Tag Archive for: sedimentation

Search For Sediment Solutions Should Lead Straight to Colony Ridge

Harris County Flood Control, SJRA, and the Cities of Humble and Houston using funding provided in part by the Texas Water Development Board are searching for sediment solutions in the Upper San Jacinto River Basin. Their major scientific study includes all or parts of seven counties: Harris, Montgomery, Waller, Grimes, Walker, San Jacinto and Liberty – all land draining into Lake Houston.

From Technical Memorandum 1 of the Upper San Jacinto River Basin Regional Sedimentation Study.

The high-level goal: to better manage sediment in the river basin. Sediment reduces both floodway conveyance and the storage capacity of Lake Houston. Both contribute to the frequency and severity of flooding.

Among other things, the study partners hope to prioritize sediment hot spots so they can develop sediment solutions and recommendations.

I hope they look at Colony Ridge. It exemplifies a major hot spot and points the way to an obvious sediment solution – better enforcement of existing regulations.

Scope and Status of Sediment Study

The study is now about half complete. With much of the fieldwork complete, the partners will next focus on modeling, hotspot identification, area prioritization and sediment solutions, according to Matt Barrett, Water Resources and Flood Management Division Manager atSJRA.

To date, the study has examined a variety of factors:

  • Topographical characteristics (watershed size, length, slope, relief, etc.)
  • Land Cover (degree of development, forested percentage, agricultural, wetlands)
  • Soil Types and Erodibility
  • Meteorological (annual rainfall amounts and intensity).

The Colony Ridge area receives some of the highest rainfall totals and highest intensity rains in the river basin.

From Technical Memorandum #2 of the USJRB Sedimentation Study, Page 16. Colony Ridge location circled in red.

Colony Ridge also ranks among the most erodible areas in the entire river basin.

Soil erodibility in the basin. From Technical Memorandum #2, Page 13. Colony Ridge circled in blue.

So, you would hope that a development 50% larger than Manhattan, which is decimating forests and filling in wetlands would receive some scrutiny.

Colony Ridge erosion
Colony Ridge ditch has widened approximately 80 feet in 6 years due to lack of erosion control measures such as backslope interceptor swales and grass.
Colony Ridge is now 50 percent bigger than Manhattan
Rivers of mud in Colony Ridge. Even the erosion is eroding.
Guess which way to colony ridge
Sediment coming down the East Fork (right) from Colony Ridge
East Fork Mouth Bar cost $18 million to dredge.
San Jacinto East Fork Mouth Bar between Kingwood and Huffman cost $18 million to dredge.

Sediment Solutions Must Address Development Practices

Erosion occurs naturally. But poor development practices can accelerate the rate of erosion unnaturally.

Regulations in Liberty County call for backslope interceptor swales to prevent sheet flow over the sides of ditches. I have yet to see one such system anywhere in the 30+ square miles of Colony Ridge. What you typically see is this.

All that sediment washes downstream where it reduces the carrying capacity of rivers and the storage capacity of Lake Houston.

Liberty County regulations also call for planting grass on the side slopes of ditches and detention basins. The grass reduces erosion, too. But you don’t see much grass on those side slopes either.

Compare the ditch above with the ditch below in Harris County to see how grass and backslope interceptor swales can reduce erosion.

Small swales behind main slopes capture sheet flow heading toward the ditch. Pipes then take runoff to the bottom of ditch, thus reducing erosion on side slopes.

Here’s Colony Ridge again.

Three-mile-long Colony Ridge drainage ditch has no grass or backslope interceptor swales.

Address the Elephant in the Room Before the Next Disaster

Ironically, both Liberty and Harris County have almost identical regulations for erosion control. Harris County enforces them; Liberty County doesn’t.

Enforcement of development regulations is the elephant in the room.

So, as the SJRA and its partners search for sediment solutions, here’s one simple recommendation. Enforce regulations already on the books.

Colony Ridge and other developments that skirt regulations represent a disaster waiting to happen. Unfortunately, it will probably take a disaster, such as Harvey, to cause leaders to take action. But by then, it will be too late.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/20/23

2242 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.

Colony Ridge Stormwater Detention Basins, Ditches Fail to Meet Liberty County Standards

Colony Ridge, the world’s largest trailer park, fails to meet Liberty County regulations for the construction of stormwater detention basins and ditches. The development’s basins and ditches routinely lack erosion controls such as grass and backslope interceptor swales. The resulting erosion can reduce the conveyance of streams, increase flood risk and threaten property both inside the development and downstream. The failure to follow those regulations imposes a hidden tax on residents of Liberty and surrounding counties.

No Bare, Earthen Slopes Allowed

Page 100 of the Liberty County Subdivision and Development Regulations updated in 2019 states that, “All drainage facilities must be designed and maintained in a manner which minimizes the potential for damage due to erosion. No bare earthen slopes will be allowed.

