Tag Archive for: US Army Corps of Engineers

How a Controversial, Little Understood Definition Affects Flooding

The definition of “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) is changing again thanks to a new ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. It could put half of the nation’s wetlands in peril and that could significantly affect flooding.

The Ping-Pong Match over Wetland Protection

I first started covering the definition of WOTUS in January of this year in a story about Biden’s changes to Trump’s changes to Obama’s changes.

The WOTUS definition defines the areas subject to EPA clean water regulations. At issue: How far up in the branching structure of a river may the government enforce regulations? As far as it’s navigable? One level up from that? Two? Three? Infinitely?

Clarity is a good thing. But the last time I looked up WOTUS, the definition stretched for more than 100-pages. It has changed numerous times since 2015. And different government agencies follow different definitions. Complexity, change, ambiguity and conflict now give bureaucrats and developers almost unlimited power to interpret definitions as they see fit.

Local Example of Damage

For instance, when the developers of Woodridge Village clearcut their property, filled in wetlands and sent tons of sludge down Taylor Gully into Lake Houston, the question became “Were they acting legally?” The developer found no wetlands on their property even though wetlands were clearly indicated on the USGS National Wetlands Inventory.

Complaints piled into the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps found that, even though the property contained wetlands, the wetlands lay outside the jurisdiction of the Corps to regulate.

Resident examines massive erosion on Woodridge Village flowing down Taylor Gully into Lake Houston in 2019.

Bureaucratic Overreach?

The Trump-era definition, finalized in 2020, was long sought by developers who complained about federal overreach. They said the WOTUS definition stretched into gullies, creeks and wetlands on private property.

But Biden reversed the Trump definition and now the US Supreme Court has reversed the Biden definition. That makes the fourth time the rules have been reversed since 2015. Worse, the EPA and Corps use overlapping, but different rules.

And as far as I can tell, the limit of regulation does not vary with the magnitude of violation, a serious flaw in my opinion.

NYT Article Puts Most Recent Changes in Perspective

A New York Times essay by Jim Murphy of the National Wildlife Federation summarized the most recent changes. Says Murphy, “The Environmental Protection Agency has long interpreted the Clean Water Act as protecting most of the nation’s wetlands from pollution. But now the court has significantly limited the reach of the law…”

The Court’s new definition hinges on the wetlands having “a continuous surface connection” to bodies of water such as streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. At least half of the nation’s wetlands could lose protection under this ruling, which provides an even narrower definition of “protected waters” than the Trump administration had sought, according to Murphy.

Congress has long failed to clarify language in the Clean Water Act that caused confusion among judges and put the law in the Supreme Court’s cross hairs.

Wetlands are nature’s sponges. They act as natural detention basins that hold back stormwaters and that has a direct impact on flooding.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who filed a concurring opinion in the judgment, acknowledged its impact, writing that it would have “significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States.”

How Revised Definition Could Affect Local Development

Need an example. Look no further than the Colony Ridge development in Liberty County, where the developer is filling in and paving over wetlands…some immediately adjacent to wetland mitigation banks.

Colony Ridge Wetlands
Colony Ridge Wetlands
Colony Ridge wetlands being drained for development.

Many residents in adjoining communities such as Plum Grove and Huffman have complained bitterly about worsening flooding in their areas, which they attribute to such development practices.

I hope Congress can finally find a workable definition of WOTUS that protects public safety while allowing responsible development. The constantly changing definitions of WOTUS help no one.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/31/23

2101 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 Expanding North Into More Wetlands

After months of expanding Colony Ridge to the east, the developer is now pushing north. The new area is outlined in red below.

From Google Earth Pro. Red box shows new expansion area to the north of those currently being developed.

US Fish and Wildlife Shows Area Contains Many Wetlands

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the new area contains numerous wetlands. So did the partially developed area below it.

Here’s the same general area highlighted within the USGS National Wetlands Inventory.

Wetlands are nature’s way of slowing water down after a rain. They also filter runoff before it reaches streams, reducing the amount of sediment pollution.

The photos below, all taken on 5/26/2021, show the same kinds of business practices that just earned Colony Ridge eight complaints from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality during nine investigations.

Looking north from a helicopter. Notice how ditch and roads are beginning to push into woods at top of frame.
As with previous sections recently developed, Colony Ridge is not too picky about piling dirt next to ditches where sediment can wash back in.
Piling dirt next to the ditches seems to be a standard practice. Note how it’s already washing back into the ditch in the lower left of this photo.

