Tag Archive for: floodway

Expert Witnesses Model Surprising Flood Risks in Sand Mine Lawsuit

The case of Emil C. Shebelbon, II v. Upstream Holdings, LLC ET AL (Montgomery County Cause No. 15-10-10710) provides fascinating new insights into how sand mines can affect flooding. This case is NOT about broken dikes, unauthorized discharges of sediment-laden water, or mines inundated by super-storms such as Hurricane Harvey. It involves the opposite of all those things. Yet it still has implications for state regulations – or lack thereof. Specifically, I’m talking about setbacks of mines from rivers, lack of best management practices, reclamation of mines after the completion of mining and monitoring of floodway development.

All of the mines around Shebelbon’s property (bottom center) lie completely within the West Fork floodway (cross-hatched area). Development in floodways should not impede flow.

Defendants in this case appear to have filled in or walled off more than 200 acres of floodway property north of Shebelbon. That should have raised eyebrows from Washington to Conroe City Hall, but didn’t.

Two sand mines north of Shebelbon occupy more than 200 acres of floodway. The one closest to I-45 has been abandoned without remediation. Mining debris still litters the site. Shebelbon’s property lies immediately to the south, across the river.

Plaintiff’s Property Did Not Fill Floodway

The plaintiff in this case, Emil Shebelbon, purchased approximately 200 acres of land on the southwest corner of the San Jacinto West Fork and I-45 North about 20 years ago. He operates a motorsports facility there with dirt tracks and jumps for cyclists. Most of his land is in the floodway at the original level. He did not bring in fill. However, he did push some dirt into mounds to create the jumps. Very little impervious cover exists. It resembles a park. If you were going to build a business in the floodway, this is one of the few you might consider. It does not obstruct floodwater.

Increase in Flood Frequency, Depth and Erosion

When Shebelbon bought his land, everything north of him was farm, ranch or forest land. Then one mine came in and another. They expanded and started building up their property or walling it off from the floodway with dikes.

Shebelbon soon started to notice an increase in the depth and frequency of floods. He also started to lose land to erosion during statistically small floods.

Allegations in Lawsuit

Shebelbon’s lawsuit alleges that:

  • Mines blocked half of the floodway, forcing their flood water south onto his property, a violation of state law.
  • Cutting the floodway width in half forced floodwaters up to 3-4 feet higher on his property.
  • The increased flow in a smaller area increased the velocity of floodwaters.
  • That increased what hydrologists call “sheer stress,” the force necessary to start erosion.

Modeling showed shear stresses increased upwards of 0.5 pounds per square foot. The hydrologists claim that’s enough to cause substantial land and bank erosion near and within the Shebelbon Property. That, in turn, widened the river, eroding Shebelbon’s property, they say. Shebelbon estimates he lost seven acres due to erosion caused by constriction of the floodway (see photos below).

The mine north of Shebelbon’s property on the San Jacinto West Fork. Shebelbon’s property is out of frame to the right, underneath the nose of the helicopter. To visualize the height of the dikes, compare activity in the red circle with the following photo.
A dredging expert estimates that the height of the berm at this point is 50-60 feet based on the size of the dredge. Note: this photo and the one above were taken on April 21, 2020, more than a year after the hydrologist’s study. Dikes here are likely taller than 2018 LIDAR data in the study indicates.

Federal, state, county, and city regulations all prohibit restricting the conveyance of floodways. So how did this get permitted? That will be the subject of another post.

Court documents show that the mines deny any connection to Shebelbon’s damages. They issued simple, general denials and are fighting Shebelbon tooth and nail.

Surprising Expert Witness Testimony

Shebelbon, however, has produced hundreds of pages of expert witness testimony to support his claims. This 197-page document downloaded from the Montgomery County Clerk’s office contains the testimony of several experts. For this post, I’m focusing on Exhibit E-22: Flood Impacts from Surrounding Activities, prepared by Dr. David T. Williams and Dr. Gerald Blackler. Their testimony and credentials run from pages 19 to 101 of the PDF. (Caution: 19 mb download.)

Surprisingly, experts for the plaintiff found that the problem is most visible in smaller floods, i.e., less than 18-year floods. 100-year floods can overtop dikes and spread out. But smaller floods cannot.

