Tag Archive for: sand mining

River Bank Collapses, Taking Half of Sand Mine Road

At the abandoned Williams Brothers sand mine on the San Jacinto West Fork, a strip of land – approximately 400 to 500 feet long and up to 50 feet wide – collapsed into the river during the flood in late January.

The dramatic erosion, during a relatively minor (2-5-year) rain event, dramatizes the destructive power of moving water and the need for greater setbacks from the river for sand mines. It also raises questions about abandonment plans for sand mines.

Resident Photo From Boat Shows Collapse

A resident who frequently boats the river and wishes to remain anonymous supplied the picture below. As the resident said, “All that dirt went somewhere. And it didn’t go upstream.”

Looking upstream adjacent to Williams Brothers Mine south of Kingwood Drive

Aerial Shots Show Extent of Damage

From the air, the same location looks like this.

Williams Brothers Mine on right. Eagle Sorters Mine top left. Note extent of fresh sand on left.
Same area from lower angle. Note how trees collapsed into river.
Note also how erosion has eaten half of maintenance road around mine.

Where Trees Once Stood

Compare that with the satellite image below from Google Earth taken last year. Note how there used to be a row of trees on each side of the road. Now, trees remain only on one side.

The measuring tool Google Earth shows the width of the eroded strip was approximately 50 feet.

Most of the trees on the river side of the road are now floating down the river somewhere.

Blankets of Fresh Sand Everywhere

The resident who took the first shot above (the one from the boat) has lived near the river for 40 years. He says he’s never seen so much fresh sand deposited in a flood. See below.

Fresh sand flanks both side of the West Fork. Note trail of trees in water.

The images above show the power of moving water. One cubic foot of fresh water weighs 62.4 pounds. And more than 20,000 cubic feet per second moved down this reach of the West Fork during the peak of the January flood. That’s a lot of force on sandy soil.

We Must Plan for River Migration

That force was magnified by the way a river meanders. On the outside of curves, water accelerates. That extra speed accelerates erosion and creates what geologists call the cut bank.

Conversely, water travels less far and slower on the inside of a curve. As a result, sand is often deposited there in what geologists call point bars. Learn more in this post about Why Rivers Move.

Over time, erosion on one side of a river and deposition on another tends to exaggerate curves. Geologists call that process river migration. River migration already broke through the dike of one sand mine slightly upstream.

During the January flood, water flushing through that mine likely contributed to the buildup of sand blocking the Northpark drainage ditch near Northpark Woods.

Looking upriver along West Fork. Red arrow indicated where West Fork migrated through dike of abandoned sand mine.

Note in the photo above that the Northpark Ditch is now blocked by sand higher than ditch itself. This blockage suddenly appeared during the Jan. ’24 flood. It is backing water up toward Northpark Woods and Oakhurst in the upper right. At least some of the sand was likely flushed out through the breach in the dike above.

Need Greater Setbacks from the River For Sand Mines

As I stated in the beginning, this dramatizes the need for greater setbacks from the river for sand mines. At one time, there was no minimum distance.

In November 2021, after years of work by Bill McCabe and the Lake Houston Flood Prevention Initiative, TCEQ adopted new Best Management Practices (BMPs) for sand mining in the San Jacinto River Basin.

The new rules specify “A minimum 100-foot buffer zone is required adjacent to perennial streams greater than 20 feet wide, 50 feet for perennial streams less than 20 feet wide, and 35 feet for intermittent streams.”

Clearly, that may not be enough. For a list of what other states specify, see the Sand Mining page of ReduceFlooding.com.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/27/2024

2363 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Sand Mine Leaks Upstream from Blocked Drainage Ditch

Just upstream from the blocked drainage ditch at Northpark Drive and the San Jacinto West Fork, Hallett Materials operates the biggest sand mine between I-69 and I-45. The mine complex sprawls across several square miles and has several leaks. During the last flood in January, those leaks likely contributed to sedimentation in the West Fork and a blocked drainage ditch immediately downriver from the mine.

Blocked Northpark Ditch at West Fork
Contrary to a popular narrative among miners, this sand did not come from Spring Creek. That’s another watershed. Picture taken on 2/5/2024. The Hallett Mine is to the left (upstream) of the channel.
This picture of the blockage above shows the height of the sand relative to the top of the banks. Courtesy of a resident who prefers to remain anonymous.

Location of Mine Relative to Blockage

In late January, the West Fork experienced an estimated five-year flood after several days of nearly constant rains. Waking up after the flood was like a bad hangover. The blocked ditch above was just one of the problems. It is immediately downstream from the giant Hallett mine. See below.

Landsat image from Google Earth. Arrow shows direction of river’s flow. Circle shows location of blockage. Numbers show approximate location of leaks listed below.

Mine Leaks in Multiple Places

Let’s take a closer look at each of those three areas.

  1. One pond was wide open to the river through a large gap in its dike. The gap appears to have remained open since at least July 2023 and enlarged.
  2. A pipe was expelling water from a second pond straight into the river.
  3. A bulldozer appeared to have helped a third pond overflow across a road. Wastewater from the settling pond then flowed through woods and neighboring properties on its way to the river.