If the developer were following best management practices, according to the TCEQ and Stormwater Pollution Protection Plan recommendations, you would expect to see temporary grass, rock gabions, silt fences, and hay bales in these photos. All check the flow of sediment into ditches.

Draining the swamp
Looking SE toward the east part of Sante Fe (Sections 6-11) already cleared. Note swampy areas at bottom left.

Biden Trying to Restore Clean Water Act Protections

Ironically, all this development comes as the EPA under the Biden administration seeks to put teeth back into the Clean Water Act. The administration is trying to restore the definition of “Waters of the United States” that Trump restricted. Yesterday, the Justice Department submitted a legal filing that begins that process.

The EPA and Department of the Army have formally requested repeal of the Trump-era rule. That rule exempted many developments near upstream tributaries such as Luce and Tarkington Bayous from the need to obtain permits under the Clean Water Act. It basically removed large swaths of land from regulation by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

According to this Associated Press article by Matthew Daly on 6/9/2021, environmental groups and public health advocates said Trump’s interpretation of Waters of the US “allowed businesses to dump pollutants into unprotected waterways and fill in some wetlands, threatening public water supplies downstream and harming wildlife and habitat.”

Daly quotes Jaime Pinkham, acting assistant Army secretary for civil works as saying, “The Trump-era rule resulted in a 25% reduction in the number of streams and wetlands that are afforded federal protection.”

It’s unclear at this time whether rollback of Trump regulations will affect Colony Ridge. Even if the changes survive legal and legislative challenges, it could be years before they take affect.

By then, the world’s largest trailer park will have doubled again in size.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/10/2021

1381 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.

Army Corps to Hold Virtual Public Meetings on Coastal Protection Study

Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin issued a newsletter today about about the Army Corps’ Coastal Protection Study. The City, he says, has worked with its civic, business, state and federal partners ever since Hurricane Ike in September 2008 on this project. “Hurricane Laura, renewed the sense of urgency with our federal partners,” said Martin. “We need collectively to identify a single path forward and focus all our energy and resources into ramping that project up and moving it forward.”

Texas Ranks as Third Most Vulnerable State to Hurricanes

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ranks Texas as the third most vulnerable state to hurricanes when ranked by property value.

Destruction on Bolivar Peninsula After Hurricane Ike. Looking south toward Gulf. Ike scoured infrastructure right out of the ground. Storm surge reached almost all the way to I-10 and swept buildings off their foundations more than 10 miles inland.
Destruction on Bolivar Peninsula After Hurricane Ike. Looking north toward Bay. Nothing was left standing for miles.

Ike went right up the throat of Galveston Bay. Had the storm come in 30 miles west, the refineries from Texas City to Deer Park, Pasadena and Baytown could have looked like the photos above. That would have been an environmental disaster of the highest order.

Corps Releases Coastal Protection Study, Seeks Public Comment

The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) just released the Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study Draft Report (Coastal Texas Study) on October 30th. They will accept public comment through December 14th.

The Corps will hold six, virtual, public meetings for comments. Each will require registration to participate. They will hold the first of the virtual public meetings on Monday, November 16, 2020 from 11am to 1pm.

Interested participants who cannot make the meetings, can submit comments by emailing coastaltexas@usace.army.mil. All comments must be postmarked by December 14, 2020. Written comments can be mailed to:

USACE, Galveston District

Attention:  Mr. Jeff Pinsky

Environmental Compliance Branch Regional

Planning and Environmental Center

Post Office Box 1229

Galveston, Texas 77553-1229

“It is my hope,” said Martin, “that all our local representatives will submit letters of support during this comment period to the Army Corps of Engineers. Once they have expressed support for the Coastal Texas Study, local officials should work with their federal counterparts to ensure the study is approved and subsequent projects authorized once they reach Congress. That should be early in 2021.”

Martin Describes Approval Gauntlet

“At the State level, we have an excellent state sponsor for the plan in the General Land Office (GLO).  The GLO serves as the local advocate for coastal communities and the state-level partner with the USACE,” says Martin  “In January, the Texas State Legislature will be continuing its work towards getting a workable plan approved for our protection.”

Martin added that at the Federal level, we now have a comprehensive surge protection plan moving through the USACE approval process. This plan provides an estimated $2 of benefits for every $1 spent. That ratio makes the proposed barrier system competitive as a national priority for Congressional approval and funding, claims Martin.

