Tag Archive for: West Fork

West Fork Sludge Fest

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

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20231111-DJI_0872-1024x682.jpg
Looking NW from over US59 Bridge. Confluence of Spring Creek (left) and San Jacinto West Fork (right). Cypress Creek joins Spring Creek 2.7 miles west of this location.

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

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

Ruling Out Causes

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s where it gets really baffling.

SJRA Study Claims Most Sediment Comes from Spring/Cypress Creeks

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

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

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

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

Possible Sources for Sediment Pollution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Report Issues You May See

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

The zebra effect at the confluence is common.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/13/2023

2267 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Swollen San Jacinto East and West Forks Sweep Through Sand Mines

As floodwaters worked their way down the East and West Forks of the San Jacinto from last week’s heavy rains, they invaded sand mines on both rivers on Easter Sunday, 2023.

Up to 9 inches of rain fell in the headwaters of both rivers during 3 days from 4/5 to 4/7. Atlas-14 rainfall probability statistics indicate that equals a 5-year rain.

The Lake Conroe Dam intercepted much of the West Fork rain and is now releasing it at about 6400 cubic feet per second. There are no dams on the East Fork and the flooding there appears much worse.

West Fork Near Northpark South Development

Near the Northpark South Development on Sorters Road, the West Fork snakes its way through four square miles of sand mines. In the image below, the Hallett Mine on the right seemed secure. But the abandoned sand mines on the left and top center both opened to the river.

Photo taken 4/9/2023 two days after rain stopped.

East Fork Near FM2090 on 4/9/2023

Normally, the East Fork at 2090 is about 30-40 feet wide – the size of the opening in the woods circled in red below. But today, the river swelled to about 2000 feet wide.

Looking south from over East Fork San Jacinto toward FM2090.
Looking East along FM2090 across the East Fork.

As the East Fork rose, it invaded the abandoned Texas Concrete Sand and Gravel Mine in Plum Grove.

Abandoned Texas Concrete Sand and Gravel Plum Grove Mine north of FM2090 between East Fork and FM1010

Water entered the northern end, swept through the mine, and punched through the dikes on the southern end, carrying silt and sand with it. See sequence of pictures below.

Looking N toward northern end of mine. Water entered mine in upper left and cut off house.
Water then swept under and around house moving south.
Looking S. The water then exited back into the river through several breaches in dikes.
Rushing water carrying silt and sand found two more breaches close to 2090. Left unchecked, the force of this water will eventually erode the banks of FM2090.
Baptist Church Loop Road south of FM2090 was also underwater.

Mine Fails to Meet Guidelines for Abandonment

This mine does not meet TCEQ guidelines for abandonment. The miners left equipment, including a dredge. They also failed to grade stockpiles, remove buildings, and plant grass. Yet somehow, the TCEQ gave them a pass.

This is the second time in less than two years that this mine has been inundated. The public will bear the cost of dredging all the sand carried downriver.

Ironically, a bill introduced by State Rep. Charles Cunningham requiring financial surety for sand mine reclamation remains bottled up in the House Natural Resources Committee. See HB1093.

I guess the miners need the money more than you do.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/9/2023

2049 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

The Hand of Sand Miners on the San Jacinto

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

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

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

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

Lake Houston Wilderness Park

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

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

Compare That With These Shots

This first provides a direct comparison.

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

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

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

More Mine Photos from West Fork

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

No Swimming

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

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

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

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

Cycle Continues

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

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

Posted by Bob Rehak on July 27, 2022

1793 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Dredging Now Closer to East Fork Than West

On July 9, the City of Houston announced a plan to dredge its way from the West Fork San Jacinto to the East Fork through a narrow channel south of Royal Shores in Kingwood. Since then, I’ve been tracking the progress. Between July 11 and August 28, the dredging moved about 1,200 feet east, or about 200 feet per week. But in the last three and a half weeks, the pace has slowed to less than 150 feet per week.

Dredging Pace Slowed During Nicholas

Hurricane Nicholas likely affected the schedule with the twin needs to secure equipment and lower the lake.

