latest Breach
But then on Jan. 1, 2021, I flew over the area again. This time, I saw – from the air – the blowout that Binnion photographed ten days earlier from the ground. See the pictures below.
It’s unclear whether all of this happened at once. It rained 1.04 inches in the week before Binnion photographed the breach just before Christmas. It rained another 1.44 inches in the two days before January 1. I took the aerial photos above on New Year’s Day, with the exception of the one taken last September.
Excess Sedimentation Can Lead to Flooding
Sedimentation from sand mines, along with natural erosion, has been linked to flooding in the Humble/Kingwood corridor where the West Fork lost much of its conveyance capacity after Harvey. It has cost taxpayers more than $100 million so far to remove the excess sediment. The dredging program continues after more than 3 years.
If we are ever to reduce the sedimentation problem, we must first get past the fiction that sand mines are not contributing to it. Hallett isn’t the only mine with these issues. The West Fork San Jacinto has 20 square miles of sand mines between I-45 and US59. I have photographed leaks at all but one of them during the last three years, including the New Year’s Day flight.
The photo below shows the confluence of the West Fork and Spring Creek at US59. Guess which way the sand mines are?
This confluence looks this way most months, but not all.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/7/2021
1227 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.