Backslope Drain Systems Required

Pages 152 and 153 of the regulations also require backslope drain systems to “intercept sheet flow which otherwise would flow over the banks of drainage channels leading to erosion of the side slopes.” Swales behind the edges of basins and channels trap stormwater. Pipes then carry it to the bottom of the ditch or basin so that it won’t erode side slopes.

What Ditches/Detention Basins Should Look Like

The photo below shows a Harris County ditch with grass on the side slopes and pipes that lead from backslope swales to the bottom of the channel. Note how they reduce erosion and sedimentation.

Harris County ditch which follows regulations similar to Liberty County’s. Compare the Colony Ridge ditches below.

Compare Requirements to Photos

I took the pictures below on 8/12/23 from a helicopter while flying over Colony Ridge in Liberty County. Note the lack of grass and interceptor inlets/outlets. Also note the severe erosion that results.

Note severe erosion on banks of pond. Also note lack of backslope swales, inlets, and outlets in base of pond.
No backslope interceptor system. No grass.
No backslope interceptor system. No grass.
No backslope interceptor system. No grass on sides of ditch.
Ditto.
Ditto

In some cases, the ditches and detention basins don’t even have perimeter maintenance roads and the erosion is cutting into people’s back yards.

Colony Ridge Household slipping into drainage ditch

Colony Ridge resident losing back of property due to ditch erosion.

The Largest Development Few Know About

Colony Ridge is large and growing rapidly. The satellite image below shows how it has virtually doubled in size within the last two years as it has grown from left to right and bottom to top. The large area in the lower left began developing around 2011. Those lines that look like hashmarks are thousands of mobile homes.

Colony Ridge Expansion
This satellite image taken in July 2023 does not even show the development’s current extent. Much of the area in the upper right below the clouds was cleared since then. See below.
Portion of Colony Ridge in upper right of satellite photo has now been cleared.

Colony Ridge already comprises more than 30 square miles. That makes it approximately one third the size of the area inside Houston’s 610 loop.

Mostly mobile homes and rivers of mud as far as the eye can see.

Erosion a Major Issue

Colony Ridge drains into three watersheds: the East Fork San Jacinto, Luce Bayou and Tarkington Bayou. And all of them drain into Lake Houston. That will make erosion from Colony Ridge Harris and Liberty County’s problem forever.

During floods, erosion will reduce the conveyance of downstream channels and rivers. Page 148 of the Liberty County Subdivision and Development Regulations has this to say about the effects of erosion and sedimentation.

  • “Erosion and sedimentation can have very serious effects on storm water drainage.”
  • “Erosion can cause slope failures, increase roughness coefficients, and generally reduce the efficiency of drainage channels. However, sediment deposition can clog drainage culverts and reduce the available conveyance in open channels.”
  • “Erosion can significantly reduce the maintainability of drainage facilities and increase the cost of maintenance by increasing the frequency with which repairs are required.”

LJA engineering wrote a letter to the Liberty County Engineer that underscores the need to plan ahead as the county transitions from rural to urban. “While limited regulation of development in a rural area may not significantly impact drainage issues, Liberty County is now challenged with explosive population growth and a particularly high percentage of socially vulnerable residents…” said the letter.

Hidden Cost to Downstream Residents

Most people in Harris County don’t even know that Colony Ridge exists. Yet the drainage practices there affect dredging costs downstream. The City of Houston, Harris County and Army Corps spent almost a quarter billion dollars dredging the headwaters of Lake Houston between Harvey and mid-2021.

Clearly, not all of that sediment came from Colony Ridge. However, the development practices in Colony Ridge and other developments like it will set the pattern for the future.

Developments are virtually impossible to change after people start building next to undersized basins and ditches that erode more with every substantial rain.

What You See Makes You Question What You Don’t See

Substandard construction practices make you wonder about engineering practices. Did Colony Ridge engineers produce reliable, accurate estimates of drainage needs? Are those ditches and detention basins sized properly? Will they hold enough runoff to protect residents?

Probably not. Even assuming engineers and contractors did their jobs properly (a big assumption), Liberty County still defines a 100 year/24 hour rainfall as 13.5 inches (see page 108), a rate associated with pre-Atlas 14 days.

Atlas 14 catalogs the current national precipitation frequency standards for every community in the U.S.

However, the phrase “Atlas 14” appears nowhere in the 2019 Liberty County Subdivision and Development Regulations.

But NOAA now defines a 100 year/24 hour rainfall for nearby Cleveland, TX, as 17.1 inches – a 27% increase above the current Liberty County standard. So in a hundred-year rainfall, everything you see in Colony Ridge will be 27% short of capacity. Few people likely understand this.

Consider also that NOAA is already working on replacing Atlas 14 with Atlas 15!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/16/23

2178 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.

Lake Houston Gates Project Moves Closer to Reality

The Lake Houston Gates Project is moving closer to reality with breakthroughs on the benefit/cost ratio, funding and endorsements.