Pictures Taken on Feb. 8, 2024

Leak #1

Notice the huge gap in the dike of the pond in the center of the image below. Also notice that pond’s elevation compared to the one on the right.

The dike breach (center of image) first showed up in Google Earth in July 2023. It now appears considerably larger, indicating severe erosion from the recent flood.

The drought last summer and fall certainly didn’t cause the breach to enlarge.

Historical images in Google Earth show that this pond frequently breaches its dikes in different places. Something’s going through there!

Leak #2

A little farther downstream on the west side of the river, a pipe drains another Hallet pond directly into the river.

I photographed Hallett piping water into the river at this same location in 2020.
Leak #3:

Haven’t seen this before! On the east side of the river, in the woods next to Hallett’s main settling pond, a bulldozer apparently created a path for water to escape across a maintenance road. Water then flowed through woods 600-feet wide and onto neighboring properties before entering the river just above the blocked channel. See the series of images below.

Notice bulldozer tracks to left of perimeter road and wet area on road in the middle of the frame.

Flying closer, you can see that the bulldozer had pushed dirt from the road into the pond (see below, right side of frame).

Silty wastewater then escaped from the pond into the woods on the left.
The silty wastewater then migrated south (top of frame) through the woods.
Along the way, it invaded neighboring properties.
Then it drained back across the access road and into an abandoned mine (top of frame).

Hanover Estates now owns that abandoned mine. In the photo above, note the open path to the river in the upper right. It’s shown below in more detail.

Closer shot of wastewater exiting Hanover pond through another breach that leads straight to blockage (circled in red in the distance).

Apportioning the Relative Contribution of Different Sources

The Hallett mine owner told me that sand can’t escape his pits. I remain skeptical.

To be fair, some of the sediment in the channel blockage likely came from river-bank erosion and sand bars upstream.

Also, a new development called Northpark South, now in the clearing stage, likely also contributed to the blockage. Silty stormwater flows unchecked from it into a second abandoned mine (also owned by Hanover Estates) and then into the blocked drainage ditch.

Northpark South, which drains into Northpark ditch is being built over wetlands.
Northpark South photo from January 24, 2024, looking south toward abandoned mine, blocked ditch and river in distance.

No one can say that Hallett and Northpark South contributed all of the material in the blockage. But it would be hard to pretend that none of it came from them.

The mine is still leaking two weeks after the flood!

And even before the flood, a giant ravine was sending stormwater from Northpark South into the second abandoned mine on the south side of the ditch.

ravine at Northpark South
Northpark South on December 28, 2023 before flood. Note ravine caused by erosion.

That mine drains into the blocked channel directly above the blockage. (See very first shot in this post.)

The SJRA, which is investigating sedimentation in the river basin, relies on a sediment gauge at I-45 – upstream from the mines and most of the new developments along the river. So they can’t really help sort out this issue.

The Calm After the Storm

Now that the immediate danger has passed, we need to investigate the contribution of mining and floodplain development to sedimentation.

When rivers and ditches fill up with sludge, it reduces conveyance.

Then, when the next flood comes, instead of water staying within the riverbanks, it may back up or overflow into living rooms.

The greatest area of deposition will normally be where floodwater slows down as it reaches a standing body of water like Lake Houston. We’ve seen what that led to.

Corporate waste-disposal practices are matters of public safety and concern. We need to examine them more closely.

If Hallett and/or the Northpark South developer wish to respond to this editorial, I will be happy to post their points of view.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/9/24

2355 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.

2023 Legislature Scorecard on Flood Issues: 2 Wins, 4 Losses, 1 Toss-up

The 2023 legislature scorecard, just five years after Hurricane Harvey, shows that flooding is fast becoming forgotten in Texas. Of the seven issues I tracked, the Lake Houston Area had two wins, four losses, and one that could be ruled a coin toss depending on your point of view.

In the Win Column

Let’s look at the good news first.

HB 1: More Floodgates for Lake Houston

Due to last minute heroics, HB 1 contained enough money earmarked for more gates to keep the project alive. A last minute phone-call campaign by hundreds of citizens making thousands of phone calls to key state legislators in the House and Senate succeeded in getting riders attached to the budget bill.

Few projects have inspired more hope among residents in the northeastern part of Harris County than the one to add more floodgates to the Lake Houston Dam. The Lake Houston Area Flood Task Force identified the project as one of the top priorities for the area.

The idea: to release water both earlier and faster in advance of major storms to create more storage in Lake Houston. Right now, Lake Conroe can release water 15 times faster than Lake Houston. And the release from Lake Conroe during Harvey was widely seen as one of the contributing factors to the flooding of so many homes and businesses in the Lake Houston Area.

The governor signed HB 1 on 6/18/23. It becomes effective on 9/1/23. With funding secured, Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin says final design on the gates is proceeding.

