Caution: SB 2126 Opens Door to Sand Mining in Rivers
Senate Bill (SB) 2126 is well intentioned. However, in my opinion, its present wording could have disastrous unintended consequences.
What Bill Does
SB 2126 would allow a “conservation or reclamation district” to take sand from the West Fork and its tributaries in order to “restore, maintain, or expand the capacity of the river and its tributaries to convey storm flows.” The district would not need a permit and could deposit sand anywhere as long as it’s on private land. What’s a “conservation district?” The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA), which supports this bill.
How It Started
The SJRA, concerned about sediment in the river, met with miners to see if they could find a public/private solution. The feelings were:
- The river had too much sand
- Dredging is very expensive
- Miners had the expertise and equipment to remove it at no cost to the public.
Great in Theory But…
It’s hard to argue with any of those points and the cost savings are appealing. But this bill ignores the fact that river mining is actually outlawed in many countries. They include England, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Others strongly regulate river mining including Italy, Portugal, and New Zealand.
Scientific literature abounds with examples of how river mining frequently increases sedimentation downstream. Some causes include:
- Loss of riparian vegetation that stabilizes river banks
- Channel incision (lowering or widening of river beds)
- Lowering of flood plain water tables, which kills more plants on river banks and increases erosion
- Disturbance (resuspension) of sediment on the river bottom that gets carried downstream
- A reduction of “bedload” that contributes to head cutting and downstream erosion, as seen in this video.
- “Sediment starvation” which causes downstream water to pull sediment from banks and beds, often resulting in the loss of private property downstream.
- Upstream changes in channel geometry that cause beds and banks to erode downstream, for instance, when rivers go from wide (near sand mines) to narrow (downstream).
For more background and explanation, see:
- Sand mining effects, causes and concerns: A case study from Bestari Jaya, Selangor, Peninsular Malaysia by Ashraf, et. al. 2010.
- Freshwater Gravel Mining and Dredging Issues, by Kondolf, et. al. 2002.
The SJRA says that it would provide the necessary oversight to reduce negative environmental impacts of river mining. The bill’s authors cite the need for “continuous dredging” on the West Fork. Further, they say that the bureaucracy for contracting dredging is overly burdensome and that this bill will cut red tape. Here is the analysis of the bill prepared for the Senate’s Water and Rural Affairs Committee.
Many environmental groups and scientists see river mining as far more destructive than flood-plain mining. Historically, the shift to flood-plain mining across the U.S. was largely a response to the dangers and excesses of river mining.
Also, the bill makes no mention of any oversight provisions, limitations or public comment. Sponsors even argue that the bill’s purpose is to eliminate the red tape associated with current oversight.
The Bayou Land Conservancy, one of the leading environmental groups in the Lake Houston Area, is sending the following letter to members of the Senate Water and Rural Affairs Committee as well the group’s own members.
Bayou Land Conservancy’s Letter on SB 2126
“On behalf of Bayou Land Conservancy, I urge you to vote NO on SB 2126 when the Water & Rural Affairs Committee meets to consider this bill.
“Bayou Land Conservancy is a non-profit, community-supported, land-conservation organization that preserves land along streams for flood control, clean water, and wildlife. We preserve 14,000 acres in the Houston region, primarily focused on the Lake Houston watershed. This includes the San Jacinto River, cited in 2006 as one of America’s most endangered rivers due to a number of threats, including the high intensity of local aggregate mining.
“SB 2126 would allow operators that are now currently limited to mining away from the river to remove sand and gravel from within the river itself. The river belongs to the citizens of Texas, and the contents of the river do as well. SB 2126 allows operators to remove sand, gravel, and other natural products that belong to the taxpayers of Texas without acquiring a permit or paying a fee.
“Not only would passage of this bill set a dangerous precedent, only a casual understanding of the science is necessary to know it would make sedimentation and flooding on the San Jacinto River even worse. “
“Because of the sandy soils along the San Jacinto, river banks are especially prone to collapse. Furthermore, while dredging in the still waters of a lake or bay can have benefits, mining within the flowing portion of a stream catastrophically destabilizes the river channel, speeding up erosion. Far from the imagined result of less sediment moving down the river, this dredging within a flowing river leads to much more sediment ending up in Lake Houston.
“This watershed-wide disruption of regional stream dynamics could also potentially create a tremendous liability for mining operators. Worst of all, this action would send much greater volumes of water even faster downstream, threatening communities like Kingwood, Humble and others.
“Without prior careful and deliberate study by an independent research organization long before any legislation, this practice should not be allowed. There are too many risks to downstream communities. We urge you to keep the life, health, safety, property of these downstream communities in mind and vote NO on SB 2126.”
This Bill Scares Me
The lack of language pertaining to oversight, methods and limitations in SB 2126 scares me. I was at a meeting in Austin last November when the subject of this bill came up.
I asked a simple question: “What would the solution look like?” I got three different answers from the SJRA, legislators and sand miners. Since then, I have met with all three groups again and still have no consistent answer.
Worse, the bill does not encourage them to find one. I can imagine years down the road (when all the good intentions are long forgotten) how the purpose of this bill could be subverted. Imagine a developer like Romerica saying, “I have a flooding problem. Take more sand out of the river and put it on my property. We don’t need any pesky oversight or public comment. Let’s get on with it. Who cares about flood plains when you can just expand the river?”
While I would like to see flood mitigation speeded up, I recognize that removing regulation can sometimes solve one problem only to create others. In addition to increasing sedimentation, this bill could fuel ceaseless and careless development along river banks that contributes to flooding. Despite its good intentions!
Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/15/2019
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