Tag Archive for: San Jacinto West Fork

West Fork Sludge Fest

The San Jacinto West Fork has turned into a sludge fest again. I took the picture below on 11/11/23. Not since the day that the West Fork turned white have I seen the contrast so dramatic at the confluence with Spring Creek.

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Looking NW from over US59 Bridge. Confluence of Spring Creek (left) and San Jacinto West Fork (right). Cypress Creek joins Spring Creek 2.7 miles west of this location.

In that prior case, the cause was obvious. Two sand mines were discharging process wastewater into the West Fork. The TCEQ determined that one, the Liberty Materials mine, dumped 56 million gallons of white sludge into the river.

This time, the cause is not so obvious. I can’t even be certain I determined the cause. After taking the photo above, I spent a whole day ruling out various possibilities while searching for others.

Ruling Out Causes

The dramatic difference was not caused by huge variation in rainfall totals across the region.

Rainfall totals from Harris County flood warning system. All of the rain fell in the previous 2.5 days and was relatively spread out.

The highest total on the West Fork was that 2.68 inches south of Conroe at SH242. Further investigation showed that 1 inch fell between 3 and 4PM on 11/09/23. That was the highest intensity at that gage in more than a month.

Uneven soil saturation across the region would also not cause the zebra pattern in the river. The entire region is still rated either “abnormally dry” or in “moderate drought.”

And Lake Conroe did not release any large volumes of water lately that would have scoured river banks. That eliminated another potential cause.

Now here’s where it gets really baffling.

SJRA Study Claims Most Sediment Comes from Spring/Cypress Creeks

The San Jacinto River Basin Master Drainage Study by Freese & Nichols claims that more sediment comes down Spring and Cypress Creeks than the West Fork.

In fact, they say, of all the sediment coming into Lake Houston, two thirds comes from Spring and Cypress Creeks while only 13% comes from the West Fork upstream of US59. So where is all the sludge coming from?

In my opinion, it most likely came from new developments or sand mines that move large volumes of loose sediment.

So the next day, I went out with my drone and found several possibilities.

Possible Sources for Sediment Pollution

Two sand mines had pits open to the river, but I did not see large volumes of sediment oozing out of them as I sometimes do.

The most interesting possibility: new developments very near that gage on SH242 that read 2.68 inches.

Two connected developments straddle FM1314 immediately north of SH242. Early plans called them both Mavera. But now, the one on the east has a sign that says Madera. The sign on the west section calls it Evergreen.

Both are being built on top of wetlands in a 10-year flood zone. Together, they have roughly 1400 acres of exposed soil.

Most of the development’s stormwater drains into Crystal Creek and then into the West Fork about a half mile downstream from where I took this photo.

Sediment-laden stormwater burst through the wall of this detention basin.
Enlarged detail from shot above shows water was strong enough to destroy the outfall pipe.

Now let’s see what’s upstream from this breach.

Evergreen drainage channel. Water flows toward camera and the breached detention basin.
Even farther up the channel. Note all recently exposed sediment.

The ditch above appears to be much wider than it was in January 2021, almost three years ago. Now, let’s jump back south to where this area drains into the West Fork.

Crystal Creek (middle) empties into the West Fork (bottom left). Note how milky water from Crystal compares to the West Fork.

Note that the picture above was taken two days after the heaviest recent rainfall, so the volume may not seem impressive.

There likely were other areas along the West Fork that contributed to the sedimentation you saw in the first photo at the top of this post. But I was not in a helicopter and it’s virtually impossible to cover the entire river with a drone. So I can’t say for sure.

How to Report Issues You May See

This is not the first time I have documented excessive sediment coming off the West Fork.

The zebra effect at the confluence is common.

The angle of the shots above varies. But in each instance, the West Fork is the most polluted branch.

Why is sediment so concerning? After all, it’s natural, right?

Remember the mouth bar that virtually blocked off the West Fork after Harvey? Also the one on the East Fork?

When sediment reduces the conveyance of rivers, they come out of their banks faster and higher on smaller rainfalls. The rivers flood more frequently and increase your flood risk.

So, if you see unnatural situations in rivers or streams, make sure you report them to the TCEQ, which investigates such matters.

Together, we may be able to improve our safety and water quality.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/13/2023

2267 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.