Lake Houston Gates Project
Lake Houston Gates Project
SB 1397: TCEQ Reforms

The TCEQ was under sunset review this year. No one proposed eliminating the TCEQ. But many people had ideas to improve it. They focused on two main areas: increasing transparency and improving enforcement.

The Sunset Commission recommended measures to improve public outreach, public notices, community input, and dissemination of public information, including the publication of best practices for sand mining.

The Commission also recommended updating the TCEQ’s enforcement practices to better focus on the riskiest actors and ensure staff treat potential violations consistently and based on severity. 

Breach in dike of Triple PG mine remained open for months, sending wastewater into Lake Houston. Texas Attorney General is now suing the mine.

The governor signed SB 1397 on 6/18/23. It becomes effective on 9/1/23.

In the Loss Column

SB 2431/HB 5338: Gulf Coast Resiliency District

These companion bills would have transformed the Harris County Flood Control District into the Gulf Coast Resiliency District. The new District would have been governed by a board appointed by the Governor instead of management hired by Harris County Commissioners.

The idea: to create regional solutions that benefitted all residents of Harris County, not just those that scored high on an equity formula.

The County fought the bill(s) tooth and nail. Each failed to get out of committee.

HB 1093: Financial Surety Guaranteeing Sand Mine Cleanup

The bill died in the House Natural Resources committee. It never even got a public hearing.

This bill would have required sand mining companies to post financial surety that would guarantee cleanup of mines before they were abandoned. Abandoned mines on both the San Jacinto East and West Forks are littered with the remains of once thriving operations. But when the sand played out, the miners walked away, leaving a legacy of blight for the public to clean up.

abandoned dredge
Abandoned dredge in mine on North Houston Ave. in Humble. Property is unfenced so kids can play on equipment.
HB5341: Lake Houston Dredging and Maintenance District

This bill also died in the House Natural Resources committee. House Bill 5341 would have created a Lake Houston Dredging and Maintenance District. Its purpose would be to remove sediment, debris, sand, and gravel  from Lake Houston and its tributaries to restore, maintain, and expand the Lake to mitigate storm flows. 

SB 1366: Flood Infrastructure Financing

This bill died in the Senate Finance committee. Senate Bill 1366 would have redirected surplus revenue from the economic stabilization fund to the Flood Infrastructure Fund. The State’s Flood Infrastructure Fund (FIF) has turned into one of the main sources of funding for Texas Water Development Board grants and one of the main ways that smaller counties and cities can fund flood projects. 

Passed but Failed
HB 1540: SJRA Reforms

HB 1540 passed. The bill implements reforms recommended by the Sunset Review Committee for the the San Jacinto River Authority. Many of those are good and needed reforms. They include provisions governing:

  • Gubernatorial designation of the presiding officer of SJRA’s board of directors;
  • Specific grounds for removal of a board member;
  • Board member training;
  • Separation of the board’s policy-making responsibilities and the staff’s managementresponsibilities;
  • Maintenance of complaint information; and
  • Public testimony at board meetings.

Approval should have been a rubber stamp. But at the last minute, Rep. Will Metcalf from Conroe offered an amendment that effectively fired Jace Houston, SJRA’s general manager and leader of the SJRA’s fight to reduce subsidence. The amended bill passed the Senate. Houston resigned effective 6/30/23. And now the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District has no one to challenge unlimited groundwater pumping in Montgomery County.

Some in the Lake Houston Area who flooded during Harvey may rejoice at Houston’s departure. But differential subsidence is tilting Lake Houston upstream. It could make the Lake Houston Dam two feet higher relative to areas upstream near the county line. That could eliminate the safety margin above the floodplain for many homes in the next big flood.

subsidence in Harris County
Modeling shows 3 feet of subsidence near Harris/Montgomery county line, but only one foot at Lake Houston Dam.

As someone who had floodwater lapping at his foundation, I personally would put this one in the loss column.

The governor signed the bill on 6/18/23. It goes into effect on 9/1/2023.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/2/23

2133 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.

Cunningham Sponsors Bill to Ensure Restoration of Abandoned Sand Mines

Newly elected State Representative Charles Cunningham has introduced a bill aimed at restoring sand mines to productive use after operators cease production. Cunningham filed HB1093 in December and it was referred to the House Natural Resources Committee on 3/2/2023.

Aimed at Protecting Water Supply for 2 Million People

HB1093 amends Section 28A of the Texas Water Code. It applies to aggregate production operations (APOs) located within 1500 feet of the San Jacinto. It deals with the reclamation of such mines and ensure water-quality in the river(s) around them.

The goal is to reduce adverse water-quality impacts to the San Jacinto and Lake Houston which supply drinking water to more than 2 million people. Additional benefits will accrue to recreation, wildlife, and environmental safety.

Requirements in Bill

Before abandonment, the bill requires APOs to file a reclamation plan signed by a licensed engineer. Such a plan would typically include measures such as revegetation, erosion control, grading, soil stabilization, and backfilling. The plans must also address:

  • Removal of materials used in production, waste, structures, roads, equipment and railroads.
  • Slope stability for the walls of remaining detention ponds
  • Closure of waste disposal areas
  • Costs for all of the above
  • Financial assurance (such as a performance bond, typical in the construction industry) designed to enable cleanup without cost to taxpayers if the operator walks away from the site or declares bankruptcy.