Despite hundreds of posts on the relationship between sand mining and flooding, I have not previously focused on the phenomenon described by these experts. But every flood expert I talk to – at local, county and state levels – says their findings make perfect sense.

Looking west. Compare height of dikes on right with river bank on left by Shebelbon’s property. Photo 11/2/2020. Also note how little flood storage capacity is left in ponds.
This abandoned sand mine virtually blocks TxDoT’s auxiliary bridge on the north side of the river (upper right). TxDoT commonly uses such auxiliary bridges to convey water in floodplains. Photo 11/2/2020.

Public-Policy Concerns Raised by Shebelbon

Shebelbon’s case has not yet gone to trial. But I see similar situations every time I get in a helicopter. Together, they raise some disturbing public-policy issues. For instance:

  • Do we need greater setbacks of mines from rivers? Greater setbacks would allow greater expansion of floodwaters and help protect neighboring properties.
  • Do we need a comprehensive set of best management practices for sand mines that cover reclamation and abandonment? Restoring the natural floodplain instead of leaving an elevated mine next to the freeway might have prevented some of Mr. Shelbelbon’s damages.
  • What happens when local officials turn a blind eye to those apparently violating regulations? Is there a higher authority to enforce compliance – short of expensive lawsuits?

Hopefully, the TCEQ or State Legislature can address these questions. But it won’t happen without public pressure.

I would simply ask.

Why should miners’ property rights outweigh those of a neighboring business or resident?

Food for thought as we approach the upcoming legislative session!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/4/2020

1163 Days after 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.

Planning Commission Concerns About Romerica Land Seem More Procedural than Flood-Related

Last week, the Houston Planning Commission deferred approval of the General Plan for Romerica’s Orchard Seeded Ranches in Kingwood. A City of Houston Planning and Development Department document obtained this afternoon suggests that concerns about the West Fork development may have been more procedural than flood-related.

Much of Romerica’s land lies between the Barrington in foreground and San Jacinto River in background. All 283 homes in Barrington flooded during Harvey.

Of the ten concerns listed in a letter to the permit applicant, only one had to do with flooding. And that came from Harris County Flood Control, not the City. Nine other concerns had to do with street spacing and layouts or labelling.

Half of Land in Floodway

Half of Orchard Seeded Ranches is in the floodway (below red line) of the San Jacinto West Fork.
Half of Orchard Seeded Ranches is in the floodway (below red line) of the San Jacinto West Fork. That line will shift north on new flood maps.

Half of the land lies in the floodway of the West Fork. The other half lies in the hundred-year floodplain. The development would be built on the same property that Romerica tried to get approved last year. The company wanted to build a series of high rises and 5,000 condominiums. That proposal drew a record 770 letters of protest to the Army Corps. Despite all that…

The Planning Commission document indicates that the City Engineer had no comments on the proposal.

Last week it appeared that the balance of power might be shifting at City Hall from developers to flood-weary residents. This week, it appears the other way around.

Only Harris County Flood Control Raises Serious Objections

Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) recommended deferral of any approvals until the master drainage plan for the development is reviewed. HCFCD also said, “This area has historically been prone to flooding with numerous home buyouts immediately to the west. The Flood Control District, City of Houston, Montgomery County, and San Jacinto River Authority are working on a planning study to reduce flood risk in this area.”

Those partners should complete the San Jacinto Regional Watershed Master Drainage Plan final report by September this year.

Part of that plan will include new flood surveys. They will likely show the floodway expanding to take in an even greater percentage of Romerica’s property.

Gear Up for Another Lengthy Fight

It should not take the developer much time to address City’s concerns. It’s unclear at this time whether the City will heed the HCFCD’s concerns.

As a result, this controversy could wind up back in the hands of the Army Corps and/or the US Fish and Wildlife Service again. Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote an uncharacteristically frank recommendation to the Corps, urging the Corps to deny Romerica’s permit. Their reasoning had to do with the value of wetlands on the property and the presence of American Bald Eagles, a protected species.

Bald eagle photographed adjacent to Romerica property in February, 2020.

In the meantime, the developer may realize that it still faces an uphill struggle even with City approval. Perhaps they will come to their senses and sell this land to a group or groups that wish to preserve it as green space for flood control and recreation.