Regardless, when I put up a drone today, I found good news. The dredging is now much closer to the east fork than the west.

Dredging has now reached homes in Royal Shores. Looking south toward FM1960 and Lake Houston.
Looking east toward the East Fork. Dredging should break through in about another 1000 feet, the width of another six or seven homes.

Assuming the City can maintain a pace of 200 feet per week, that would put crews in the East Fork by the end of October.

Distance dredged in three weeks since last update on August 28th.
Looking west. At present, there appear to be two crews working. Note one still way out near the west fork, widening or deepening the channel near where they started in mid-July.
This certainly is one of the most beautiful parts of Houston for those who can afford to live with the flood risk.

Proposals for Long-Range Dredging Plan Due Today

A damage map compiled shortly after Harvey showed that 1290 Harris County homes flooded in the East Fork watershed.

Since then, a significant mouth bar has built up on the East Fork, potentially putting even more homes at risk.

The submission deadline for vendors to submit their qualifications for the development of a long-range dredging plan is today. Stay tuned for more news as it becomes available.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9.23.21

1486 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Lake Houston Dredging Starts Moving to East Fork

On Thursday last week, Stephen Costello, PE, the City of Houston’s Chief Recovery Officer, gave an update on Lake Houston dredging. Costello said that mechanical dredging was starting to move from the West Fork to the East Fork of the San Jacinto River.

Next Phase of Dredging Starting

This marks the beginning of the next phase in dredging after Harvey. Since 2018, dredgers have focused on the West Fork, which was 90% blocked by sediment in places, according to the Army Corps. The Corps and the City removed 2.9 million cubic yards of sediment from the West Fork. Now the focus will migrate to the East Fork, and then Lake Houston itself.

But to get to the East Fork mouth bar, dredgers must first deepen the channel south of Royal Shores that connects the two forks…or else take the long way around to the placement area.

Yellow dot represents most recent focus of dredging on West Fork. The dotted line branching off to the right through the channel is how dredger’s will get back and forth to the East Fork Mouth Bar (big yellow circle) and the placement area south of River Grove Park on the West Fork.

Channel Filled with Silt, Too

Costello said silt in the channel made it too shallow for pontoons and equipment to navigate back and forth safely.

Photos taken this afternoon show that the first equipment is starting to dredge the channel inside two ancient cutoff meanders of the West Fork.

Looking west toward West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge from over the channel connecting the West and East Forks.
Wider shot from farther back shows the dredge area within the cutoff meanders.
Looking East toward the East Fork and Luce Bayou (upper right).

As the last photo shows, at this time, no dredging activity has yet reached the East Fork.

Boaters: Exercise Caution Around Dredging Equipment

This cut-through is a popular shortcut for boaters. Boaters may wish to take the long way around for the next few months or, at a minimum, use extra caution. Those excavators have long arms and can turn suddenly. Remember: operators don’t have eyes in the backs of their heads. Make sure they acknowledge your presence before zipping past them.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/11/2021

1412 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Floodgate, Dredging Plans Unveiled

At one of the first large public meetings since Covid began, several hundred people crowded into the Kingwood Community Center last night. They came to see the City unveil floodgate and dredging plans for Lake Houston. Stephen Costello, PE, the City’s Chief Recovery Officer, addressed dredging. And Chris Mueller, PhD, PE, of engineering firm Black & Veatch discussed adding more floodgates to the Lake Houston Dam. Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin coordinated the meeting.

To see both presentations, click here. Or see the summaries below.

Dredging: About Half Done

In late 2019, the Army Corps finished hydraulic dredging in the area south of the West Fork mouth bar. Then in early 2020, the City of Houston began mechanical dredging to extend the effort. In terms of the estimated dollars designated for dredging, the effort is about halfway done.

The first four rows on this chart are done or almost done. They total $114 million out of a projected total of $222 million.

The last two rows on the chart above are estimates because they depend on bids currently in progress and a long-range plan not yet complete. The need for a long-term plan and maintenance dredging were identified early on by the Army Corps so that any benefits of dredging were not immediately wiped out by future sedimentation.