While we need sand to make concrete, we need clean water even more.

Why We Need This Bill

Think these issues aren’t real? They’re all around us. See the pictures below taken recently.

Dredge at abandoned mine on North Houston Avenue in Humble.
More abandoned equipment at same mine.
Another abandoned sand mine in Humble. No grading of slopes or vegetation that retards erosion. Note commercial structures threatened by collapsing walls of pit.
Abandoned mine on East Fork in Liberty County should have had soil stabilized with vegetation.
Another shot from same mine. Old structures, materials not removed.
And another. There are no fences to keep children from playing on this abandoned dredge.
At the same mine on May 3, 2021. Note two breaches in dikes sweeping sand down the East Fork.
Excavator in abandoned mine on West Fork.
Collapsing dike of West Fork mine.
Abandoned mine (foreground) next to recreational facility on opposite side of West Fork at I-45.

Part of Sedimentation Problem

Lake Houston has lost 20,000 acre feet due to sedimentation and continues to lose on average 380 acre feet annually.

In the 1980s, only one or two small mines existed on the San Jacinto West Fork. Today, sand mines occupy more than 20 square miles in a 20 mile reach of the river between I-69 and I-45. And many empty their pits into the river.

An active mine empties one of its pits into the abandoned mine in the foreground which drains straight into the West Fork.

The montage below shows the effect of such issues on water quality where Spring and Cypress Creeks join the West Fork. The angles vary. But in each shot, the dirtier water comes from the West Fork. This is typical and easily visible on most days.

Water coming from area with mines typically appears siltier.

Cost of Dredging

To maintain the capacity of Lake Houston and the conveyance of its tributaries, the City of Houston and Army Corps have dredged almost continuously since Harvey. To date, they have removed almost 4 million cubic yards of sediment at a cost of $226 million.

From presentation by Stephen Costello, City of Houston Chief Recovery Officer.

The City needs even more money to continue the program and it’s all at your (taxpayers’) expense.

How You Can Help

You can bet that TACA (the Texas Aggregate and Concrete Association) will lobby against this bill. So show lawmakers it has your support.

Write to the Chairman of the Texas House Natural Resources Committee, Tracy O. King.

Also, submit public comments when the bill is going to be heard; I will let you know when that is. Here is the website to make Public Comments.

To learn more, consult the sand-mining page on ReduceFlooding.com.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/3/23

2012 Days since Hurricane Harvey

One of the Prettiest Places in Texas

When I first started exploring the forests north of Houston 40 years ago, I thought they were among the prettiest places in Texas.

The towering pines had a quiet beauty. They wrapped you in a blanket of solitude. Surrounded you with silence. Calmed the soul. Enabled a retreat from workday worries into a world of wonder.

Here, you could reconnect with the roots of life. Relax. Restore. Renew. Right outside your back door. I just had to live here! But a million other people had the same dream.

16 Lanes Later

The dream became so successful that we paved 16 lanes to it.

Looking North at I-69 and Kingwood from over the West Fork San Jacinto

The same thing happened along I-45. As one development after another sprang up, we found ourselves destroying what attracted us here.

The Pursuit of Loneliness

As I reflected on this, it reminded me of a book I read in 1970, The Pursuit of Loneliness by Phillip Slater. For thousands of years, Slater said, to be civilized meant to be citified. We love all the benefits of living in a city (such as jobs, shopping, medical care, and events), but we dream of a place in the country that lets us escape. So we buy some acreage, use up hours each day commuting. And wake up years later only to find that millions of us have collectively destroyed the very lifestyle we fought so hard to attain.

Changes We Ordinarily Can’t See

To see the changes we caused, you need to rise above the tree tops. Only from there can you comprehend how we have put our forests and rivers under a carving knife.

Here’s what I found from four hundred feet up as I flew last month from I-45 to I-69 down the San Jacinto West Fork in a helicopter – 20 square miles of sand mines in a 20 mile reach of the river – carved out of one of the prettiest places in Texas. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only such stretch of river like this in the region.

All that opaque blue water isn’t what you’d find on a Caribbean island. It’s likely loaded with chlorides or cyanobacteria.

Dreams Built on Sand

Ironically, it takes sand to make concrete. And it takes concrete to build 16 lanes to your dream home. It might be worth it when you live at the end of the road and they take the sand from someplace else. You can still enjoy the dream.

But when the 16 lanes go 20 miles beyond you, when someone tears up YOUR forest to get the sand, and destroys the beauty you built your dream around, it makes you wonder whether there is a better way.

Can we find the sand somewhere else? Can we define rules for mining that preserve our collective dream, perhaps by repurposing the mines after we have exhausted them? Can we give developers an incentive to preserve trees instead of clearcutting them? Hope springs eternal, as the poets say. Another legislative session starts in January. Stranger things have happened.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/10/22

1807 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.