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 by westernmost Romerica property as Harvey receded. Photo by Jim Balcom.

As if to underscore the value of that proposition, the Bayou City Initiative today announced a virtual meeting to discuss the difficulty of mass evacuations and sheltering during the hurricane season as the COVID crisis continues. Remember that most of this land was under 20+ feet of water during Harvey.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/5/2020

980 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Carriage Hills Sand Mine Still Has Equipment in West Fork Floodway

In March, Montgomery County Commissioners voted to sue a new sand mine operating near the Carriage Hills subdivision of Conroe. The county attorney sought to force the mine to remove unspecified materials from the West Fork floodway while they resolved permit issues. Since then, according to residents, the mine has voluntarily suspended operations.

Aerial Photos/Maps Show Mine in Floodway

However, a flyover on 4/21/2020 revealed that mining, processing, and transportation equipment remains in the floodway.

New mine in San Jacinto West Fork floodway near Carriage Hills (background on left) in Conroe.
Reverse angle. Floodway cuts between homes in foreground and mine in background. River concealed by trees in background. See FEMA flood map below.
Cross-hatched area = floodway. Aqua color represents 100-year floodplain. Brown = 500-year floodplain. Source: FEMA.

From 600 Truckloads a Day to Nothing

The once bustling operation with 600 trucks per day coming and going down Carriage Hills Boulevard now seems eerily quiet. It’s not clear whether the suspension of operations relates to the County lawsuit, COVID, a drop in demand due to the economic downturn, or all of the above.

Close up shot of operations.
Residents say that before suspension of operations, the mine was running up to 600 trucks per day up Carriage Hills Blvd. leading to top of photo.
A second, smaller part of the operation.
Another sand mining operation brackets the other side of Carriage Hills.

Residents Fear Resumption of Activity

While residents enjoy the quiet, they see it as temporary. They fear that once the COVID crisis passes and the mine resolves its permit issues, the round-the-clock truck traffic will quickly return.

Indeed, the Montgomery County Engineer’s Office, indicates that the owner of the new mine has re-applied for a permit. That permit is now under review.

Even if you see zoning as a communist conspiracy, as some in Montgomery County do, being surrounded by sand mines kind of makes you a believer in large-scale, master-planned communities.

So much for those idyllic little hideaways in the woods.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/27/2020

972 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.

New Carriage Hills Sand Mine Halts Operations For Now

On March 24, Montgomery County Commissioners approved a resolution that allowed the County Attorney to sue a new Carriage Hills sand mine operating on the West Fork of the San Jacinto. The text of the lawsuit was vague as to actual violations. But on Monday, March 30, B.D. Griffin, the Montgomery County Attorney supplied more details about the complaint. He also discussed the status of the suit, what the mine is doing, and likely long-term outcomes. 

Operator Violated Floodplain Permit

According to Griffin, counties in Texas have few tools to regulate land use. However, floodplain regulations are one of them. Montgomery County alleges that the Carriage Hills sand mine operator, Skilled International, was in violation of the floodplain permit issued to MBM Sand Company, the landowner. 

Griffin says there were two main issues. First, MBM obtained the permit, but it was not transferrable to Skilled. Second, Skilled is operating in the floodway of the San Jacinto West Fork. The MBM permit allowed floodplain operations, but not floodway. 

Therefore, according to Griffin, they operated where they should not have. Floodway operations are subject to more regulations and more stringent regulations than floodplain operations. “They were operating outside the boundaries of their permit,” said Griffin. “That’s why we sought the authority to file suit against them. They were in violation of their floodplain permit.”

Mine Closes Voluntarily Until It Gets Proper Permit

The County, however, did not actually have to file the suit against the Carriage Hills sand mine. “They have complied voluntarily and shut down the sand pit operations until they get their approvals to operate in the special flood hazard area,” said Griffin.

He further stated that, “If you fail to enforce your regulations, then you jeopardize the county’s participation in the national flood insurance program. That’s major. But we try to enforce the regulations anyway because it’s the right thing to do. We’re not after fines necessarily, but we do have that ability if necessary.”

“The operator also told us in writing that they will cease operations until they get the proper permits,” said Griffin. Three officials from Montgomery County checked and found that the mine has, in fact, ceased operations.