San Jacinto Master Drainage Plan Uses Gage UPSTREAM from Sand Mines to Estimate West Fork Sedimentation

Appendix F of the San Jacinto River Basin Master Drainage Plan discusses the sediment contribution to Lake Houston of various tributaries. It asserts that Cypress Creek, Spring Creek, and West Fork sub-watersheds are the highest contributors of suspended sediment to Lake Houston, contributing an estimated 38.7 percent, 26.8 percent, and 13.0 percent of the total sediment load, respectively.

However, to measure sediment on the West Fork, the study team used a gage at I-45 – UPSTREAM from virtually all West Fork sand mines. This explains a huge disparity between measured data and visual observations. But the report never even acknowledges the visual observations.

I have previously posted about the 3600-page master plan. In many respects, it is a masterpiece that contains good and valuable information that will help mitigate flooding throughout the watershed. The comments in this post relate ONLY to Appendix F on sedimentation, which in my opinion contains a serious flaw.

Misleading Impressions

The problem with using the gage at I-45: it rules out certain contributions to sedimentation that the report barely acknowledges.

Cypress Creek and Spring Creek combine before merging with the West Fork. Thus, you would expect five times more sediment coming from Spring and Cypress Creeks than the West Fork, based on their findings. Yet almost every time I photograph the confluence of the West Fork and Spring Creek, I see more sediment coming from the West Fork, despite the fact that Lake Conroe blocks sediment coming from the upper part of the watershed. See below.

Confluence of Spring Creek and West Fork San Jacinto. Each shot taken in a different month and from a different angle. But the siltier stream in each case is the West Fork where virtually all the sand mines are.

Location of West Fork Gage Never Fully Specified in Report

The West Fork gage number is listed on page 114 of Appendix F. But the description says only, “W Fk San Jacinto Rv nr Conroe Tx, Gage #08068000.” At another point (page 115), it lists the gage near Lake Conroe. To find the exact location of the gage, one must go outside the report to a USGS site. Then to see where the gage sits relative to West Fork sand mines, one must back up to page 61 of Appendix F. Most readers will just assume, given the scientific nature of the report, that the authors used a gage at a representative location, not one that ruled out sediment from sand mines.

Even a careful reader of the report could conclude that the contribution of sand mines to sedimentation is minor in the grand scheme of things. TACA would welcome such a conclusion.

The report ignored thousands of photos posted on ReduceFlooding.com as well as TCEQ reports citing sand mines for non-compliance.

The implications of measuring sediment upstream from sand mines, overlooking visual evidence, and ignoring official reports calls into question some of the report’s recommendations. For instance, #2 suggests using “existing [emphasis added] stream gage data” … to “inform where higher suspended sediment is originating within each sub-watershed.”

Sorry, you can’t get there from I-45. And if sand mines are an issue, neither can you get there from LIDAR surveys taken every several years, which the report also recommends. Sand mine discharges happen frequently and sporadically, often under the cover of darkness.

Sand Mining Not Seriously Considered as Possible Source of Sedimentation

The report, for the most part, blames sedimentation on new development and stream bank erosion. It does not consider:

Intentional pumping over dikes
Pipes buried under dikes
Breaches and pumping into surrounding wetlands that drain into the West Fork
Breaches in abandoned mines
Breaches into drainage channels just a few yards upstream from the West Fork
Intentional breaches. Note the backhoe tracks and sharp edges to the breach in this video.

Sedimentation Report Needs More Gages

You can’t document the volume of such breaches and illegal pumping from a helicopter. However, you can’t overlook such practices either.

What we really need is a sediment gage downstream from the sand mines just before the West Fork joins Spring Creek. A gage at that location would go a long way toward calculating the volume of sediment escaping from sand mines.

Report Also Needs Revision Before Legislative Committees Meet on Sand Mining

The authors also need to amend this report quickly. The amendments should highlight the location of the West Fork gage, the implications of that, and limitations on the use of the data – especially by the legislature.

My biggest fear is that sand miners will attempt to use this report to defeat reasonable legislative reforms of the industry. They have used similar reports in the past to do exactly that. I have personally testified in four House and Senate committee hearings about sand mines only to have TACA trot out figures from the 2000 Brown and Root Study. B&R drew similar conclusions because it used the same West Fork gage at I-45.