City of Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin and Chief Recovery Officer Stephen Costello provided updates on 2/27/23 at City Hall on the Lake Houston Gates Project. The wide-ranging, hour-long discussion covered several related topics. They included:

  • A critical path for construction
  • Dredging of the lake
  • Funding for gates and dredging
  • Several related engineering studies
  • A favorable ruling from FEMA on the Benefit-Cost Ratio
  • An endorsement to the area’s legislators by the Greater Houston Partnership.

Need For Gates

For those new to the area, the City of Houston has been pushing to add gates to the Lake Houston Dam ever since Harvey in 2017. Upstream, Lake Conroe’s gates can release 150,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). But Lake Houston’s can only release 10,000 CFS.

The disparity in discharge capacity complicates joint-reservoir-management and pre-release strategies designed to avoid flooding by reducing the water level in Lake Houston.

Lake Houston releases cannot keep up with Lake Conroe’s. And pre-releasing water from Lake Houston takes so long that storms can veer away during the lowering process, often resulting in wasted water. That’s an important consideration for a water-supply lake.

According to Martin and Costello, the gate project will:

• Serve as the first phase of a long-term effort to extend the life of the Dam
• Enable the rapid lowering of lake levels in advance of a flood
• Eliminate the need for a seasonal lowering of both Lake Houston and Lake Conroe
• Provide potential water-rights savings
• Protect an estimated 5,000 residential properties in the surrounding area
• Yield an estimated half billion dollars in economic benefits during the life of the project

Gates, Funding, BCR, Studies

Preliminary engineering studies evaluated about a dozen different alternatives for adding discharge capacity to Lake Houston. The City initially favored adding crest gates to the spillway portion of the dam.

However, the City discarded that idea as “too risky” after further study. The engineering company cautioned the City that it would have a difficult time finding contractors willing to risk modifying a 70-year old concrete dam. The potential liability was just too great. So the City then revisited adding various numbers of tainter gates to the eastern, earthen portion of the dam.

Because tainter gates exceeded FEMA’s funding, the City had initially focused on crest gates. But after investigating the safety issues, the City decided to seek more funding for tainter gates instead.

The City now recommends adding 11 tainter gates.

Recommended location for new tainter gates is next to old ones, not farther east as I conjectured earlier.

The picture below is slightly wider and shows more of how both halves of the dam come together.

If funding comes through, new gates would go in the upper right along the earthen portion of the dam, next to the old gates.
Funding Needs

FEMA initially set aside $50 million for the gates. Plus Harris County committed $20 million in the 2018 Flood Bond to attract FEMA’s match. But the latest construction estimates show eleven tainter gates could cost between $200 and $250 million.

After engineering and environmental studies, only $68.3 million in funding remains. That includes an earmark secured by Congressman Dan Crenshaw. So the City is seeking another $150 million from the State of Texas. Martin and Costello have made weekly trips to Austin so far during this session to line up support from legislators, committee chairs, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Social Benefits Improve Benefit/Cost Ratio

All this is suddenly possible because of a favorable ruling from FEMA on the benefit-cost ratio (BCR).

For years, Houston had struggled to get the BCR for the gate project above 1.0 (the point at which benefits exceed costs). Usually, FEMA strictly interprets benefits as “avoided damages to structures.”

But Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Costello met with FEMA to argue that the problem was much bigger than damaged structures.

As a result, FEMA allowed the City to add the value of “social benefits” to the BCR. Social benefits can include such things as avoiding lost wages when businesses are destroyed; transportation disruptions that reduce the region’s productivity; reducing negative impacts on student achievement when schools are disrupted; and more.

The social-benefit ruling covers a number of City projects, not just the gates. It should also benefit other areas, especially rural ones.

Said Costello, “The minute the social benefits came in, everything was great.” Instead of struggling to reach 1.0, the City is now far above it.

Greater Houston Partnership Endorsement

With that out of the way, the Greater Houston Partnership wrote a powerful letter to state legislators seeking their support for the gate project. See below.

Greater Houston Partnership letter endorsing Lake Houston Gates. For a printable PDF, click here.

The Partnership includes business leaders from 900 member companies in the 12-county Houston Region.

Dredging Update

While pressing ahead with the gates project, the City is also working on a long-term dredging plan for the lake and working with the SJRA on sedimentation and sand-trap pilot projects.

The Texas Water Department Board (TWDB) has estimated sediment inflow to Lake Houston at about 380 acre-feet of material annually.

The lake has already lost more than 20,000 acre feet of capacity due to sedimentation. That worsens flooding. While the Federal Government supports efforts to improve Lake Houston now, the chances of getting more money in the future will be reduced – unless we can show that we’re at least keeping pace with annual sediment deposits.

Since Harvey, FEMA, the Army Corps, TWDB, and City of Houston have removed almost 4 million cubic yards of material from the lake at a cost of $226 million.

We have to prevent more sediment from coming downstream or dredge it after it gets here.