What Mine Must Do to Comply

Basically, they need to show where they are operating. If it’s in the floodway, there are more regulation than if they are just in the flood plain. They need to show that they’re not increasing the base flood elevation and that there are no adverse impacts to adjoining properties. AND they have to have it all certified by engineers in order to get their permit.”

That means the engineer will need to conduct an H&H (Hydrologic and Hydraulic) study for the floodway portion of the mine’s permit. “They need that to show that they won’t raise the base flood elevation and that they won’t adversely impact adjoining properties.”

Truck Traffic Will Likely Return When Permits Obtained

While the threat of a County suit has eliminated all the truck traffic through Carriage Hills for now, in the long run, things may not change much. Griffin says, “You have to understand. Land use regulation by a county is fairly limited in Texas. We don’t have the powers of a municipality and we don’t have the powers of the State.”

Griffin continued, “So, we can only regulate land use with very limited means. One of those is floodplain regulations. The other is subdivision regulations. So, what we look to and require, is often not the same as what an adjoining landowner may want.”

We want compliance with our permitting process and with the actual regulations themselves. The Carriage Hills sand mine can’t increase water on adjoining property and they can’t raise the base flood elevation. Those are the two big ones,” said Griffin.

Regarding the heavy truck traffic on residential roads, Griffin says, “It’s a public road. Unfortunately, we can’t do much. The state can issue overload permits and they have the right to run on our roads. We can’t do anything about it. There’s a limit as to what the county can do. And, you know, we are in a fast-growing county. As population density increases, we can get more of these problems. There’s not always a win-win solution. But if we take some actions like this, it makes people think about being good corporate neighbors.”

Up to 600 trucks per day were disturbing these quiet residential streets in Carriage Hills, a Conroe subdivision near the West Fork San Jacinto.

Threat of County Lawsuit Remains

Skilled International, the mine’s operator has not given a timetable for compliance yet. But Griffin says they have hired a consultant who is working directly with the County Engineers office. In the meantime, they have agreed to suspend operations until they get their proper permits.

Says Griffin, “We have the lawsuit prepared to be filed. As long as they cease operations, we won’t file a lawsuit. If we see them starting up the operations again and there’s no permit, we will file the suit.”

The complaint approved by Commissioners required remediation for any dirt Skilled International may have brought into the Carriage Hills sand mine. Griffin says, “If they ultimately do NOT get a permit, we will require them to remove anything they may have brought into the floodway.”

This could prove substantial. New draft FEMA floodplain maps show the floodway has expanded. The new floodway now takes in the vast majority of the area being mined.

Approximate location of Carriage Hills sand mine
Black oval shows approximate location of new Carriage Hills sand mine relative to the new draft FEMA flood plain maps. The vast majority of the mine is within the floodway represented by the red crosshatched area.

It is unclear whether the County Engineer and Attorney will apply the new floodplain map when considering the mine’s permit or use the old map.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/31/2020

945 Days after Hurricane Harvey

From Erosion to Explosion: Why It’s Dangerous to Mine Sand Near Streams and Pipelines

Mining sand near pipelines can expose the public to danger through erosion. We’ve seen this at the Triple PG sand mine in Porter where a potentially lethal combination of circumstances came together. 1) MINING 2) in a FLOODWAY 3) too close to PIPELINES 4) created EROSION 5) that undermined and EXPOSED the pipeline 6) to FLOATING DEBRIS and 7) the FORCE of floodwater.

Excavating pits in floodways causes erosion to move upstream and downstream during floods. When the pit is too close to infrastructure, such as bridges (or pipelines), erosion can then threaten their foundations.

Predictable Phenomenon

Headward erosion is a PREDICTABLE phenomenon. It’s as certain as gravity causing dirt to fall into a hole. Except in the case of the Triple PG sand mine, floodwater gave gravity an assist. It pushed the dirt into the hole. The hole, in this case, is the sand pit on the left below. The floodwater came from the top of the frame.

Headward erosion cut right through the pipeline crossing that paralleled what used to be a road around the mine.

This doesn’t happen every day. It’s sporadic. It happens during floods. But that makes it no less predictable.