Scope of Long-Range Dredging Plan Still in Development

A long-range dredging plan for Lake Houston is critical. We must understand where the sediment comes from, how fast it builds up, where it builds up, and the consequences of not removing it periodically.

The numbered dots in the photo above show channels south of the East and West Forks draining into Lake Houston where sediment can also build up.

Costello says the City is currently working with affected homeowner associations to discuss cost-sharing arrangements.

He also says that the City must identify a long-range site for depositing the spoils that is suitable for hydraulic dredging. He called the mechanical dredging now in progress “not sustainable.” Currently, the City is using Berry Madden’s property on the West Fork south of Kingwood’s River Grove Park to deposit the mechanical dredging spoils. That’s a long haul for barges on the East Fork.

Next Dredging Steps: Channel to East Fork and East Fork Itself

Contractors must next deepen the channel between the West and East Forks of the San Jacinto to move dredging equipment and spoils back and forth (see below).

Current location of dredging is near yellow dot.

From there, dredgers will move slightly north of where Luce Bayou (far right) enters the East Fork and begin dredging the East Fork mouth bar. See large circle above. The map shows that area grew shallower by up to nine feet between 2011 and 2018. Imelda, in September 2019, made it grow even shallower. Note the fresh deposits of sand in the photo below now poking up above the water.

Growth of East Fork Mouth Bar after Imelda in September 2019. Photo taken in November 2019.

Additional Floodgates for Lake Houston Dam

Chris Mueller of Black & Veatch then discussed the reasons for adding additional floodgates to Lake Houston, preliminary engineering findings, and an implementation schedule.

The primary objective: to increase the outflow capacity of the dam to reduce the risk of future flooding. However, he emphasized that reducing the risk for people upstream of the dam cannot have an adverse impact on people below it. See below.

He emphasized that Lake Houston is, first and foremost, a drinking water reservoir. He also emphasized that the dam is almost seventy years old and near the end of its useful life. Significant safety issues exist in working with such old concrete.

Calculating the Benefit/Cost Ratio of Additional Floodgates

Mueller then explained how FEMA calculates the benefit/cost ratio of additional floodgates.

  • On the benefit side, it considers: the reduction in water surface level; how many buildings and streets that will prevent from flooding; reduced societal impacts; and reduced impacts to business revenues. These are primarily damage costs avoided.
  • On the cost side of the equation, FEMA factors in construction costs and annual operation and maintenance costs.

To win project approval, the City must show that the benefits of additional floodgates exceed the costs in a 100-year storm, similar to Imelda. Such a storm elevates the lake 10 feet.

The peak inflow to Lake Houston in a 100-year storm: 286,000 cubic feet per second (CFS), enough to fill the Astrodome in 3 minutes! However, during Harvey, SJRA estimated the peak inflow at 400,000 cfs.

Proposed Alternative Produces 11-Inch Benefit Nearest Dam

A hydrologic and hydraulic analysis conducted by Black & Veatch will help prove up the benefit/cost analysis. The San Jacinto Watershed (including Buffalo Bayou) includes flow from eight counties.

In evaluating about ten alternatives for adding floodgates, Black & Veatch considered both cost and non-cost factors listed below.

The company’s first choice was to install additional gates on the earthen portion of the dam on the east side. But environmental considerations there would have delayed the project by a decade or more.

So they decided to recommend a 1,000 feet of crest gates on the west side of the spillway instead. See example of crest gates in operation below.

An air bladder near a bottom hinge raises or lowers the floodgates to let water in/out

Such gates would increase the discharge capacity to 45,000 cfs, more than four times the current capacity of 10,000 cfs. That’s still only about a third of the discharge capacity of the floodgates on Lake Conroe. But according to Martin, that would still be enough to lower the level of the lake 4 feet in 24 hours.

However, before floodgate construction can begin, engineers must evaluate:

  • Downstream impacts and how to mitigate them
  • Impact to the stability of the existing concrete dam

Back in the 1950s when the Lake Houston dam was built, engineers did not use rebar. So this will be a delicate operation. Contractors must cut 6 feet into the existing spillway; cap the remaining concrete with a slab; and install the crest gates on top of the slab.