Specifically, the Legislature will be looking at advancing different funding strategies for our barrier system, including using Resilience Bonds to capture value through avoided losses. These large infrastructure projects take many years to design, develop, and construct.  But we are closer now than ever to having a workable solution for our region, says Martin.  “The prize is at hand, and we mustn’t allow ourselves to get distracted!”

“Our local business and civic leaders must stay focused, vigilant, and engaged in the process to inform themselves of the opportunities we have,” says Martin.  “They must also help educate other Houstonians on the ways we can protect our communities to make the Houston an even more desirable place to live and work.”

Where To Find the Study and Some Key Conclusions

Here’s a link to the executive summary of the proposal. Significantly, the plan is no longer a monolithic dike stretching along the entire coastline. It contains both natural and man-made elements. USACE has abandoned the plan of building a wall along SH87 that stretches from Bolivar Flats to High Island. That was dropped from the plan to minimize both social and environmental impacts. Instead, the Bolivar and Galveston beach and dune systems will be increased in size to reduce storm surge impacts.

That area is one of the richest wildlife areas in the state. Millions of birds migrate to the coastal marshes there every year. They depend on the wetlands to fish and nest.

Tens of thousands of geese take to the wing at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge after Hurricane Ike.
Proud new parents

The Corps’ Coastal Protection Study lays out a plan to restore degraded ecosystems to create natural buffers that protect communities and industry on the Texas coast from erosion, subsidence, and storm losses. It includes approximately 114 miles of breakwaters, 15 miles of bird rookery islands, 2,000 acres of marsh, 12 miles of oyster reef, and almost 20 miles of beach and dune. 

The plan varies by coastal region and takes in everything between Beaumont and Brownsville.

The total cost: $26 billion. But it would reduce flood damaged structures by 77% in a 1% (100-year) event, and save an estimated $2.25 billion per year during the 50-year life of the project.

If authorized and funded by Congress, subsequent phases of the project would include preliminary engineering and design; construction; and operations and maintenance. Completion of preliminary engineering and construction of the Recommended Plan would depend on Congressional approval and funding. USACE believes the recommended plan could be designed and then constructed within 12 to 20 years. 

Meeting Dates, Must Register First

The Corps will hold the six meetings on:

  • Monday, November 16, 2020 from 11:00AM to 1:00PM and from 6:00PM to 8:00PM
  • Thursday, December 3, 2020 from 11:00AM to 1:00PM  and from 6:00PM to 8:00PM
  • Tuesday, December 8, 2020 from 11:00AM to 1:00PM and from 6:00PM to 8:00PM

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/7/2020

1166 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Weekly Mouth Bar Dredging Update with Images from Carolyn Daniel, Kendall Taft, Franz Willette of BCAeronautics, and the Army Corps

We learned a little bit more this week about the next phase of dredging. Several graphics (below) released by the Corps summarize modifications to the Emergency West Fork Debris Removal Project.

What We Confirmed and Learned

We confirmed that:

  • Great Lakes, the prime contractor on the original job, will be the only contractor on the Corps portion of the contract extension
  • Great Lakes will pump sediment all the way upstream to Placement Area 2
  • The Corps intends to dredge 500,000 cubic yards in the area of the mouth bar.

We learned that:

  • The original contract contingency allotment of approximately $3.5 million was used up, most likely by additional sediment washed downstream during floods in December, January, February, May and June.
  • Callan, the subcontractor for phase one, has approximately 83,000 cubic yards to dredge due to modification of the original contract.
  • Dredging an additional 500,000 cubic yards will cost another $17,085,861
  • The FEMA/Corps portion of the dredging should finish by December 6, 2019
  • Demobilization and cleanup will take until Jan. 22, 2020
  • This is FEMA mission assignment SWD-30
  • Great Lakes started dredging the mouth bar on June 25th
  • Great Lakes will dredge a wide area but not go all the way to the FM1960 bridge.

Corps Releases Summary of Project and Extension(s)

I compiled the information above from a PDF developed by The Army Corps. They released it on July 9.

First page of a 2-page PDF released by the Corps on July 9.
Second page of a 2-page PDF. Army Corps summary of Emergency West Fork Dredging project. For a high-resolution PDF, click here.