Stephen Costello, City of Houston Chief Recovery Officer

The City is currently lobbying for another $50 million for maintenance dredging to add to the money secured in the last legislative session by now-retired State Representative Dan Huberty. New Representative Charles Cunningham will reportedly now carry that banner forward along with State Senator Brandon Creighton.

Legislative News to Follow

March 10th is the last day to file bills in the Texas Legislature this year. Please visit the legislation page on ReduceFlooding.com for updates once bills are filed and start moving forward in Austin.

Thanks to all of our elected and appointed representatives who have pushed so hard on so many fronts for the last 2008 days to tie all the pieces of this complicated flood-mitigation puzzle together.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/27/2023

2008 Days since Hurricane Harvey

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.

Controversial Colony Ridge Development Doubles in Size

The Colony Ridge development in Liberty County, aka the world’s largest trailer park, has more than doubled in size in the last 3 years. Measurements in Google Earth show that Colony Ridge, which started clearing land in 2012, has expanded from approximately 8,000 acres in 2019 to almost 20,000 acres today. To put that in perspective, Kingwood comprises approximately 14,000 acres and took more than 40 years to build out.

Colony Ridge started developing on the left (west). It is expanding east and north.

Growing Pains

But the rapid growth of Colony Ridge has not come without pain:

Consequences of Poor Construction Practices

As a result of such drainage issues and exposed soils, more sediment flows downstream than otherwise would. This contributed to sediment buildups on the San Jacinto East Fork (see below). Those, in turn, reduce conveyance and contribute to downstream flooding – unless the public continues to spend millions on dredging.

East Fork Mouth Bar after Imelda but before recent dredging. Average river depth had been reduced to three feet.

Still Not Following Best Practices

Aerial photos taken on 7/22/2022 with Ken Williams and Bill Callegari, two fellow members of the Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force, show the current state of the development and construction practices in Colony Ridge. Sadly, not much has improved. For instance, the developer still piles dirt on the edge of ditches without protecting them with silt fences.

Note long drainage ditch cutting diagonally through middle of frame. Developer has piled dirt next to it (middle left of frame) without protecting ditch with silt fencing.
Major ditch cutting through older section is sill not protected with back-slope interceptor swales or vegetation. Erosion is rampant.

Water shooting down the ditch above created a major headache during Harvey. See below.

FM 1010 Still Washed Out

Floodwater from the ditch washed out FM 1010. This major N/S thoroughfare still needs repair…five years later!

Break in FM 1010, aka Plum Grove Road forces residents to detour for miles.

Photos Showing New Development

Area developed last year is starting to fill in with new trailer homes already. Note absence of fire hydrants…still.
Looking east at area still under construction.
Looking E from NE corner of development. Another area semi-cleared but still unpaved.

If there’s good news in these photos, it is that the developer appears to be leaving more natural ground cover in the newest areas. Still, without vegetation on the sides of ditches, without better construction practices, excess sediment could continue washing into the Lake Houston Area for years to come.

Ever Widening Circles

These images support the need to harmonize and enforce higher drainage standards throughout the region. Without change two things will happen:

  • Downstream residents will continue to pay the price for egregious development practices upstream.
  • Someday, the people who buy these lots will also become flood victims of similar new developments even farther upstream.

Will we continue to repeat mistakes of the past in ever widening circles? Will we continue to sow the seeds of future flooding? Or will we wake up to the fact that we are all part of one giant community?

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/23/2022

1792 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.

SJRA Seeks Public Input on Sediment Trap Proposal

The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) recently completed a 246-page conceptual design study, in partnership with the Harris County Flood Control District, that explored the feasibility of implementing sediment trapping facilities (“sand traps”). The purpose: to remove sediment from the West or East Fork of the San Jacinto River. The results and findings of this study have been documented in an engineering report entitled “San Jacinto River and Tributaries Sediment Removal and Sand Trap Development.” 

Prior to proceeding to preliminary engineering design and any subsequent project phases, SJRA is seeking public input on the proposed project alternatives detailed in the report. The full report, as well as a brief summary document, are located on SJRA’s Flood Management Division website. 

How to Provide Input or Ask Questions

Please submit input and questions via email to floodmanagementdivision@sjra.net

Deadline: No later than April 29, 2022

Caution: The full study is dated 1/7/22. But the “brief summary” is dated 3/9/22. Make sure you at least read the executive study of the full report as well as the brief summary. There are important differences.

Overview/Purpose

SJRA says the purpose of the sediment trap study was to assess the feasibility of implementing a pilot project to trap and remove sediment from the West OR East Fork of the San Jacinto. The study only assessed locations where one or more Aggregate Production Operations (APOs) could partner with the the SJRA. They restricted the study this way to reduce costs; the SJRA does not have a source of funding to clean out sand traps and would rely on sand miners.

Initial Concerns

The decisions to:

  • Define the study objective as sediment reduction, not damage reduction and…
  • Only consider locations near sand mines…

…give me mixed emotions about this project.