Black & Veatch must also develop an operations protocol for new floodgates that maximizes upstream benefits and limits downstream impacts. Mueller shared this schedule with attendees.

Best-Case Project Timeline Shows Completion in 2024

Schedule as of 7/8/2021. Detailed engineering could take another year.

A best-case scenario shows construction starting at the end of 2022 and finishing before the start of hurricane season in 2024. So, at least three more hurricane seasons to get through before seeing any benefit from additional gates.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/9/2021

1410 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Floodwaters Converging Downstream on Lake Houston

As of Monday morning, the threat to Lake Conroe had passed, but now floodwaters from the rain soaked northwestern portion of the region are converging on Lake Houston. Here’s a roundup of what’s happening where.

Lake Conroe Going Down

The San Jacinto River Authority reduced its discharge rate to from 9275 cubic feet per second (CFS) to 8120 CFS as the level of Lake Conroe continued to recede, but the West Fork came out of its banks at US 59. The West Fork also began flooding Kingwood’s River Grove Park and the abandoned Noxxe Oil Fields between the river and the Forest Cove Little League Fields.

As of 5:09 pm on 5/3/2021

Lake Conroe Re-Opening With Caution

The SJRA issued a press release at 10:15 am. stating that Lake Conroe will reopen to normal lake traffic at noon Monday, May 3. However, boaters are still urged to use extreme caution due to floating debris and submerged objects that may not be fully visible. With submerged bulkheads, lake area residents should also be cautious of electrical outlets and equipment coming into contact with water.

SJRA is currently releasing water from the Lake Conroe dam to gradually lower the water level back to conservation pool of 201’, but SJRA must strike a balance between upstream recovery and downstream danger. For real-time information on Lake Conroe levels, releases, rainfall totals, or stream flows visit www.sjra.net

SJRA clarified that it intends to return Lake Conroe to 200 until June 1 per its seasonal lake lowering policy as soon as emergency operations restore it to 201. Normally, SJRA would begin recapture on June 1, not May 1. The seasonal release rate is much lower than the current rate.

Floodwaters Converging Toward South and East

Meanwhile, the glut of rainfall that inundated the northwest portions of Houston last week is starting to converging on areas downstream.

As of 10:30 am, the San Jacinto East Fork is also way out of its banks at FM1485 and FM1485 is reportedly closed until Friday. That leaves one way in and out of Colony Ridge – FM2090.

The San Jacinto East Fork at FM2090 peaked overnight and is starting to recede, but is still out of its banks. The East Fork is not influenced by the Lake Conroe Dam, which is on the West Fork.

FM2090 at East Fork near Plum Grove on May 3, 2021 at noon.

FM2090 is still open, but Plum Grove resident Michael Shrader reported a steady line of traffic trying to get out of Colony Ridge up to 11:30 PM Sunday night. This underscores the need to develop alternate evacuation routes for the fast growing subdivision.

Meanwhile, the flood threat is receding at Peach Creek and FM2090.

Caney Creek at FM2090 is getting back within its banks.

And the West Fork, however, is still rising. By 9 a.m. (six hours after the hydrograph below) it was out of its banks at US59.

Flood Warning Remains in Effect for West Fork Until Further Notice

At 2:45 PM CDT Monday, the National Weather Service indicated the West Fork was 49.6 feet.

  • Flood stage is 49.3 feet.
  • Minor flooding is occurring and minor flooding is forecast.
  • Forecast…The river is expected to rise to a crest of 49.7 feet late this afternoon. It will then fall below flood stage late Wednesday morning.
  • Impact…At 49.3 feet, Minor lowland flooding begins in the vicinity of the gage. North side turnaround at US 59 begins to flood. Low points on Thelma Road, Aqua Vista Drive, and Riverview Drive begin to flood.
  • Flood History…This crest compares to a previous crest of 49.7 feet on 11/13/2008.

Here are photos taken along the West Fork this morning.