To protect the scientific integrity of its report and the validity of its recommendations, the authors need to act quickly. The legislature is considering new sand mining regulations at this instant. Such regulations could protect downstream residents from excess man-made sedimentation, huge dredging costs and potential flooding.

The Master Drainage Plan, including Appendix F on sedimentation, is intended to guide flood mitigation efforts for the next 50 years and help inform the expenditure of potentially billions of dollars during that time. The larger report has many good points. But Appendix F is seriously flawed. I hope the partners – City of Houston, SJRA, Montgomery County, HCFCD and their consultants – fix it before lasting damage is done.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/28/2021

1248 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.

What Happened Downstream During Harvey as Lake Conroe Released 79,000 CFS

Last night, I posted some statistics about Lake Conroe levels after the SJRA started the release during Hurricane Harvey. Tim Garfield and R.D. Kissling, two top geologists, now retired from one of the world’s largest oil companies, have looked at the release from a downstream perspective. Last year, they put everything they learned into this 69-page presentation delivered to the University of Houston Honors Program.

From “A Brief History of Lake Houston and the Hurricane Harvey Flood,” by Tim Garfield and RD Kissling with help from Bob Rehak, 2019.

Recap of Key Points About Lake Conroe Release

To recap several key points:

  • The SJRA never did let Lake Conroe rise to its allowable flowage easement. The water level in Lake Conroe peaked at 7 a.m., August 28, 2017, at 206.23 feet. The SJRA’s flowage easement is 207 feet.
  • Outflow exceeded inflow by 8:30 a.m. on the 28th and stayed that way for the duration of the storm. As the lake level declined, the lake had up to 3 available feet of storage capacity.
  • Yet the SJRA kept releasing, on average, 2X – 10X more water than it was taking in. At one point, the ratio exceeded 100:1.

Tracking the Release Down West Fork

Garfield notes that the discharge ramp up that began the evening of the 27th reached a peak discharge rate of more than 79,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) just before noon on the 28th. The discharge rate didn’t dip below 70,000 cfs until 4 a.m. on the 29th – more than 16 hours later.

Following in lockstep with the Conroe release, flow rates at downstream gauges ramped up, in lockstep. By lining up the peaks of gages downriver, you can literally see the water surging down the West Fork all the way to Lake Houston. (See left side of image above.)

Significantly, Garfield says, these gauges all showed flattening flow-rate curves before the release ramp up. Those curves then turned and steepened upward as the Conroe release pulse arrived at those gauges.


Timing and Impact of Release in Lake Houston Area

Peak flow at the Humble gauge was reached shortly after noon on the 29th, roughly 24 hours after peak discharge was reached at the dam and roughly 30 hours after the high-rate release ramp up began.

Water started creeping under the doors of Kingwood Village Estates, a senior living center in Kingwood Town Center about 1.4 miles from the West Fork, at 3 a.m., on August 29th, 2017. It kept rising all morning and finally stopped another mile further inland. Water entered the last (highest) house to flood in Kings Point (the Kingwood subdivision closest to the main body of Lake Houston) at 2 p.m. that same day, according to Elise Whitney Bishop.

Residents trying to escape as Harvey's floodwaters rose
Kingwood Village Estates residents trying to escape as Harvey’s floodwaters rose. Twelve later died.

The level of upper Lake Houston, as measured at US59, rose an additional 7 feet during this period.

Significant additional flooding of Kingwood homes can be tied to this same period of increased discharge.

Flow rates measured at the Grand Parkway gauge and calculated at the Humble gage indicate a flow rate increase in this period of between 70,000 to 80,000 cfs, corresponding closely to the 79,000+ peak flow rate added by the Conroe dam discharge.

“The data from the affidavits further supports several key conclusions from the Harvey Flood Fundamentals section of our University of Houston talk,” said Garfield. Those include:

  • The large sustained release from Lake Conroe made West Fork flooding worse. The extra 80,000 cfs increased the West Fork flow 50%.
  • The release occurred as the storm was abating. It significantly increased flood damage in the Lake Houston area.
More than 4,400 structures flooded in Humble and Kingwood along the West Fork. Source: HCFCD.

The list of damages ran well over a billion dollars.