To calculate the depth of dredging in that blue area to the right, I simulated the outline in Google Earth and found that it roughly equals 500,000 square yards. That means if they dredge this whole area, they will reduce the river bed by approximately 3 feet. The area already averages 2-3 feet deep. That means the river will be roughly 6 feet deep through this reach when the Corps finishes its portion of the job.

The area outlined by Corps is approximately 500,000 square yards.
Where Callan will finish dredging near Kings Harbor, the depth will be approximately 22.5 feet.

However, upstream, Callan is dredging to a depth of 22.5 feet. Thus, creating a continuous gradient along the river bottom would require dredging approximately another 16 feet deeper in the same area…and that wouldn’t even get you to the FM1960 bridge. Also, note the gap in the graphic between where Callan will finish its portion of Phase One and Great Lakes will start mouth bar dredging.

Unknowns

It is unclear at this point who will dredge the rest of the material that needs to be removed to restore conveyance of the West Fork. Neither the City, County, nor State have yet announced their plans. We don’t know:

  • Where they will dredge
  • How deep they will go
  • Where they will place the material
  • How much it will all cost, or
  • When they plan to do it.

In the meantime, here are two dramatic sequences of photos plus a video submitted by readers this week. They show what the start of mouth bar dredging looked like from the air and water.

Carolyn Daniel Mouth Bar Shots from Airplane Landing at IAH

Carolyn Daniel submitted these shots of the mouth bar and dredging activity taken from her airplane window while on a landing approach to Bush Intercontinental Airport.

On approach to IAH. FM 1960 at bottom of frame. East Fork of San Jacinto upper right and West Fork on the left. Kings Point and Royal Shores between them. Image courtesy of Carolyn Daniel.
Can you spot East End Park? Kingwood Drive? Town Center? All are visible in this shot by Carolyn Daniel.
Mouth bar of west fork with dredge. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Daniel. Note the large Triple-P sand mine near the top of the frame in Porter.
Mouth bar of San Jacinto West Fork with Great Lakes Dredge. Image courtesy of Carolyn Daniel.
Mouth bar of West Fork with dredge. Atascocita Point on left in foreground. Fosters Mill and Kings Point in background. Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Daniel.
Through the clouds. While landing at Bush Intercontinental Airport. Mouth bar of San Jacinto West Fork with Great Lakes Dredge. Image courtesy of Carolyn Daniel.

Franz Willett Drone Shots Courtesy of BCAeronautics

Franz Willette runs a company called BCAeronautics that uses drones in mapping, inspections, roofing analyses, site surveys, and 3D modeling. He did not have clouds to contend with and could shoot safely from a much lower elevation. Willette is FAA certified.

West Fork Mouth Bar with Great Lakes Dredge. Drone image courtesy of Franz Willette, BCAeronautics.
West Fork Mouth Bar with Great Lakes Dredge. Drone image courtesy of Franz Willette, BCAeronautics. Great Lakes should dredge those two small islands in the background.
West Fork Mouth Bar with Great Lakes Dredge. Looking south toward the FM1960 Bridge. Drone image courtesy of Franz Willette, BCAeronautics.
West Fork Mouth Bar with Great Lakes Dredge. Drone image courtesy of Franz Willette, BCAeronautics.

Kendall Taft Video

Video courtesy of Kendall Taft. Shot from south of mouth bar looking north.
Shows how shallow the water is and how vast the expanse is.

I hope to post updates weekly on this project. So readers, please help. Submit your images through the submissions page of this web site. My thanks to Carolyn Daniel, Franz Willette, BCAeronautics and Kendall Taft.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/13/2019 with help from Carolyn Daniel, Franz Willette, BCAeronautics and Kendall Taft.

683 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Army Corps Moving Forward with Partial Mouth Bar Dredging to Reduce Flood Risk

The Army Corps announced Monday that it will begin dredging approximately 500,000 cubic yards of the giant sand bar at the mouth of the San Jacinto West Fork. It has been linked to flooding in the Humble-Kingwood-Atascocita area. However, previous estimates put the total volume at close to 2 million cubic yards, with the volume due to Harvey at 1.4 million cubic yards.


Text of Press Release

GALVESTON, Texas (June 10, 2019) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District staff executed a modification to the West Fork San Jacinto River Emergency Debris Removal contract June 7, 2019, to dredge an additional 497,400 cubic yards of material that was deposited in the mouth of the San Jacinto River from Hurricane Harvey.