A young couple surveys rising floodwaters at the turnaround under the US59 bridge. The river bank is about a hundred yards in front of them at the sign in the background. This is the northwestern extent of Lake Houston.
A log jam forms from flood debris under the pedestrian bridge over the West Fork.
Floodwater had crept past the edge of Harris County’s Edgewater Park.
However traffic was still flowing on US59 in both directions.
About a third of the abandoned Noxxe Oil Field by the Forest Cove Little League fields was under water.
The soccer fields at River Grove were partially submerged. Yesterday they were mostly dry.
The boardwalk at River Grove was underwater except for the entrance.
There was no immediate threat to Kings Harbor though the dock was only inches above water.
As floodwaters work their way downstream, Lake Houston continues to rise. As of 5:30PM on 5/3, the lake is now up more than 1.6 feet and many docks are starting to go under.

No widespread flooding is expected in the Lake Houston Area. But people who live in low-lying areas or near the lake should take precautions.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/3/2021 based on information from NWS, HCFCD, Jeff Lindner, SJRA, Michael Shrader and personal observation

1343 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 592 since Imelda

West Fork Still Running Siltier Than Spring Creek

After 3.5 years since Harvey and dozens of helicopter flights up and down the West Fork of the San Jacinto, it never ceases to amaze me. Despite sediment gage readings that say more silt is coming from Spring and Cypress Creeks than the West Fork, the West Fork appears siltier the vast majority of the time.

Misleading Data Used to Kill Meaningful Legislation

Here’s what the West Fork looked like today. Definitely siltier.

West Fork comes down from top of frame, Spring and Cypress Creeks from right. Photo taken 3/3/2021 from near US59 bridge, looking north.

Approximately 20 squares miles of sand mines line the West Fork. Problem is, the one sediment gage on the West Fork is upstream from virtually all of the mines. But most people don’t understand that. And that lack of understanding has allowed the mines to claim for decades that they are not the dominant source of sediment.

I’ve even heard miners testify on multiple occasions in the state legislature to that effect. That’s how they managed to kill best-practices legislation and minimum setbacks in the legislature in 2019.

When Brown & Root, the SJRA, City of Houston, Montgomery County, and Harris County Flood Control all cite the same misleading statistics, what’s an ordinary citizen to do?

Only a Sediment Gage Below Sand Mines Will Tell Whether This is Serious

To be fair, the engineers and hydrologists point out that the silt you see above and below may float out into Galveston Bay.

But I would also point out that:

  • The giant sand bar above didn’t exist before Harvey.
  • Neither did the multiple sand bars blocking the West Fork up to 90% (according to the Army Corps) after Harvey.
  • A misrepresentative gage placement, no matter how many times you repeat the sample in different studies, will always yield the same sampling error.
  • Most sediment moves during floods and far more sand is exposed to floodwater on the West Fork.

Finally, I would point out that the dikes of sand mines routinely breach and many mines routinely pump sediment laden water into the West Fork.

The point is: we will never really know what’s going on here until we get a gage downstream from the sand mines.

Photos of same location taken from different angles in previous months. In each case, the West Fork is siltier.

Time Of Essence

When I pointed out the data error caused by a misrepresentative gage location, the partners in the San Jacinto River Basin Master Drainage Study promised to re-evaluate claims they made based on the gage. The originally found, as did Brown & Root, that the vast majority of the sediment is coming from Spring and Cypress Creeks – based on the gage upstream of the sand mines. They also promised to consider installing a new gage downstream from the mines. But nothing has happened yet. And we’re already well into this legislative session.

Until changes are actually made to the study and a new gage is added, I fear the same miners may again repeat the same self-serving and misleading statistics in the legislature. That’s how they have killed bills that could help clean up our water more than once.

We’re now into the third month of the legislative session. And until the San Jacinto Master Drainage Plan consultants modify their findings, we’re all at risk. People will likely reference that study for another two decades, just as they have referenced Brown & Root’s. So this is important. Tick tock.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/3/2021

1282 Days since Hurricane Harvey

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.

Giant Leak at Hallett Mine…Again

On December 22, I received an email from a Montgomery County resident named Jody Binnion. He lives near the Hallett sand mine on the San Jacinto West Fork and can see the mine from his home. Binnion said that the level of a 170-acre pond had dropped at least 2-3 feet and maybe more – overnight. He went to investigate and found a giant repair at a corner of the pit near the West Fork. Hallett had already patched the breach, he said.