The SJRA Argument

The SJRA maintains to this day that Lake Conroe is a water-supply reservoir, not a flood-control reservoir. See the affidavits of Hector Olmos and Chuck Gilman. Olmos is a consultant who helped design the operations manual for the gates at Lake Conroe. Gilman is the SJRA’s Director of Flood Management, hired the year after Harvey.

They are basically claiming, “We don’t have the right tool to prevent downstream flooding.”

Editorial Opinion

Editorial opinion: That excuse has always sounded hollow to me. It attempts to curtail discussion of whether the SJRA waited too long to start releasing water, released too much at the peak, and then kept on releasing too much for days.

That discussion is a matter of public concern that could save lives and property in the future. We need to have it.

Sadly, it will take the courts to figure this out. In the meantime, the SJRA has hired some of the highest priced lawyers in the country and now appears to be angling for legislative immunity by hinting at higher water prices “statewide” if liability can’t be controlled.

It all smacks of similar arguments in other industries. If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve heard them all before, such as car companies that would be driven out of business if forced to install seat belts and other safety features. Well, that prediction didn’t quite work out! Luckily, for General Motors, the addition of safety features helped fuel its resurgence.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/12/2020 with thanks to Tim Garfield and RD Kissling

1018 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.


Clean Water Act, R.I.P.

Confluence of Spring Creek (left) and San Jacinto West Fork (top) on March 6, 2020. The Montgomery County line cuts left to right through the center of this picture at the tip of that white sand bar.

If the Clean Water Act were still being enforced, we might see scenes like this less often. You’re looking at the confluence of Spring Creek and the San Jacinto West Fork. It has looked like this during random flyovers in four out of the last six months.

Clean Water Act Abuses

Only after the infamous and extreme white-water incident in November last year was West Fork pollution reduced briefly. The white-water episode was so egregious that it attracted network television attention and prompted a crackdown by the TCEQ. TCEQ cited Liberty Materials in Conroe for allegedly discharging 56 million gallons of white goop into the West Fork. The discharge had 25 times the normal level of suspended solids in it.

Liberty isn’t the only sand mine on the West Fork. You can find approximately 20 square miles of sand mines in the twenty mile stretch between I-69 and I-45. Spring Creek on the other hand has only one mine – almost 30 miles upstream at SH249.

Most West Fork mines have a tendency to leak waste water from time to time. That’s part of what you see in the photo above. Below are seven NEW breaches spotted this month upstream on the West Fork.

Mine water leaks into wetlands and out past perimeter road at LMI E. River Road mine in Conroe.
Pumping water over dike at same Liberty Materials Mine on River Road.
At same mine, a pipe through the dike discharges water at a fixed height into an adjoining ditch that leads to the West Fork.
Liberty Materials leaks water into backyard of home in Bennett Estates. From here it goes into a storm drain on Calhoun and into the river.
Difficult to see at this resolution, there’s a pump in front of the trees on the left. It’s sending waste water into the wetlands below the mine.
Hallett sprouts another leak into the West Fork (lower right).
Most of these breaches happen out of sight and never get reported.

MoCo Tax Breaks for Polluters

Why such a high concentration of mines on the West Fork? It might have something to do with tax breaks by the Montgomery County Appraiser’s Office which passes out ag and timber exemptions for industrial cesspools. That’s contrary to how the State Controller says MoCo should appraise the mines. But nobody at the state level seems to put much pressure on MoCo.

Construction Practices Muddy Clean Water Act, Too

Another part of the West Fork turbidity problem is upstream construction in Montgomery County. Believe it or not, Montgomery County starts at the tip of that white sand bar at the confluence of Spring Creek and the West Fork.

Sediment control is not a high priority for MoCo developers. Nor is enforcement a high priority for MoCo. In fact, the East Montgomery County Improvement District actively advertises its LACK of rules as a way to lure developers.

That’s how you get construction practices like those in the new 2200 acre Artavia complex going in next to the West Fork sand mines, just south of SH242 by FM1314. Brand new culverts are already clogging. See below.

Artavia drainage ditch and culverts. A river of mud.

More on Artavia in a future post.

The erosion is so bad, even the erosion is eroding in many places.

Decline of Clean Water Act

Then, of course, another part of the problem is the gutting of the Federal Clean Water Act. States, counties and municipalities used to have someone setting standards and looking over their shoulders. The rollback of key provisions, such as the redefinition of “waters of the U.S.”, has been heralded as a boon to developers and the death knell of wetlands.