The Hand of Sand Miners on the San Jacinto

The hand of sand miners weighs heavily on the San Jacinto watershed. Not all miners. But many.

While exploring the river basin by helicopter last week, the contrast between two scenes struck me: 1) The natural blanket of green in Lake Houston Wilderness Park. 2) Sand mines that lined the banks of the East and West Forks for miles.

The trees and natural wetlands inhibit floods. They slow floodwaters down, hold them back during heavy rains, and reduce erosion. The sand mines do not. They may provide some floodwater detention, but the pits are often filled to the brim and their dikes often break.

How you treat the land determines how it treats you. Especially during floods. This aerial photo essay shows how the San Jacinto River Basin used to look and how it looks today.

Lake Houston Wilderness Park

Peach and Caney Creeks border Lake Houston Wilderness Park on the west. The San Jacinto East Fork borders it on the east. The shot below represents the way the whole Lake Houston area used to be.

Looking across the 5000 acres of Lake Houston Wilderness Park – the largest urban nature park in America.

Compare That With These Shots

This first provides a direct comparison.

Sand mine on Caney Creek. Lake Houston Wilderness Park in upper right.

Below, note the difference in water levels between the creek and mine. No doubt, you also noticed a difference in water color. That bright blue/green in the mine water likely comes from high chloride levels.

Site of previous breach from mine into Caney Creek, the subject of a million-dollar lawsuit by the TCEQ and the Texas Attorney General.

More Mine Photos from West Fork

I’ll provide five more shots here, all from the West Fork San Jacinto. They represent more than 500 similar shots I took on 7/22/22.

No Swimming

When I see all this environmental degradation, my mind starts swimming – despite the scary water.

  • How much sediment gets swept downstream in floods?
  • Can this land ever return to productive use?
  • Do other cities allow mining in urban environments upstream from their water sources?
  • What effect does mining have on the water quality in Lake Houston?
  • What percentage of our water bills goes to cleaning up this water?
  • Why doesn’t Texas have performance bonds that ensure sand miners leave the land in habitable shape?

The sand makes concrete. It supports growth. But is all growth good?

  • Is growth in one area at the expense of public safety in another worthwhile?
  • Should we limit the concentration of mines in an area?
  • Why do mines expect the public to pay their cleanup and reclamation costs?
  • Is it safe to build mines below a dam that releases enough water during floods to break the mines’ dikes?
  • Are there no alternatives?

Cycle Continues

New Segment H of the Grand Parkway cutting east through forests will attract more subdivisions that require more sand for more concrete.

I encourage rebuttals from any mine owner who wishes to address these questions.

Posted by Bob Rehak on July 27, 2022

1793 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.

Bayou Land Conservancy Raises Concerns About SJRA Sand Trap Proposal

The Bayou Land Conservancy has added its voice to those raising concerns about the SJRA’s sand trap proposal for the San Jacinto River watershed. The pilot project began out of a desire to reduce sediment buildup in the mouth bar of the West Fork. But it has morphed into something very different – a trench through a sand bar more than 12 miles upstream.

In March 2022, the SJRA published its long-awaited proposal on sediment removal and sand trap development along with a brief summary. It now seeks public comment through April 29, 2022.

Location of recommended sediment trap outside Hallett mine
Sand bar on West Fork San Jacinto that would be used for pilot project outside Hallett mine. Note that the height of the freshly deposited sand is engulfing several medium sized trees. This location is downstream from several other large mines. Picture taken shortly after Harvey.

BLC’s General Concerns with Study

I posted my concerns on 3/27/22. Yesterday, the Bayou Land Conservancy (BLC) sent me a copy of its letter. It reflected some of the same concerns I had.

  • The study did not address what should be the main goal of sediment removal: excessive deposition in the area of the mouth bar downstream of US 59.
  • Managing mouth bar sediment deposition, and related flooding, should be kept at the forefront as this project moves forward.
  • Sand mining in the floodplain of the San Jacinto West Fork between 1995 and 2017 virtually quadrupled. More than 30% of the river’s flood plain is now being mined. That’s a huge problem that requires other types of solutions to reduce sedimentation from mines, such as improved Best Management Practices.

The group also suggested a need for greater oversight of sand mining by state regulators. It feels an inconsistency exists between in-stream mining via sand traps and the TCEQ’s newly adopted BMPs for sand mining.

BLC’s Specific Concerns re: Recommendation

BLC then went on to discuss the specific recommendation – rock-lined trenches through sand bars outside of sand mines. They listed three concerns:

  1. River migration and erosion: Changes in river course, including erosion and deposition of sediment, are naturally occurring processes. Installation of hardscape or mechanical features within the flowing part of the river will have an impact on this natural process and could lead to increased erosion in the area surrounding the facility, increased sediment transport downstream, and destabilization of the stream to the detriment of the surrounding and downstream communities.”
  2. Water quality: 85% of the drinking water needs of the Houston metropolitan region are met by Lake Houston, at the receiving end of the San Jacinto River. Instead of occasional turbidity increase during dredging of the mouth bar, sand trapping could create a long-term elevation in turbidity leading to increased water treatment costs for the entire region, transferring the cost to the public from private interests. Additionally, the riverbed contains chemical components that may need to be addressed in water treatment at additional public expense.”
  3. Accountability: the governing legislation created by HB1824 does not address the question of accountability should the private interest in the sediment trap fail to protect the public’s interest or go out of business without remediating the in-stream mining facility.”