How Triple PG Grew Toward, Between and Past Pipelines

The images below show the growth of the Triple PG Sand Mine northward into Montgomery County. In 1995, the mine was 2,000 to 3,000 feet away from the pipelines.


2017 Pre-Harvey

The mine kept expanding to the west and north. Just before Harvey, notice how Triple PG had mined right up the pipeline and beyond it, into the danger zone between the pipeline corridors.

Then came Harvey.

2017 Post-Harvey

During Harvey, headward erosion took out about a 200-foot wide section of earth supporting the natural gas pipeline (also seen in the helicopter photo above). Harvey also elongated the lake in the middle of the pipeline corridors.

Then in 2019, this area had a major flood in May and Tropical Storm Imelda in September. The major breach widened and the lake elongated even more.

2019 Post-Imelda

Imelda widened the Harvey breach so wide and deep that it exposed more pipeline. (See photo below).

Exposed pipeline has no protection from floodwaters carrying trees, cars, houses or other debris downstream. A major collision could cause an explosion. But that’s not even the biggest potential catastrophe at the Triple PG mine.

Now … For the Real Disaster Scenario

Looking at a wider satellite image (below), we can see that the mine is now closing in on the HVL pipelines from the south AND the north. It brackets them.

Water flows from top to bottom in the image above. Note how Caney Creek bends near the white line above. During Imelda, floodwater cut through that area into the big northern pond at this bend instead of following the natural stream bed. See below.

Without constant repairs like you see above, Caney Creek could soon reroute itself through the big pit on the left below. Erosion on both sides of the utility corridor could expose the HVL pipelines – just as it did the natural gas pipelines. Not likely, you say?

A breach on the left would reroute Caney Creek right across the pipelines buried in the utility corridor on the right.

In the last three years, the two ponds along this line have grown closer together by more than 1000 feet. The ponds now are within a few feet of actually touching the pipeline corridor on both sides. Continued erosion could soon threaten the HVL pipelines in the middle if nothing is done to stop it.

Why is This Potentially MORE Dangerous?

Compared to exposing a natural gas pipeline, exposing liquid pipelines is far more dangerous.

When a natural gas pipeline explodes it creates a fireball that could kill anyone near it.

But when HVL pipelines rupture, they spew poisonous liquids. And if those pipelines rupture during a flood, those poisonous liquids will flow right into the source of drinking water for two million people – Lake Houston. This is why sand mining in floodways near pipelines is a bad idea.

Most of us have seen news footage of pipelines that ruptured on the San Jacinto River. Floodwaters swept away barges that collided with pipelines and caused them to explode. Could something comparable happen here with trees or cars floating downstream?

Enter James Cameron stage right.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/7/2019 with help from Josh Alberson

830 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 79 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.

Liberty Materials Mine Carved Out of Many Wetlands

The Liberty Materials Mine in Conroe on the West Fork of the San Jacinto was cited last month for allegedly discharging 56 million gallons of wastewater loaded with up to 25 times the normal amount of sediment. When we look at the issue of sediment in the river and how it affects flooding, such breaches contribute to the problem. But it’s not just what such sand mines discharge. It’s also about what the wetlands they were carved from don’t hold back any more.

Before there was a Liberty Materials in Conroe, the area they now occupy contained many densely forested wetlands. Now there is nothing to slow down the water during heavy rains. Much more sand and sediment are exposed. And the wetlands are no longer there to filter it. It’s a double whammy. We get it coming and going.

Green areas mapped as wetlands in USGS National Wetlands Inventory. See descriptions below.

Before Liberty, Abundant Wetlands

Visually, it appears that wetlands once covered roughly half the area of this mine. But what was actually there?

US Geological Survey (USGS) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) use a five character alpha-numeric code to classify wetlands. Liberty Materials operates in areas that were classified as PFO1A and PEM1A.

P stands for the class: Palustrine. Palustrine wetlands include any inland wetland that lacks flowing water. The word palustrine comes from the Latin word palus or marsh. Wetlands within this category include inland marshes, swamps and floodplains covered by vegetation.

The second two letters in each case stand for the subclass: FOrested or EMergent. Forested means it had broad-leaved, deciduous trees or shrubs taller than 6 meters. Emergent means it had aquatic plants.