Just last week, we saw the Army Corps rule that the wetlands on Perry Homes Woodridge Village property did NOT fall under their jurisdiction, so there was no violation of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

Of course, you don’t have to change regulations to kill them. You can just not enforce them. By turning a blind eye. Gutting enforcement staff. Overruling staff. Reinterpreting policy. Ignoring evidence. Or resetting priorities. To name just a few.

Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone

Many of us who grew up before the Clean Water Act (formerly known as Federal Water Pollution Control Act, passed in 1972) remember how bad things were. Like the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969.

The San Jacinto West Fork has already been named one of the most endangered rivers in America. But my biggest fears are not for the river. They’re for the health of the millions of people who depend on water from the river. For the people who will flood when the river becomes clogged with sediment. For the poor and elderly who can’t afford sky high bills to cover the cost of water treatment. And for the long-term health of the economic hub of the region, Houston.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/14/2020

928 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.

Whittling Down the San Jacinto West Fork Mouth Bar

The State of Texas, Harris County and the City of Houston are whittling down the mouth bar of the San Jacinto West Fork – teaspoon by teaspoon. Just kidding; it only feels that way.

At the planned rate, the partners will remove approximately one third to one half of the planned 400,000 cubic yards of sediment by the start of hurricane season. But after waiting two and a half years since Hurricane Harvey, any and all progress is welcome! I’m not complaining.

The Mouth Bar Immediately After Harvey

Harvey deposited massive amounts of sediment in the area where the San Jacinto meets Lake Houston.

The mouth bar two weeks after Hurricane Harvey. With the exception of the treed areas on the extreme right, Harvey deposited virtually all the sand you see here plus more that you can’t see underwater.

The Army Corps of Engineers dredged a 600-acre area south of the mouth bar three feet deeper last summer. However, they barely touched the part of the mouth bar above water.

The mouth bar created a sediment dam behind the Lake Houston Dam that contributed to flooding more than 4100 structures in the Humble, Kingwood, and Atascocita areas.

Why Mouth Bar Formed Where It Did

The mouth bar formed where it did because the river water slows down when it meets the lake. The lower velocity causes sediment to drop out of suspension and accumulate faster.

While the Corps used hydraulic dredging to remove 500,000 cubic yards from the mouth bar in three months, the current phase uses mechanical dredging. Partners hope to remove another 400,000 cubic yards in 12 months. The process resembles whittling in that workers remove small chunks at a time.

Big Machines Dwarfed by Size of Job

Mechanical dredging uses large excavators. They load the sediment on pontoons. Tugs then push the pontoons upriver to a placement area. There, skid loaders remove the sediment and put it in trucks. The trucks cart it inland.

The excavators are currently nibbling away at the southern edge of the bar. I took all photos below on 3/6/2020.

Excavators are nibbling row after row, like from an ear of corn. This shot shows the immensity of the task.
They load one pontoon while another waits. The West Fork now has its own shuttle service. Unfortunately, round trip is still more than two hours.
These double pontoons can carry an estimated 160 cubic yards. Project goal: 400,000 cubic yards. That’s about 2,500 round trips for the pontoons.
Keeping the pontoon balanced requires coordination.
Tugs then push the pontoons upstream.
Dock of the placement area on Berry Madden’s property south of the West Fork, opposite River Grove Park boat dock on north shore.
From there, trucks haul the sediment inland out of the floodway, about a mile from the river. And the cycle repeats itself.

Mechanical vs. Hydraulic Dredging

The whole process resembles a five-mile long conveyor belt. It involves excavators, pontoons, tugs, trucks and more. Both mechanical and hydraulic dredging have advantages and disadvantages. Hydraulic dredging takes more time to mobilize, but re-suspends less sediment, and costs less per cubic yard of sediment removed. Mechanical dredging, on the other hand, can mobilize much faster.

At this point, returning to hydraulic dredging feels like a distant dream. No one is commenting on the possibility. But this picture speaks volumes.

Former Army Corps command post for West Fork Emergency Dredging project

It shows the once-bustling, but now-empty Army Corps command post. Just three months ago, it was filled with dredge pipe, spare parts, construction trailers, pontoons, booster pumps, survey boats, and more. Getting all that equipment back will be difficult.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/12/2020

926 Days since Hurricane Harvey