More Study Recommended Before Implementation

BLC also recommended that two of the study’s recommendations deserve to be prioritized and expanded to provide as much accurate data as possible before sand-traps get further consideration:

  1. “Evaluate total annual sediment load transported to Lake Houston, including the area downstream of proposed sediment traps, and compare to anticipated trapped sediment loads.”
  2. “Perform further geomorphic assessment to address potential downstream instabilities due to removing sediment and to determine appropriate sediment removal volumes.”

BLC went on to encourage SJRA to extensively study the holistic sediment story of the upper San Jacinto River watershed. Previous studies point to Spring and Cypress Creeks as major contributors of sediment. BLC wants the sediment loads in those creeks studied as well as the areas downstream of the proposed sand traps.

The group continued, “A science-based, peer-reviewed, methodology of assessing the sediment budget of the watershed is imperative before assuming that removing sediment from any single location on the river will have a positive impact on mouth bar deposition. … Without a basis for understanding the sediment budget for the West Fork, it’s impossible to evaluate (or approve) this project.”

Rivers in Texas Are Public Property

BLC also pointed out that even though HB1824 exempted SJRA and Harris County Flood Control District from any requirement to obtain a permit, pay a fee, or purchase the material taken, in Texas the contents of a river belong to the citizens of the state. “Therefore we all have an interest in the results of this in-stream mining proposal,” said the group’s letter.

The letter concluded, “BLC recommends that extensive further study be undertaken to determine if in-stream mining, i.e. sand traps, will accomplish the stated goal of providing a long-term solution for managing the mouth bar deposition, without creating further instability to the river system and negative impacts to the surrounding and downstream communities.

Here is their full letter.

The Bayou Land Conservancy, one of the leading environmental groups in the Lake Houston watershed, preserves land along streams for flood control, clean water, and wildlife.

How Taking Sediment Out of a River Can Increase Erosion

Non-technical people may have trouble understanding how taking sediment out of a river can increase erosion. Basically, if you take too much out (more than the natural baseline of dissolved sediment), it can create a “hungry water” effect. Many academics have documented the hungry water effect. It’s especially noticeable downstream of dams, which are notorious for trapping sediment. Rivers with excess sediment transport capacity tend to erode their banks and streamed to compensate.

To Register Your Opinion

To register your opinions, pro or con, with the SJRA, email  floodmanagementdivision@sjra.net no later than April 29, 2022.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/9/2022 based on a Bayou Land Conservancy letter to SJRA

1684 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.

Price of Progress?

Some say that mining sand from our rivers and flood plains is the price of progress.

Looking west at part of Hallett Mine Complex bisected by the West Fork of San Jacinto. Photographed 1/1/22. The pond in the middle foreground is part of another abandoned mine adjacent to Hallett.

Pros and Cons

Sand has its benefits. We need it to make concrete. And we need concrete to accommodate a growing population. And a growing population creates income for builders, tradesmen and other businesses.

But mining sand also has several downsides. It alters the environment on a large scale. Wildlife lose habitat. Erosion increases. The sediment can contribute to flooding by forming dams and reducing conveyance downstream. Water quality also suffers. These are global problems.

Out of Sight. Out of Time. Out of Mind.

Sand mining mostly takes place in floodplains along rivers. Because our terrain offers no elevated viewpoints, the only way to see the mines is from the air. So for the vast majority of people, they’re out of sight, out of mind and, as a consequence, we’re out of time. More than 20 square miles of sand mines already border the San Jacinto West Fork between I-45 and I-69.

The Hallett mine complex in Porter and an adjacent abandoned mine now stretch 3 miles north to south and 2 miles east to west. And Hallett is just one of several such complexes on the West Fork.

New Best Management Practices recently adopted by the TCEQ for sand mining will help in the future. But much damage has already been done.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s time to start a conversation about the price of progress. How do we restore this land to another useful purpose in the long run? And who should pay for that?

Looking south from farther west at the end of the pond mentioned above. Note outfall to river, top left. Also note recent repairs to Hallett dike, bottom right.
Looking east across abandoned mine complex to left of river, which flows from bottom to top. New Northpark Woods subdivision is in upper left. Part of Hallett mine is on right.
Satellite photo from 2020 courtesy of Google Earth showing Hallett and adjacent abandoned mines.

The Long-Term Question

What do you do with an area this large when miners finish?

  • Do the ponds turn into recreational amenities and parks? (Not when left like those in the third photo!)
  • Who will plant grass and trees?
  • What do you do with the old equipment?
  • How do you turn these areas into detention ponds?
  • Who maintains them? (Montgomery County doesn’t even have a flood control district.)
  • What happens to bordering neighborhoods if rivers decide to reroute themselves through the pits?