These were areas that could store large volumes of water during floods. Plus, they had vegetation that could suck it up.

Trees Soak Up Water, Too

Trees can soak up 50 to 300 gallons of water in a day depending on their size, age and type. They send it back into the atmosphere; let’s use 100 gallons as a conservative average and do some simple math to calculate their contribution to flood reduction.

It’s difficult to estimate the number of trees per acre; it depends on the factors mentioned above plus more. But some people use 500 trees per acre as a good average for estimating purposes.

The Liberty sand mine complex comprises more than a thousand acres. That’s 500,000 trees each soaking up 100 gallons of water per day. Or 50 million gallons of water per day.

That’s about the same amount that the TCEQ estimates the Liberty Mine discharged downstream in one breach.

Personally, I’d rather have the trees and wetlands than white water and a river that’s so silted up it contributes to flooding.

Influence of Wetlands on Flooding

Imagine a sand box that’s 1.5 miles wide and 2.5 miles long. Here’s what it looked like the day after the peak of Hurricane Harvey.

Image from 8/30/2017 of Liberty Mine one day after the peak of Harvey.

And here’s why. Note how closely the extend of flooding matches the extent of the flood plains. Like almost all mines on the West Fork, this one lies substantially within the floodway and floodplain.

Cross-hatched = floodway; aqua = 100 year; tan = 500 year floodplain.

Is Liberty’s Luck Running Low?

If these people had the strongest dikes in the world, maybe you could cut them some slack. But they don’t. They breach repeatedly.

About a month after allegedly discharging 56 million gallons of process wastewater into the West Fork, the only thing holding back another discharge at the Liberty Mine is a couple feet of sand. Photo taken on 12/3/2019.

We need sand, but not at the expense of floods and the environment. Maybe it’s time for TACA to run some of its members out of Texas. That do-good routine they stage in Austin every other year could be in jeopardy with members like Liberty. See below.

11/4/2019. The Day the West Fork Turned White. Confluence of Spring Creek and West Fork. TCEQ alleges that Liberty Mines discharged 56 million gallons of white waste water into the West Fork.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12.5.2019

828 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.

New Google Earth Image Shows Multiple West Fork Sand Mines Mixing Their Wastewater with Your Drinking Water

On its way to Lake Houston, your drinking water runs through a gauntlet of sand mines – some old, some new. Many discharge industrial process water directly into the San Jacinto River and its tributaries. The latest Google Earth LandSat images show a total of 11 between I-45 and US 59 on the West Fork doing just that. In addition, photos taken from a boat show another breach in a sand mine dike that happened more recently on Caney Creek, a tributary of the East Fork. Together, these images make a powerful case for moving mines out of the floodway and establishing best management practices for sand mines. The industry has fought both measures.

Dangers of Mining in Floodways

For miners in the Houston area, locating mines in floodways is a dangerous, but lucrative practice. Lucrative because there is less overburden for miners to move. Dangerous because rivers frequently sweep through mines during floods. The floods can then carry sediment downstream, which creates blockages that contribute to flooding.

Floods can also flush chloride-laden process water out of the mines and into your drinking water. That makes City of Houston water treatment costs more expensive. A former high level manager in the City’s water treatment department told me that he saw huge spikes in chlorides after every flood and tracked it to sand mines.

Pictures Aren’t Pretty

Massive breach in Triple-P mine on Caney Creek allows process water to mix with water in tributary for Lake Houston, source of drinking water for two million people.

After discovering the breach above, Josh Alberson whose boat we were in, spent an evening pouring over satellite images. Last week, he sent me a list of GPS coordinates to review additional suspected breaches or discharges. See the images below, all from the West Fork.

First mine north of confluence with Spring Creek. A local canoeist found three breaches in this mine last December.
Breach on right open since 2015. Breach on top left was closed after 2015. Harvey swept through all these mines in 2017.
Note the stream at about two o’clock that is carrying sediment and process water to the river.
Small pit in middle drains into West Fork.
Overflow from mine contaminating West Fork.
This pit has remained open for years at a time. Sometimes the water flows in, other times it flows out.
Follow the stream from the pit on the right to the river on the left.
It looks like someone actually installed two culverts and built a road over this breach.
Note several small breaches in the bottom of this image and how the river is about to invade the major pit in the upper right,
See the line of sediment in the clearcut area between the large green pond and the river. Discharges date back to 2006.
West Fork San Jacinto just east of I-45.