Pros

On one hand, I look at this and say, “It’s a pilot project. Try it and see if there’s a benefit.” Sediment IS a problem and they believe they can remove up to 100% of the annual sediment load (from the West Fork).

Cons

On the other hand, the study authors, Freese & Nichols (F&N) claimed (in the San Jacinto River Basin Master Drainage Study) that 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.

Perhaps that’s because they’re using model inputs from a sediment gage at I-45 located 8.5 miles upstream from most of the large West Fork sand mines (page 34, paragraph 3 of full study).

Also, in their discussion of downstream sedimentation mitigation (page 51, paragraph 3 of full study), F&N says that their evaluation was confined to areas where natural processes rather than breeches of sand mine ponds likely contributed to sediment deposition. To see how limiting that is, see the photos of sand mine breeches and their results in this post.

West Fork Mouth Bar
The “Mouth Bar,” a giant sand bar that blocked the West Fork of the San Jacinto, backing the river up into Kingwood and Humble. Thousands of homes and businesses flooded behind this blockage. The above-water portion has since been removed, but most of the underwater portion remains.

In the entire 246-page F&N study and the three-page summary, the word “damage” occurs only once…in relation to erosion damage, NOT flood damage.

It appears that F&N did not even look at creating sand traps where they were most needed, in the headwaters of Lake Houston, because of cost and logistical considerations. Yet the Army Corps, City of Houston, and State of Texas are spending $200 million to dredge that area. One wonders whether SJRA should have looked harder for partners to clean out the traps.

Finally, if sediment traps only work financially near sand mines, the “solution” will not work on other tributaries that F&N alleges contribute 5X more sediment than the West Fork. They just don’t have the sand mines that the West Fork has.

Nature of Proposed Solution

Five years after Harvey, we have a conceptual design and a recommended location: rock-lined channels cut through one or two point bars at the West Fork Hallett mine.

Page 8 of the F&N study shows this schematic of the recommended solution.

The shot below shows the same area in real life. To put the magnitude of the proposed solution into perspective, the solution would cover a little more than an acre. But sand mines like Hallett cover 20 square miles on the banks of the West Fork between US59 and I-45.

2021 photo of sand bar outsde Hallett mine that would have a narrow channel cut through it to trap sand.

My Biggest Fears

My biggest fears with the proposed pilot study are that it:

  1. Asks people to chose from a limited menu.
  2. Could divert attention from better solutions that would reduce flood risk faster in the headwaters of Lake Houston.
  3. Might make the public think the problem is solved.
  4. Could open the door to river mining and further destabilize the riverine environment.
  5. Is not a transferrable solution.

For a pilot study, that last point is troubling.

Also, F&N worries that removing too much sediment from the West Fork could create a “hungry-water” effect that increases erosion downstream. But they have no way of directly measuring how much sediment the West Fork transports. Or what percentage they would remove. That’s because they’re relying on a sediment gage upstream from the sand mines. This introduces an element of risk in the pilot study.

Recommendations Should Be Based on a Holistic Examination of Alternatives

Note lack of vegetation on this steep-sided, eroding bank of Hallett mine on West Fork in foreground.

Before moving forward with the pilot study, I suggest a more holistic examination of additional alternatives that might have a greater impact on reducing flood damage, not just sedimentation. Examples include, but are not limited to:

More on the sand trap proposal in coming days. In the meantime, please review the SJRA’s sediment trap proposal and forward your comments to the SJRA. I will also print thoughtful letters, both pro and con, from responsible parties. Send them to: https://reduceflooding.com/contact-us/.

Posted by Bob Rehak on March 27, 2022

1671 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.

How Soon We Forget!

How soon we forget. Hurricane Harvey was just 4.5 years ago. Since then I have documented dozens, if not hundreds of questionable practices that erode margins of flood safety.

It Didn’t Have to Be That Bad

Harvey was the largest rainfall event in the history of North America. However, with better regulations and construction practices, it didn’t have to be as destructive as it was.

  • Lax regulations;
  • Willful blindness;
  • Development and construction practices that pushed the safety envelope;
  • Relentless destruction of forests and wetlands near rivers and streams;
  • And homebuyers who didn’t realize their true flood risk…

…made Harvey’s destruction worse than it otherwise would have been.

No one factor by itself would explain Harvey’s destruction. But put them all together, and it’s like “death of a thousand cuts.”

The sheer volume of material – more than 1,000,000 words on this site – makes it difficult for people to see the big picture sometimes. To put 1,000,000 words into perspective, the average novel contains only about 100,000. So I’m condensing the website into a book that includes the themes below.

No One Wins Arguments with Mother Nature

During an interview with Milan Saunders and his daughter Lori, Milan said, “No one wins arguments with Mother Nature.” How profound! It doesn’t matter how many surveys, studies and engineer stamps you have on your home’s title. If you don’t:

  • Respect the rivers.
  • Give them room to roam.
  • Protect wetlands.
  • Allow plenty of margin for safety…

…you will flood.