Lots of questions. Little consensus.

When you start out to create a detention pond, it’s easy to plan recreation around it. But when the primary goal is mining, the end result can be dangerous, i.e., banks that cave in after miners walk away or kids playing on abandoned equipment.

Abandoned dredge at abandoned Humble mine on north Houston Avenue has been there since Harvey. Area is unfenced.
Rusting processing equipment left at same abandoned Humble mine near West Fork. This is between a driving range and a paintball park.

The new Best Management Practices do not require miners to post a performance bond that would ensure cleanup and conversion to a suitable post-mining use.

In some areas, city and county governments make arrangements with miners to take over abandoned mines. That seems like a decent idea to me. That may be the price of progress.

We need dialog on this issue – unless we’re willing to let private industry turn our rivers into eyesores.

Posted by Bob Rehak

1591 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.

Top Stories of 2021 in Review

Below are my personal picks for the top flood-mitigation stories of 2021.

The Fight for Funding

In 2019, Commissioners Court established “equity” guidelines that prioritized projects in Low-to-Moderate Income watersheds. Then this year:

Still no word from HUD on a possible direct allocation of $750 million. We may hear in January.

To help you follow this story, I make quarterly FOIA requests for Harris County Flood Control District spending and post the analyses on a dedicated funding page.

Sand-Mining Best Management Practices

Activists led by the Lake Houston Area Flood Prevention Initiative and the Bayou Land Conservancy petitioned the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to establish best management practices for sand mines in the San Jacinto watershed. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we got a vast improvement over what we had. And the new BMPs may help reduce erosion that contributes to future floods in this area.

West Fork Sand Mine illustrates need for vegetative controls to reduce erosion.

Relentless Development

Fueled by low interest rates and flight from city crowds during Covid, suburban and rural development surged in 2021. Flood-mitigation felt like an afterthought in many developments. We saw that with Colony Ridge in Liberty County. Colony Ridge clearcut wetlands, paved over floodplains and ignored county regs designed to reduce erosion.

In the Kingwood Area, the Laurel Springs RV resort took advantage of a grandfathering clause in permitting to build a detention pond one-half the size of current requirements. These represent just two examples of many.

The Laurel Springs RV Resort got its detention pond approved one day before stiffer regs went into effect.

After Harvey, we saw how such practices made flooding worse. How soon we forget!

Houston Housing and Community Development Meltdown

Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department, which was responsible for distributing more than a billion dollars in Harvey disaster relief funds, came unglued again this year. Last year, it sued the Texas General Land Office to keep money it couldn’t give away. This year, the Department’s Director publicly denounced the Mayor of Houston for trying to steer multi-family housing subsidies to the Mayor’s former law partner. The Mayor claimed ignorance of the partner’s involvement and announced a City Attorney investigation which never materialized.

Meanwhile, flood victims were victimized a second time. Bureaucratic bungling denied aid to people who deserved it.

World War II And Lake Houston Gates

May 9, 2021, was 1349 days after Hurricane Harvey ravaged Texas and the Gulf Coast. That’s the number of days it took the US and its allies to win World War II. But during that time we’ve had few victories in the fight against future flooding in the Lake Houston Area with the exception of dredging, So far, we’ve mainly completed studies. And many of those are still in the works.

For instance, the City of Houston has been studying ways to increase the release capacity of the Lake Houston Dam. Right now, the release capacity is one-fifteenth that of the gates on Lake Conroe. That makes it difficult to shed water quickly before and during floods. FEMA gave the City money to study the problem, but is still finalizing recommendations. The City hopes to make an announcement in January.

Lawsuits

The Lake Conroe Association had its lawsuit against the SJRA thrown out of court…with prejudice. The LCA hoped to prohibit the SJRA’s policy of seasonal lake lowering, which was designed to help protect the Lake Houston Area until other flood mitigation efforts could be put in place.

The Texas Attorney General is still suing the Triple PG Sand Mine in Porter on behalf of the TCEQ. There has been little movement on the case in the last 18 months. The mine’s owner changed legal counsel in July 2020. A TCEQ representative says the AG has not given up. The two sides are still in discovery.

Approximately 1700 homeowners in the Lake Houston Area sued sand mines for contributing to flooding during Harvey. The cases were consolidated in the 281st Harris County District Court under Judge Sylvia Matthews. She recently set deadlines in the first half of next year for motions, depositions, joinder, expert witness testimony and more. The case is known as “Harvey Sand Litigation.”

Various lawsuits against the SJRA for flooding during Harvey are still working their way through the legal system.

Kingwood residents reached a settlement with Perry Homes, its subsidiaries and contractors this year over two floods that damaged hundreds of homes in Elm Grove and North Kingwood Forest during 2019. The incidents had to do with development of Woodridge Village, just across the Harris/Montgomery County line.