“This contract modification will ensure a decrease in threats to critical infrastructure and lower the risk to potential loss of life,” said Charles Wheeler, USACE Galveston District project manager. “This is an ongoing contract that is part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency mission assignment.”

According to USACE Galveston District officials, the dredged material will be placed at the existing location referred to as Placement Area 2, which is located approximately 10 miles upriver. The additional dredging is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2019, with the demobilization of the equipment completed by early 2020.


No Mention of Other Partners

The press release does not mention the City of Houston, Harris County, the State of Texas, or Congressman Dan Crenshaw’s office. Most had been negotiating with FEMA and the Corps as late as last Friday.

On two previous occasions, the City announced agreements in principle with FEMA and the Corps. However, the two sides still had many details to work out relating to volume, storage, permitting and cost. The City and FEMA have tried to reach agreement on the volume of sediment deposited by Harvey since last October – eight months.

In February, the City, hired Tetra Tech to collect and analyze core samples from the mouth bar. In late April, Tetra Tech estimated, through a protocol recommended by FEMA, that Harvey deposited 1.4 million cubic yards of sediment at the mouth of the river.

Two Sides Far Apart in Negotiating Volume

The Corps’ announcement reveals just how far apart the two sides were in their volume estimates – about 900,000 cubic yards. That difference means much of the mouth bar area will remain undredged – at least for now.

With approval to remove only about 500,000 cubic yards, the dredgers will have to cut a channel around the mouth bar, most likely on the deeper Atascocita side. Ironically, that would mean leaving behind sand deposited above water by Harvey – a decision that could confuse the public.

Great Lakes Dredge Moving into Position

Great Lakes finished dredging its half of Phase One on April 12, exactly two months ago. The company has waited patiently ever since for the decision that finally came last Friday.

Today, the Great Lakes dredge has anchored near Kings Harbor. Judging by the weeds and logs in the pictures below, it appears that they will have to dredge their way TO the mouth bar. That could use up some of the precious approved volume. It could also take several weeks to position and calibrate all the equipment necessary to pump sediment 10 miles upriver.

Great Lakes Dredge has moved downriver east of West Lake Houston Parkway. It is anchored in front of Raffa’s in Kings Harbor.
Wider shot taken from the pier in Kings Harbor facing west toward the Great Lakes Dredge and the West Lake Houston Parkway bridge.
Callan dredge operating on the other side of the pier. Dredgers are responsible only for work in the channel, not tidying up the shoreline. While taking this shot this morning, I noticed that workers were finally starting to renovate Sharkey’s, one of the most popular restaurants in Kings Harbor before Harvey.

What Comes Next?

Pumping sediment from the mouth bar to PA-2 will require the horsepower of the larger Great Lakes dredge. It will also require several extra booster pumps and miles of additional 24 inch pipeline. The Great Lakes dredge has now moved downstream and is anchored east of the West Lake Houston Parkway bridge near Kings Harbor.

Last week, dredge pipe re-appeared under the 59 bridge after being gone for two months. That fueled rumors that the two sides had finally worked out some kind of deal. At this hour, the mystery is where does the Corps’ decision leave all the other parties in this process? More important, where does it leave the remainder of the mouth bar?

Other Money Available

The state approved an additional $30 million for dredging the mouth bar last week. The county also allocated $10 million in the flood bond approved by voters last year (see item CI-61). That $40 million along with another $18 million committed by the City of Houston would add up to $58 million. In addition to the unspecified sum FEMA is fronting now, that might be enough to remove the entire mouth bar. That could happen one of two ways:

  • The City, Corps, FEMA and TDEM would have to increase the approved volume after the next phase starts or…
  • The City, County and TDEM would have to remove the rest without FEMA and the Corps.

However, money is just part of the problem. The second option might require permitting another placement area. Permitting could delay the project. But permitting a closer placement area might also save money. It gets complicated.

PA 1 is filling up rapidly as the pictures below show. And PA-2 is so far upriver from the mouth bar that would cost extra millions of dollars to use.

Tail end of the Callan dredge pipe empties sediment into an old sand pit off Townsend in Humble.
Several months ago, this was all water. The owner of the pit is now selling sand to an asphalt company and the pit is still filling rapidly.

Easy Way to Save Money

Shortening the distance between the mouth bar and the placement area could reduce the amount of diesel and manpower needed to run the booster bumps. Each booster uses more than one thousand gallons of diesel per day. So costs add up rapidly. That’s why the Corps is still considering other placement areas.