Thought courtesy of Milan Saunders, Chairman/CEO of Plains State Bank. That’s his daughter Lori’s house during Harvey.

Understanding the Causes of Flooding

Excess sedimentation is one of them. Sediment pollution is the single most common source of pollution in U.S. waters. Approximately 30% is caused by natural erosion, and the remaining 70% is caused by human activity.

Large islands built up during Harvey blocked both drainage ditches and rivers. Below, you can see a large sand island (top) built up at the confluence of the Kingwood Diversion Ditch where it reaches the San Jacinto West Fork at River Grove Park. This sand bar reached 10-12 feet in height above the waterline and helped back water up into Trailwood, the Barrington and Kingwood Lakes and Kings Forest. Before the Army Corps dredged this island, River Grove flooded five times in six months. It hasn’t flooded since.

The Kingwood Diversion Ditch and West Fork San Jacinto were almost totally blocked by sediment dams deposited during Harvey.

The second photo above was taken a few hundred yards downstream on the West Fork from the first. It shows “Sand Island” – so nicknamed by the Army Corps. It took the Corps months to dredge this island which they say had blocked the West Fork by 90%.

A certain amount of this sedimentation can be explained by natural erosion. But mankind also contributed to the sheer volume by other practices which I will discuss below.

Respect the Rivers

The red polygons in the satellite image below surround 20-square miles of sand mines on the West Fork of the San Jacinto in a 20 mile reach of river between I-45 and I-69. That exposes a mile-wide swath of sediment to erosion during floods and increases the potential for erosion by 33x compared the river’s normal width.

Even without floods, mines sometimes flush their waste into the rivers. The shot below on the top right shows the day the West Fork turned white. The TCEQ found the source of the pollution upstream: a sand mine that had flushed 56 million gallons of sludge into the West Fork (bottom right).

Influence of sand mines of West Fork San Jacinto water quality.

End the War on Wetlands

Wetlands are nature’s detention ponds. During storms, they hold water back so it won’t flood people downstream. But we seem to want to eradicate wetlands. The images below show the Colony Ridge development in Liberty County. Wetlands (right) are being cleared (left) to make way for the world’s largest trailer park. The acceleration of runoff wiped out FM1010 during Harvey. The road still has not been repaired.

Colony Ridge in Liberty County.

Conservation Costs Much Less than Mitigation

Halls Bayou at I-69 near Fiesta. Image on left shows whole subdivisions that that to be bought out before detention ponds on right could be built.

All across Harris County, especially in older areas inside Beltway 8, apartment complexes, homes and businesses are built right next to bayous and channels. This makes it difficult to enlarge streams or build detention ponds when necessary. One study showed that preservation of floodplains is 5X more cost effective than mitigation after homes flood. Yet private developers keep crowding bayous and residents keep demanding public solutions.

Respecting Individuals’ Property Rights While Protecting Others’

In Texas, it sometimes feels that an individual’s right to do what he/she wants with property trumps others’ rights NOT to flood. You may think you’re protected by all those public servants reviewing and approving plans. But what happens when developers and contractors decide to ignore the approved plans? Here’s a prime example: the Laurel Springs RV Resort near Lakewood Cove.

The approved plans said that “Stormwater runoff shall not cross property lines.” So what did the contractors do? They pumped their stormwater over the development’s detention pond wall. When that took too long, they dug a trench through the wall. Then they laid pipes through the wall to permanently empty the sludge into the wetlands of Harris County’s new Edgewater Park.

This apparently violated the developer’s City of Houston permit, the Texas Water Code, TCEQ’s construction permit and the developer’s stormwater pollution prevention plan. Four investigations are currently swirling around this development. The contractor also cut down approximately 50 feet of trees in Edgewater Park along the entire boundary line and received a cease-and-desist letter from the Harris County Attorney. But the damage is done.

Balance Upstream and Downstream Interests

About 10% of all the water coming down the West Fork at the peak of Harvey came from Crystal Creek in Montgomery County. But the wetlands near the headwaters of Crystal Creek are currently under development. And the developer is avoiding building detention ponds with a “beat-the-peak” survey. This loophole allowed by Montgomery County says that if you get your stormwater to the river faster than the peak of a flood arrives, then you’re not adding to the peak of a flood and you don’t have to build detention ponds. So developers conduct timing surveys to reduce costs and maximize salable land.

What happens when upstream areas develop without consideration for the impact on downstream property owners.

Of course, speeding up the flow of water in a flood is the opposite of what you want to do. To reduce flooding, you should hold back as much water as possible.

The slide above shows part of a new development called Madera at SH242 and FM1314 being built on wetlands near Crystal Creek.

The graph on the right shows what happened on Brays Bayou without suitable detention upstream. Floodwaters peak higher, sooner. Harris County has spent more than $700 million in the last 20 years to remediate flooding problems along Brays.