Woodridge Village

Harris County Flood Control District purchased Woodridge Village from Perry Homes in February this year and hired a contractor to begin doubling the current floodwater-detention capacity on the site. When complete, the additional capacity will help protect homes in Elm Grove, North Kingwood Forest and downstream along Taylor Gully.

Expansion of Dredging

After three and a half years of dredging in the San Jacinto West Fork, dredging has now moved to the East Fork. State Representative Dan Huberty secured $50 million earlier this year to extend the dredging program to other inlets around Lake Houston in the future.

East Fork Dredging. Photographed in early December between Huffman and Royal Shores in Kingwood. Looking south toward Lake Houston.

Bens Branch and Taylor Gully Cleanouts

In Kingwood, HCFCD finished excavating both Bens Branch and Taylor Gully to help restore their conveyance. Through gradual sediment built up, both had been gradually reduced to a 2-year level of service in places. That means they would come out of their banks after a 2-year rain.

Final phase of Bens Branch maintenance between Kingwood Drive and Rocky Woods. Note Kingwood High School in upper right.

Subsidence

Years of fighting over subsidence between the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District and Groundwater Management Area 14 came to a head earlier this year. LSGCD fought any mention of subsidence in Desired Future Conditions (DFCs) for Montgomery County. GMA-14 wanted to include it, but finally recommended allowing each groundwater conservation district to make a subsidence measure optional. Unlimited groundwater pumping in southern Montgomery County could tilt Lake Houston toward homes at the northern end of the lake. That’s because subsidence would be greater there than at the Lake Houston Dam by TWO FEET.

GMA-14 will take a final vote on January 5 on the final DFCs. You still have time to protest.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/31/2021

1585 Days since Hurricane Harvey

TCEQ Approves New Best Management Practices for San Jacinto Sand Mining

This morning, the TCEQ approved new Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Sand Mining in the San Jacinto Watershed. The effort to inventory, establish and publish BMPs for sand mining began shortly after Harvey. This web site contains thousands of pictures and 210 posts about area sand mine operations.

But the real credit for today’s agreement goes to:

  • The Lake Houston Area Flood Prevention Initiative (FPI)
  • Bill McCabe and Dave Feille (now deceased), two FPI steering committee members
  • Dianne Lansden, FPI founder
  • The Bayou Land Conservancy
  • Bill Dupre, professor emeritus in Geology from the University of Houston
  • State Representative Dan Huberty.

Others, too numerous to mention also picked up the baton and worked tirelessly for years to reach an agreement with the sand miners.

West Fork Sand Mine that will be affected by new best management practices. Photographed in August

McCabe composed the short article below that describes the significance of today’s events.


History of Project

The Lake Houston Grassroots Flood Prevention Initiative (FPI) formed shortly after Hurricane Harvey, led by a group of citizens concerned with the area’s future.  Its goal: to seek out and remedy issues that made Harvey’s flooding more devastating than expected. Early on, one issue became evident as a major area of concern for future floods —the effect of sand mining on sediment and pollution in the San Jacinto Watershed.

We had looked at litigation, legislation and negotiation solutions as ways to address this situation. Other groups were already pursuing Litigation and Legislation. So, we decided to address the future through negotiation with the sand-mining industry.  

Negotiation with TACA

We contacted the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association (TACA), the industry representative for sand miners, and began negotiations on Best Management Practices (BMPs).  

Starting with a blueprint of Best Management Practices for sand mining developed by other states, we re-formulated them to fit the Texas situation. For several months FPI, TACA, and other groups and individuals worked on a document we could present to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).  Many individuals, including Representative Dan Huberty, Jill Boullion with the Bayou Land Conservancy, and former City officials from Humble and Kingwood, worked with us to fine tune a document for presentation.

Because TACA and FPI could not fully agree on the requirements for sand mining BMPs in the San Jacinto River Watershed, we presented separate Petitions to TCEQ. TACA presented its on June 12, 2020. FPI presented its a week later.  

Scope of Petitions

Although they differed in several key areas, both Petitions followed the same basic pattern. We focused on a three part approach: Pre-mining, Mining and Post mining.  

Following submittal, TCEQ conducted a series of stakeholder meetings and public input requests. The Commission fine-tuned our proposals and developed its own Rules and Guidance Documents.  

View the original Petitions and subsequent modifications on the TCEQ website. See Rulemaking: Best Management Practices for Sand Mining in the San Jacinto River Watershed – Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – www.tceq.texas.gov.

Final Approval, a Good First Step

On December 15th, TCEQ Commissioners approved the new BMP Rules document. It will become effective early next year. Although we did not get everything we would have wished for, this is a very good start and will help to hold sand miners to an accountable standard in the future.  

Between the Rules Document (Subchapter J, Best Management Practices for Sand Mining Facility Operations Within the San Jacinto River Basin, Sections 311.101 – 311.103 of 30 TAC Chapter 311, Watershed Protection) and the associated Guidance Document developed by TCEQ, we now have a comprehensive standard for the sand-mining industry to follow.

By Bill McCabe on 12/15/2021

1569 Days after Hurricane Harvey