Rule Rather than Exception

I could go on. But you get the idea. The TCEQ has said 15 sand mines are currently active on the West Fork between I-45 and US59. You just looked at a dozen breaches. Historical images in Google Earth show dozens of additional breaches in this same area. This is the rule rather than the exception.

Legislative Session Ends Hope for Improvement

Meanwhile, TACA, the Texas Aggregate and Concrete association, lobbied against establishing and publishing best practices for the industry including setbacks from rivers that could prevent this type of danger.

As we went into this Texas legislative session, I had high hopes. Representative Dan Huberty introduced HB 909, a bill that would have required the TCEQ to adopt and publish a set of best management practices for sand mines.

I drove up to Austin to speak for the bill. Rob Van Til, a sand miner representing TACA, spoke against it. Watch the testimony online at this link for the Committee Broadcast Archives. Make sure you scroll down to 5/1/19 and click on the link for Environmental Regulation. It lasts about 20 minutes. Here’s a guide for those short on time. At:

  • 4:30 Huberty introduces the legislation to the committee.
  • 6:45 Adrian Shelley, representing an environmental group, speaks for the bill.
  • 8:45 Rob Van Til, representing TACA speaks against.
  • 10:45 Representative Erin Zwiener questions Van Til
  • 16.25 Bob Rehak speaks for HB 909
  • 20:00 Huberty asks for committee support

The images above show why we need to move mines out of the floodway. But sadly, HB 909 never made it out of committee. The 86th Legislature ends this week. It’s time to start gearing up for 2021.

The thoughts expressed in this post represent my opinions on matters of public policy. They are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statute of the Great State of Texas.

Posted by Bob Rehak on May 27, 2019 with help from Josh Alberson

636 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Photo Essay on Role of Riparian Vegetation in Reducing Erosion

Riparian means “of or relating to the banks of a river.” To see the role of riparian vegetation in reducing erosion, one need only compare the two forks of the San Jacinto River. They provide a stark contrast. But the real story is the role of sand mining in reducing riparian vegetation.

After years of sand mining on the West Fork, much of the shoreline vegetation has been lost and the resulting erosion is staggering. Between I-45 and US59, sand miners have stripped vegetation from approximately 20 square miles of floodplain and floodway (the main channel of a river during a flood).

Sand Mines on West Fork of the San Jacinto form an almost continuous line from I-45 to US59. They have stripped approximately 20 square miles of ground cover.

On the East Fork above the Caney Creek confluence, however, there are no sand mines. The vegetation is lush and the erosion is negligible. Let’s start there for a look at how nature protects us.

Forests come down to the river’s edge. Grasses and cattails abound, protecting the banks.

Dense forest anchors the land. Grasses, forced to compete for sunlight, thrive along the river’s edge, protecting banks.

A perfect time and place for reflection. A nice place just to “be.”

All images so far were taken on the East Fork of the San Jacinto River above where it merges with Caney Creek. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Red lines on left measure width of East Fork on 3/3/16, before the Tax Day Storm. They are in a separate layer. Switching the background image to 10/28/17 shows that the river is virtually unchanged, thanks in large part to the lush riparian vegetation.

Now, A Trip up the West Fork

Now, let’s look at the West Fork. It’s vastly different.

Townhomes on Marina Drive in Forest Cove. Concrete, steel and wooden walls on the West Fork were less effective at preventing erosion than blades of grass on the East Fork.

Same area. Note steepness of banks where vegetation can no longer take hold, perpetuating cycles of erosion.

Remnants of concrete retaining wall.

Site of a breach in sand mine dike on the West Fork. The mine discharged sediment directly into the river.

Two weeks after Harvey. Just north of US 59 bridge.

West Fork Sand mine complex. Note one of many dike breaches in various mines that allowed sand and sediment to pour downstream. All helicopter images taken two weeks after Harvey on 9/14/17.

Mining a point bar after Harvey. Miners are supposed to work within their dikes to avoid disrupting vegetation along the river. Photo taken 9/14/17.