Berry Madden owns several thousand acres south of River Grove Park between the river and FM1960. According to Madden, using his property could save the government $5.5 million in pumping costs. And that’s just on the first 500,000 cubic yards. If 2 million cubic yards is an accurate estimate for the total mouth bar, using Madden’s property could save $22 million. That’s even more than the remobilization costs we were trying to save.

I hope we don’t stretch this out too much longer or make it any more difficult. My truck needs some repairs and I’m afraid, as a taxpayer, that I may not be able to afford them!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/12/19

652 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Interview with Corps’ Chief of Evaluation: What’s Next for Romerica?

After receiving 727 public comments, Kingwood Marina developer, Romerica Investments, LLC, asked Corps regulators on April 24, to “temporarily suspend an Individual Permit Application (SWG-2016-00384).”

Romercia’s environmental consultants said in a letter to Corps regulators, they made the request based on the large volume of comments provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) on March 28.

The request acknowledged, “It will take several months to conduct the surveys and studies needed to respond fully to these comments.” 

Interview withCorps’ Chief of Evaluation Branch

Last week, I spoke with Janet Botello, Chief of the Evaluation Branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Galveston District. We talked about what comes next for Romerica after its permit application for the proposed high-rise development in Kingwood was withdrawn by the Corps. Bottom line: if they reapply, we would likely have another public comment period.

In this satellite image taken on 2/23/19, you can see the West Fork San Jacinto at the bottom, River Grove Park at the left, Kingwood Country Club on the right and the Barrington at the top. Romerica hopes to build multiple 25-50 high rises between the little lake in the center and the golf course fairways below the Barrington.

Difference: Suspension vs. Withdrawal

Rehak: “Romerica requested a suspension of their permit application. The Army Corps withdrew it. What’s the difference? Is there any legal significance?”

Botello: “The correct wording in this case is “withdrawal.” There IS a legal difference. There is a provision within our regulations for suspending a permit. But that only occurs when a permit has actually been issued. In this case, the permit was not issued; there was only an application. We never made a final decision. So the pending application was withdrawn.”

Another Public Comment Period Likely

Rehak: “If they reapply, would there be another public comment period during the evaluation of new application?”

Botello: “I am comfortable in saying that there probably will be another public comment period based on the number of public interest factors and concerns that were raised and potential changes that could occur. But we won’t know for sure until we get the revised packet of information.”

Rehak: “How frequently does this happen?”

Botello: “It’s common. If a significant number of comments are raised during the public comment period and applicants aren’t prepared to address them within 30 days, we withdraw it. Then they go back and try to answer the concerns that were raised or revise their plans. Conversely, if they can answer and fully address concerns within 30 days, we keep evaluating the permit and we go ahead with the next step. If not, we withdraw it and give them time on their own to address the public concerns.”

Next Steps If Romerica Reapplies

Rehak: “What will be the next steps if Romerica reapplies?”

Botello: “First, we will evaluate the new submittal internally for a review of the Corps’ concerns. Then we will draft a public notice for public review – to gather public concerns. Then typically, we gather up the comments and concerns raised after that 30-day period, and forward them again to the applicant. They will have to respond within 30 days and then we will gather their responses and determine what steps are appropriate.”

Where We Are At

Romerica has not returned phone calls to discuss their intentions. If other agencies had concerns as serious as the TCEQ’s, this project could die quietly. If Romerica reapplies, which they have said they will do, the developer will likely have to significantly revise plans, and start over with a lengthy permitting process including a new public comment period.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/6/2019

615 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Army Corps Updates West Fork Dredging Progress

The US Army Corps of Engineers has just released a graphic that updates the Lake Houston Community on West Fork dredging progress. With a little more than two months to go before the scheduled completion of the project, about two thirds of the work has been completed. That’s a visual estimate, not one based on volume of sand removed.

The clock started ticking on this project on July 15, 2018. The contract called for completion in 270 days or about mid-April. However, contractors encountered three back-to-back-to-back floods in December and January that set them back. The Corps’ last scheduled completion date was at the end of April.

The dredging progress may be slightly behind schedule, even given the addition of the “weather days.” However, contractors hope to make up the time as weather improves.

Work to date shown in solid colors. Unfinished work shown as empty boxes. Expected completion date is end of April.