How much will we need to spend when more areas like Madera get built upstream on the West Fork?

How Quickly We Forget!

FEMA’s Base-Flood-Elevation Viewer shows that in that same area, developers have already built homes that could go under 1-5 feet of water in a 100-year flood. These homes are actually in a ten-year flood zone. And yet more homes are being built nearby. On even more marginal land!

In recent years, the price of land as a percent of a new home’s cost has risen from a historical average of 25% to approximately 40% today. This puts pressure on developers to seek out cheaper land in floodplains, reduce costs by avoiding detention pond requirements, pave over wetlands, and reduce lot sizes resulting in more impervious cover. All contribute to flooding.

Of course, smart homebuyers would not make such risky investments. But few lack the expertise to gauge flood risk. Educating such homebuyers will be one of the major objectives of the book I hope to write.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/23/2022

1639 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.

House Committee Releases Report on Sand Mining

A House Interim Committee on Aggregate Production Operations (APOs, which include sand mining) just released a 77-page report focusing on the Hill Country and San Jacinto River Basin. The report validates many of the concerns ReduceFlooding.com has raised about sand mining for years.

One of multiple breaches at the Triple PG mine in Porter left open for months until the Attorney General sued the mine.

Purpose: To Balance Priorities While Addressing Concerns

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen created the committee to help balance public protection, regulation and economic growth. Bonnen tasked the Committee with reviewing complaints about APOs and making recommendations to the 87th Texas Legislature. Issues include:

  1. Nuisance issues relating to noise and light
  2. Transportation safety and road repairs
  3. Air quality
  4. Blasting
  5. Reclamation
  6. Distance from adjoining properties
  7. Disruption of groundwater
  8. Water quality
  9. Sedimentation and flooding
  10. Municipal ordinances.

The report begins with a description of the balancing act regulators face. Sand and gravel used in concrete support economic growth. But they also impact surrounding property values, impact the health of neighbors, and lower quality of life when they cut corners and operate outside of industry best practices to lower production costs.

A number of bills in the last legislative session sought to resolve these conflicts and many, such as “best practices” will be reintroduced during the session which started this month. Pages 7-10 describe the legislation attempted in the last session.

Below, I summarize each issue listed above in order.

Noise Pollution

The main sources of noise from APOs come from the machinery used to move earth, process raw material and move product. Blasting is also a major consideration in the Hill Country.

The U.S. Mining Health and Safety Administration (MSHA) characterizes noise and one of the most pervasive health hazards in mining. Prolonged exposure to hazardous sound levels over a period of years can cause permanent, irreversible damage to hearing. Hearing loss may occur rapidly under prolonged exposure to high sound levels, or gradually when levels are lower and exposures less frequent.

Ways to reduce noise from moving equipment include use of strobes, alarms, camera systems and motion sensors that can trigger backup beepers as needed.

To mitigate noise from processing equipment, the report suggests chute liners and screens made of rubber or urethane to dampen the sound of the rock hitting the sides of the conveyors. Acoustical enclosures such as walls, berms and natural vegetation can also help protect neighbors.

APOs should monitor the noise exposure at their property line, keeping the noise level at their property line below 65 dB if the property line is within 880 yards of a residential area, school, or house of worship, and 70 dB if not.

Report Recommendation

Light Pollution

APOs create light pollution when the dust they generate scatters light and creates haze. Those that operate at night may require light for safety that keeps neighbors up.

APOs should be held to IDA and IES standards for outdoor industrial lighting, and fined when they don’t.

Report Recommendation

These standards provide operator safety yet shield neighbors from the most annoying effects of light pollution.

Transportation

The high volume of heavy trucks used to move product creates traffic safety issues near APOs and damages roads. TxDOT allows APOs to build 90-degree driveways. These are less expensive, but more dangerous than acceleration and deceleration lanes which provide massive safety benefits.

Dust and small rocks coming off of trucks cause windshield damage and obscure vision of nearby drivers. Placement of roadway bumps leading up to acceleration lanes would help shake off the dust and smaller rocks from the trucks before they make their way onto the highway.

Studies have also shown that the level of damage to the integrity of roads by heavy commercial vehicles far outpaces the funding they contribute through gas taxes. Such vehicles pay $.03 per mile, but cost $.26 per mile.

Recommendations:

  • Change TxDOT protocols to allow for an agreed upon change to a driveway should traffic conditions change.
  • Require that new APOs have enough right of way purchased to construct acceleration or decelerations lanes.
  • Commission a study to establish a Pricing Model for Pavement

Air Quality

Suffice it to say that the health risks of breathing APO dust are voluminous.

Short-term exposure can result in coughing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest and irritation of the eyes.

Long-term exposure can result in reduced lung function, and respiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, emphysema, impairment of brain development, low birth weight, lung cancer, stroke, aggravation of existing lung disease, and death.

OSHA, MSHA and other agencies responsible for worker health continue to reduce allowable exposure levels for labor; these same reduced exposure levels should be applied to the general population as well, says the report.