Photo Courtesy of Jody Binnion, 12/22/2020 at 9:56 am. Looking toward 170 acre Hallett pond that dropped several feet.

Here’s what the patched area looked like from the air ten days later on January 1, 2021.

Looking SE toward the West Fork and US59. The West Fork arcs through the frame on the right.

By the time I shot the scene above from the air, the pond had virtually refilled – either with process water, rainwater, or both.

It’s hard to say with certainty whether this breach was intentional. Binnion arrived after the hole had already been plugged. The TCEQ says it has opened an investigation.

History of Breach

The area had leaked several times before, starting in 2015 according to Google Earth imagery. But the leaks were all relatively minor. The forest between the pond and the river even survived Harvey.

But then, in early February of 2019, Binnion noticed a radical drop in the level of the pond for the first time. Binnion photographed the breach and reported it to TCEQ, but never heard back from the Commission. A Google Earth image taken a little more than 2 weeks later confirms that rapidly rushing water mowed down a 250-foot-wide swath of trees more than 600 feet long. Google Earth also shows fresh repairs in the area. See below.

The trees between the upper pond and the river survived Harvey, but were destroyed sometime the week of February 4, 2019. Note repairs to breach when this photo was taken on 2/23/2019.

The Harris County Flood Warning System shows that the HCFCD gage at US59 and the West Fork recorded only about a quarter inch of rain during that week (February 4, 2019).

A quarter inch of rain in a week makes a storm-induced breach unlikely.

Between 2/2/2019 and 2/8/2019, the gage at 59 and the West Fork registered only about a quarter inch of rain. Only an eighth of an inch fell before the breach.

Ironically, that week I was meeting with TACA, Hallett, other sand miners, the TCEQ, State Rep. Dan Huberty, and Lake Houston Area leaders in Austin that week. It was about greater setbacks from the river for sand mines! But I question whether setback was the issue in this case.

Area Started to Regrow

When I photographed the area on September 2020, vegetation was growing back in.

Photo taken 9/11/2020. Looking toward Hallett’s pit (the white one) with West Fork in foreground.

Aerial Photos of Latest Breach

But then on Jan. 1, 2021, I flew over the area again. This time, I saw – from the air – the blowout that Binnion photographed ten days earlier from the ground. See the pictures below.

Latest breach. Looking SE. Pit on left, West Fork on right. Pond in upper middle is an abandoned mine.
Reverse angle. Looking NW, back toward Hallett Mine on upper level. River is behind helicopter.

It’s unclear whether all of this happened at once. It rained 1.04 inches in the week before Binnion photographed the breach just before Christmas. It rained another 1.44 inches in the two days before January 1. I took the aerial photos above on New Year’s Day, with the exception of the one taken last September.

Excess Sedimentation Can Lead to Flooding

Sedimentation from sand mines, along with natural erosion, has been linked to flooding in the Humble/Kingwood corridor where the West Fork lost much of its conveyance capacity after Harvey. It has cost taxpayers more than $100 million so far to remove the excess sediment. The dredging program continues after more than 3 years.

This sandbar formed on the West Fork of the San Jacinto during Harvey. The Army Corps of Engineers says it blocked the river by 90%. Note how shallow the river was in the areas where water was getting through. This picture was taken two weeks after Harvey. The Corps has since removed the bar as part of a larger effort to restore West Fork conveyance.

If we are ever to reduce the sedimentation problem, we must first get past the fiction that sand mines are not contributing to it. Hallett isn’t the only mine with these issues. The West Fork San Jacinto has 20 square miles of sand mines between I-45 and US59. I have photographed leaks at all but one of them during the last three years, including the New Year’s Day flight.

The photo below shows the confluence of the West Fork and Spring Creek at US59. Guess which way the sand mines are?

West Fork comes from the top of the frame and Spring Creek from the left. Water flows toward the right. Photo 1/1/2021.

This confluence looks this way most months, but not all.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/7/2021

1227 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.