Note more repairs to dikes.

The next three images form a series.

River is migrating toward pit in background at the rate of 12 feet per year, in part, due to lack of vegetation protecting banks. See next two images before for overhead views.

This is what the area above looked like in a 1995 USGS aerial photo on Google Earth. Compare the location of the red line in this image with the location in the next image. The GPS coordinates of the line are identical. But the river has migrated.

 In just 23 years, the West Fork migrated 258 feet toward the dike on the right and now threatens it. The river has eaten away at the dike an average of 12.4 feet per year. The dike is now only 38 feet wide.

A bright white trail of sand leads all the way from the mines to the mouth bar which helped back water up into the highly populated Humble/Kingwood area. Fresh sand is several feet deep. Note absence of grasses. Many of the trees will also soon die.

Nearing the US59 bridge

Confluence of West Fork and Spring Creek, which also contributed sand to this event.

The next two images form a before/after pair.

West Fork of the San Jacinto over the US 59 Bridge before the Tax Day flood in 2016. River was 330 feet wide. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

GPS coordinates of the red line have not changed; the river has. After Harvey (in a little more than two years), the West Fork widened to 489 feet and shifted north by 113 feet. In part, this was due to excessive sediment that killed vegetation along the banks and accelerated erosion. Dead trees swept downriver were trapped by the bridge pilings, forming a dam that helped flood Humble businesses south of this photo. The southbound lanes of the bridge had to be replaced by TexDoT at a cost of approximately $20 million because of erosion. 

Union Pacific railroad traffic was disrupted for months.

Mountains of sand may kill the remaining trees in this area, exposing it to even more erosion during the next storm.

Sand, in part, from the mines, has almost totally blocked the West Fork where it meets Lake Houston. Before/after measurements show that as much as ten feet was deposited in this area during Harvey (approximately five feet below water and five above). This forms a dam behind the dam, that backs water up into the Humble/Kingwood corridor during storms. Unless this sediment is removed, a storm smaller than Harvey could create Harvey-scale flooding.

Tree Loss in East End Park Has Already Started

Acres of trees in Kingwood’s East End Park have already started to die back as a result of being buried in dunes 10-15 high. I believe that sand, in large part, from the 750-acre mine upstream on Caney Creek is causing this. Piling as little as six inches of sediment around the base of a tree can kill it.

Trees dying in Kingwood’s East End Park because of massive sediment build up around their trunks.

The website SF Gate describes how this die-back happens. “Soil added around a tree reduces the amount of oxygen available to the roots and slows the rate of gas exchange in and around the roots. There may be less moisture and nutrients available to the roots or too much moisture may remain around the tree’s roots. Inadequate oxygen reaching the roots or microorganisms in the soil around the roots can lead to an accumulation of chemicals that can injure tree roots. The tree’s bark may decay where soil is newly in contact with it. Damage or injury to the tree because of the added soil may not become apparent for several months or years and generally appears as a slow decline followed by death.” The same thing can happen with grasses and smaller trees along riverbanks. Once they die back and there is nothing left to bind the soil…

“Sediment is the primary pollutant expected from quarry operations.”

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says, “Sediment is the primary pollutant expected from quarry operations.” See page 22 of this 2012 report from the Texas Commission on environmental quality about the John Graves Scenic Riverway District on the Brazos.  The TCEQ also conducted experiments showing that certain types of revegetation can reduce sediment discharge from mines by 98 percent.

These findings are consistent with Louisiana Best Management Practice Guidelines for Sand Mines. They state that grasses can reduce erosion by 99%.


In the upcoming legislative session, the Lake Houston area needs to push for the creation of a river preservation district like the John Graves. The Graves District excludes sand mines from the 100-year flood plain and floodway where most erosion happens.

All Lake-Houston-area mines are in the FLOODWAY with the exception of one. A floodway is defined as the main channel of the river during a flood. This makes the mines more susceptible to river capture and massive erosion, which can create a downward spiral as we have seen above. Eventually it can lead to loss of property.

Our preservation district would stretch from Lake Conroe to Lake Houston, the primary sources of water for two million people.

The lives, health, homes, and businesses of two million people are certainly worth as much as protecting some scenery.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/1/18

449 Days after Hurricane Harvey