To download a high-resolution version of this progress map, click here.

Artwork courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/21/2019

541 Days since Hurricane Harvey

City Analyzing Samples from Mouth Bar In Hopes of Determining Volume Due to Harvey

According to Stephen Costello, Chief Resiliency Officer for The City of Houston, the City contracted with a company called Tetra Tech to take core samples earlier this week from and around the mouth bar on the West Fork of the San Jacinto.

Why Core Samples?

The mouth bar is a giant sand bar at the mouth of the river where it meets the lake. The size of it has concerned residents throughout the Lake Houston Area since Harvey. It has the potential to back water up on both sides of the river and worsen flooding.

Some background. The Army Corps initially excluded the mouth bar from its current dredging program on the west fork. Their reason: a small part of the bar existed before Harvey. FEMA, which is funding the dredging, by law cannot spend money on remediation for things that existed before the disaster in question.

It took months for the City, FEMA and the Army Corps to agree on a way to estimate the volume of sand deposited by Harvey. The answer says Costello: something called the Stockton protocol that he says was developed after Superstorm Sandy at Stockton University in New Jersey.

Analysis Due by End of February

The core samples will be key to estimating pre- and post-Harvey volumes. Costello says engineers will look at density and color of sand grains to help estimate where sediment from one storm stops and another starts.

Costello hopes engineers will complete their analysis by the end of February. In the meantime two other efforts are proceeding simultaneously.

Search for Suitable Disposal Site Continues

The Corps will evaluate one property for suitability as above-ground storage. Separately, others are also out looking at sub-surface storage sites (i.e., old sand pits). Several have been located. The cost and safety of above ground and below ground storage will be weighed against the possibility of hauling material off by truck. Distance between the dredge and disposal sites also affects pumping costs.

All this will take time, especially if a full-blown environmental study is necessary for the above-ground option. Costello says the Corps has told him that could take four months to two years.

Evaluating Plan B

Because of delays, Costello is starting to worry that delays may cost taxpayers the opportunity to save $18 million. That’s the cost to remobilize a second dredging project if the current dredging project cannot be extended.

Accordingly, Costello is pursuing two options. The first involves praying (that’s a joke). The second involves working back through the Texas Division of Emergency Management to get FEMA to declare the mouth bar part of the original emergency mission. The Corps seems to move much faster when orders come from FEMA, several sources tell me. Maybe we should start praying too. (That’s not a joke.)

Money, according to Costello, should not be a problem. FEMA has approved the use of debris cleanup money from Harvey for dredging. He believes enough money remains in that fund to cover the City’s cost share.

Where Current Dredging Project Stands

The Corps estimates that the current dredging project is 45% complete. They hope to complete dredging by the end of April.

City contractors are still removing downed trees from Lake Houston as a result of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction.
The Callan Dredge is currently working the area near Kings Harbor at the West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge.
The immensity of the equipment underscores the need to keep crews working at the end of the current project on the mouth bar. Remobilizing all this equipment could cost $18 million or more if delays create a need to remobilize.

Posted by Bob Rehak on February 7, 2018

527 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Progress to Date on West Fork Dredging

Note: This post contains a correction to Matt Zeve’s title; he is Deputy Executive Director at Harris County Flood Control.

The Army Corps of Engineers today released this graphic showing the extent of West Fork dredging progress to date. Dredging will extend from River Grove Park on the west King’s Harbor on the east.

Graphic courtesy of the US Army Corps of Engineers. For a larger, high-res version, click here.

Original Schedule Included Months of Prep

The Corps expected the project to take 270 days or 9 months. The clock started ticking on July 21, 2018, when the Corps awarded the job to Great Lakes Dredge and Dock and its subcontractor Callan Marine.

Great Lakes subcontracted part of the job because it was time sensitive and Callan had a dredge that could start quickly. In fact, Callan began sooner than Great Lakes. Both companies spent considerable time on site assembling the dredges. Welding more than six miles of 24 inch HDPE dredge pipe and maneuvering it into place also required upfront time. Then both companies had to calibrate dredging rates with three booster pumps. Make no mistake; this is a huge undertaking.

Two months after the contract award, the first dredge moved downriver to its starting position on September 19th. A month later, on October 25th, the second dredge moved downriver. So out of the the 9 months, it took two and three months respectively just to start the dredging. Then we had three floods between December 7 and January 7 that caused pauses in the action.