Testimony from those living near APOs who have been affected by the decline in air quality demonstrates that regular regional air-quality monitoring is insufficient. So, TCEQ does not know what the actual, real-time particulate concentrations are in the air near APOs.

Recommendations:
  • Require APOs to set up onsite monitoring.
  • Commission a study to determine cumulative effects of adjacent mines, each outputting a compliant level.
  • Modify the TCEQ permitting process to include county commissioners, municipal authorities and others.

Blasting

This is a bigger problem in the Hill County than Houston. So I will skip it here.

Reclamation

APO’s can suddenly cease operation for a number of reasons: bankruptcy, depleted assets, decline in demand, etc. While sites can never be returned to their original condition, they CAN be restored for safe, alternative uses.

At a minimum, this means removing hazardous materials and industrial equipment, and sloping walls to avoid leaving dangerous collapses.

Recommendations:
  • Require APO to file a reclamation/restoration plan.
  • Require operators to post a Surety Bond to cover all reclamation costs in the event the operator fails to reclaim disturbed lands.
  • Address all potential future safety and environmental problems (fugitive dust, erosion, etc.) in reclamation plans.

Distance from Adjoining Property

Current regulations depend on the type of facility and the type of equipment in use. This makes regulations complex and difficult to interpret.

Recommendations:
  • Revise permits to define setbacks by the distance from the APO property line rather than the specific piece of equipment.
  • Require a setback of 880 yards for concrete batch plants.
  • Establish setback rules for all APOs that treat platted subdivisions as residential areas.

Groundwater Disruption

The committee found inconsistent groundwater conservation rules around the state. Many counties did not even have Groundwater Conservation Districts, or if they did, they could not assess the cumulative regional impact of APOs on water supply. Historic APO water use data is not readily available to the public.

Recommendations:
  • The Texas Water Development Board should complete an in-depth assessment of APO water use.
  • Study future water supply, especially for the Houston area, where sedimentation threatens Lake Houston.
  • Require APOs to recirculate groundwater to conserve groundwater resources.

Water Quality

The committee found that TCEQ regulations for APOs are less rigorous than for other types of surface mining enforced by the Railroad Commission.

APOs construct ponds based on their preferred ‘best management practice,’ often without rigorous engineering or regulatory inspection. Testimony from neighbors indicated sediment-laden discharge damaged property. TCEQ found that nearly half (42%) of APO enforcement actions (not related to registration) were due to noncompliance with water-quality rules.

Groundwater pollution by APOs is also a legitimate concern.

Recommendations:
  • Require Texas APOs to comply with requirements for Texas coal and uranium mines.
  • Improve rules and regulatory processes to provide a higher level of protection from pollution by APOs.
  • Provide more robust and frequent groundwater inspections.
  • Perform dye-trace studies to determine groundwater flow-paths in areas close to major water wells.

Sedimentation and Flooding

The committee found sand mining along the San Jacinto River to be one of the contributors of excess sedimentation. It also aggravated flooding issues in Montgomery and Harris Counties during and after Hurricane Harvey.

Also, “The result of partitioning large areas of the floodway from rising floodwaters by levees and dikes can result in increased flooding of adjacent areas. Flood-induced breaches in levees can also add to the problems of flooding and sedimentation downstream.”

Unfortunately, breaches and unauthorized discharges are sometimes left unreported and unrepaired unless citizens file reports to the TCEQ. Even when violations have been documented by the TCEQ, fines have been minimal, averaging ~$800/violation from 2013-2017. Worse, the TCEQ inspects mines only once every two years for the first six years, and then once every three years thereafter.

The committee also found that in-river mining has continued along the West Fork of the San Jacinto even though no permits have been granted by TPWD. TPWD enforcement appears to be lax. “Thus, it is likely regulations will have little or no effect on in-river mining.”

Recommendations:

Municipal Ordinances

The report found that municipalities (as opposed to counties) already have the power to require minimum buffers in Public Health and Safety requirements and nuisance abatement ordinances. The committee specifically cited the City of Houston. But much mining remains outside of municipalities. So it recommended granting authority to counties to establish setbacks between incompatible land uses and to regulate water wells to avoid possible groundwater contamination.

Lack of Industry Cooperation

This report began by acknowledging the need for balance. However, it ended by complaining about the lack of industry cooperation.

For instance, TACA claimed that pushing facilities father from where products are needed will “add a tremendous amount of cost.” When the committee tried to investigate such economic claims, TACA refused to document them. The committee then reached out to trade groups in other states to substantiate TACA’s claims. However, all those groups refused to respond or simply ignored the requests.

That led to one final recommendation. Should concerns about the potential economic consequences become substantiated by reputable data, the legislature should institute a “Best Practices Compliance Incentive Program.”

It would require TCEQ to certify that all APOs trying to do business with the state comply with industry best practices.

To read the entire report, click here.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/26/2021

1246 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.