Slow but Steady Progress

Backing out floods and prep time, we need to evaluate the progress shown above on a SIX month “actual-dredging” timetable, not the nine months budgeted for the entire job. Visually, it appears that they are roughly half completed and roughly half of the six months has expired. That’s reassuring. Especially knowing that the dredging has proved more difficult than expected. Crews periodically must stop to remove roots and aquatic vegetation from the dredge cutter heads.

Nagging Uncertainty Remains about Mouth Bar and Upstream

The questions readers keep asking, though, are “Will we be able to save all of that investment in upfront time?” And “Will we be able to start dredging the mouth bar before the start of next hurricane season starts on June 1?”

Corps bids showed that mobilization and demobilization cost 25% of the total job, roughly $18 million. Starting the mouth bar project as soon as the current project completes could save that money. It’s enough to do a lot more dredging. Maybe even open up the boat launch that the County hopes to build at its new Edgewater Park near US 59.

New Congressman Dan Crenshaw Jumping In

Dan Crenshaw, the Lake Houston Area’s new US Congressman seems to be jumping into flooding issues with both feet. He announced today that he has been appointed to Congressional Budget and Homeland Security committees. The budget committee assignment should put him in a good position to help accelerate flood mitigation measures.

Crenshaw has already met with Harris County with Flood Control District Deputy Executive Director Matt Zeve and Professional Engineer Ian Hudson to get an update on projects in Texas’s Second Congressional District. Those include both cleanup projects and flood mitigation projects. Crenshaw also met on Monday with Houston City Councilman Dave Martin, in which they discussed the importance of these projects. I also hear he is meeting the Army Corps and developers of the new high-rise project proposed for Kingwood.

New Congressman Dan Crenshaw (center) with Matt Zeve of Harris County Flood Control (r) and Ian Hudson (l).

Said Crenshaw, “Our district has been through so much because of Hurricane Harvey. I’m grateful for all the hard work our local and federal officials have done to prepare us for the next storm. I’m excited to get to work to ensure the people of TX-02 are able to make a full recovery and put Harvey in the rearview mirror.”

Something tells me that Crenshaw will bring the zeal of a SEAL to this job.

Posted on January 23, 2019 by Bob Rehak

512 days since Hurricane Harvey

Dredging Starts, But Not Where Planned

The Army Corps of Engineers Emergency West Fork Dredging Project started yesterday, but not where planned. The Corps originally said it would start slightly east of West Lake Houston Parkway bridge and work its way back west to River Grove Park. Contract documents indicated the eastward limit of dredging would include the area south of Kings Harbor. However, today dredging started west of the bridge, between the Kingwood Country Club Forest Course and Kings Lake Estates. That puts the start of dredging approximately in the middle of the contracted area.

From US Army Corps’ contract plans for West Fork Dredging project. Note arrow pointing to power lines in C-102.

Photo courtesy of Keith Jordan, a Kings Lake Estates resident, shows first dredge set up behind row of trees on West Fork. Note high tension power lines seen in the right of photo as a reference to the map above.

Jordan said, “Literally watching constant dredging occurring about 200 yards in front of my boat house in the river. Motors seem to be running 24/7 with lights on boats at night.”  He later sent me this image.

Photo Courtesy of Keith Jordan. 

Approximate starting point of dredging. Satellite image courtesy of Google Earth.

When asked about noise from the operation, Jordan replied, “Just hear a steady hum from inside the house. Nothing bad.”

I asked about the change in plans because Kings Harbor was one of the worst flooded areas in Kingwood. One hundred percent of the businesses were destroyed along with three apartment complexes. This is also the area were Ben’s Branch empties into the river.

The Corps has not yet explained the reason for the change in plans. They did, however, send these additional shots of the dredge in operation.

First dredge in operation on location in the middle of the contracted area.

First dredge at work near Kings Lake Estates. There appears to be a mechanical dredge working in front of the hydraulic dredge.

The dredge weighs approximately 27 tons and will be in the river 24 hours per day until early May of 2019 according to the Corps.

Over 4.5 miles of high density polyethylene pipeline measuring 24 inches in diameter is in position and will help move over 1.8 million cubic years of sediment and debris.

Corps officials are asking recreational boaters to stay clear of the dredge and be aware of debris removal pipelines and booster pumps within the river.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/20/18

388 Days since Hurricane Harvey