Tag Archive for: West Fork

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.

West Fork or Spring Creek: Which Contributes More Sediment to Lake Houston?

As the Lake Houston Area grapples with dredging, sedimentation surveys, sand trap studies and more, it’s important to understand where sediment comes from.

Month after month, I fly up and down the West Fork of the San Jacinto. More often than not, the confluence of Spring Creek and the West Fork (just west of I-69) looks like this.

West Fork (top) shows much more silt despite more flow coming from Spring Creek (left).

What Spring Creek Looked Like on Same Day

On this day (Friday, September 11), we took off from Intercontinental Airport and flew north over Spring Creek. Spring Creek looked like this.

Spring Creek north of Intercontinental Airport. Note how you can see the sandy bottom.

The difference in the water clarity is readily apparent. Yet in the 2000 Brown & Root study the authors said that Cypress and Spring Creeks contributed far more sediment. See Page 14. Sand miners, still quote and re-quote that study every chance they get.

What Accounts for Difference

So what accounts for the difference between the study and current visual observations? Mainly:

  • Upstream development
  • Sand mining
  • Storms that fall over one watershed, but not the other, on any given day

Twenty years after the Brown & Root study:

  • The heaviest development has shifted north into the West Fork watershed
  • Sand mining has expanded exponentially on the West Fork
  • Storms continue to fall over one or both watersheds.

Brown & Root’s findings on this one narrow issue (source of sediment) no longer reflect current conditions and visual observations.

Twenty square miles of sand mines between I-45 and I-69 have widened the West Fork tremendously since then, exposing far more sediment to floodwater. Worse, the mines’ dikes often breach, allowing millions of gallons of sediment to flow downstream. Even worse yet, the mines often pump water over the side of their dikes into the river or surrounding streams and forests.

The result is what you see above. Upstream from the sand mines, water flowed clearly on the West Fork, as it did on Spring Creek. Downstream, the West Fork looked like a sewer. The pictures below show some of the reasons.

Unless, otherwise noted, all the photos below were taken on 9/11/2020.

LMI River Bend mine. Not recent repair of breach and drainage ditch filled with silty water.
Same ditch goes under mine entrance. From there, the silty water goes into woods and then the West Fork.
At the LMI Moorehead mine, I spotted this pump.
At the same mine, this pipe and what looks like a fire hose send silty water into surrounding wetlands when the level in the pond at the right gets high enough.
One of the places where silty water enters the river.
Zooming out, you can see the source in the background.
Another mine where silty water leaks out of pits
The water collects in the woods and eventually flows into the West Fork.

The Result

This is the end result. The West Fork (top) is far more silty than flow from Spring and Cypress Creeks (left).

A Sampling of Previous Flyovers

West Fork (right), Spring Creek (left). Photo taken on 10/2/19.
West Fork (right), Spring Creek (left). November 4, 2019
West Fork (right), Spring Creek (Left). February 13, 2020
West Fork (top), Spring Creek (left). March 6, 2020.

I’m sure that when Brown & Root did its survey twenty years ago that Spring and Cypress Creeks contributed more sediment to Lake Houston. Today, however, I believe the West Fork contributes more.

It’s important to get this right if the community is to develop strategies that reduce the long term rate of sedimentation and save dredging dollars.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/18/2020

1116 Days after 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.

Why Does the State that Leads the Nation in Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters Resist Minimum Drainage Standards?

Every once in a while, thoughts collide in a way that makes you see the world more clearly. Such a collision happened today. I suddenly realized that Texas, the state that leads the nation in billion-dollar, weather-and-climate related disasters, also has many developers plus city and county officials pushing back against higher minimum drainage standards that would reduce flooding. At a time when those disasters are increasing in frequency!

How Proposed Drainage Standards Will Affect Developers

My last post talked about “Minimum Drainage Standard Recommendations for Communities In or Draining Into Harris County.” A reader asked how the proposed changes would affect developers.

I replied, “The proposed changes would force developers in the future to install detention ponds and storm drains large enough to help reduce flooding. It would also prohibit them from reducing the floodwater storage capacity of the 500 year floodplain. Finally, it would force them to raise the level of homes above the 500-year floodplain or flood-proof them.”

Then I added, “From a flood prevention point of view, these are all good things. But from a developer’s point of view, they add expense. If you buy a home in an area that complies with these standards, it will probably mean a higher-priced, but much safer home. I hear that developers and some civic officials are already pushing back against these proposed changes.”

Natural Disaster Costs, Frequencies

After sending the reply, I went to the NOAA site to find information about natural disasters, their costs, their frequency and their primary locations.

I found this fascinating story about the increasing frequency of billion-dollar weather disasters. I pulled the three charts below from it.

Source: NOAA.

The last decade had twice as many billion-dollar weather disasters as the previous decade and four times more than the decade of the 1980s. The last five years had 69% of all such disasters in the entire 40 year period.

Tropical Cyclones and flooding comprised 29.5% all these billion-dollar disasters.

Source: NOAA.

Reason for Increasing Costs, Even After Adjusting for Inflation

In explaining these rising costs, NOAA says, “These trends are … complicated by the fact that much of the growth has taken place in vulnerable areas like coasts and river floodplains. Vulnerability is especially high where building codes are insufficient for reducing damage from extreme events.”

Texas Leads Nation

And who leads the nation in billion-dollar, weather-and-climate-related disasters? Texas.

Connecting Some Tragic Dots

So there you have it.

The state with the most billion-dollar disasters has many developers and civic leaders pushing back against higher minimum drainage standards at a time when major weather disasters are increasing.

Food for thought as this debate begins. Kind of makes you wonder about the wisdom of permitting starter homes in flood plains next to raging rivers, building 2200 acre developments without any detention ponds, and encouraging developers to get their water to rivers faster in floods.

New Northpark Woods development in Montgomery County next to San Jacinto West Fork and its sand pits.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/8/2020

1014 Days after Hurricane Harvey and 263 after Imelda

Sand Miners Act Like They Own Our Rivers

Who owns our rivers? In Texas, the state owns navigable streams and rivers. People may not obstruct them, drive through them, dump waste in them, or mine them – at least not without a permit. But sand miners constantly violate those laws with only slap-on-the-wrist fines that amount to another “cost of doing business.” Meanwhile, you are the one who pays the price.

Navigable Streams/Rivers Protected for Public

What does “navigable” mean? This Texas Parks & Wildlife web page describes the concept of navigability “in fact” and “in statute.” There is no precise test for whether a stream is navigable in fact. One court observed that “[w]aters, which in their natural state are useful to the public for a considerable portion of the year are navigable.”

Another link to Texas Parks & Wildlife describes stream navigation law, specifically “Private Uses, Obstructions, Bridges and Dams.”

“Since the days of the civil law of Spain and Mexico, obstructions of navigable streams have been forbidden,” the page begins. “Nowadays the Texas Penal Code, the Texas Water Code, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code contain prohibitions against obstructing navigable streams, and the Texas Natural Resources Code forbids unauthorized private structures.”

The Commissioner of the General Land Office has some authority to grant easements for rights of way across navigable or state-owned stream beds.

No Right to Obstruct Navigation

However, in general, no one has the right to obstruct navigation or interfere with recreation.

Parks & Wildlife Code § 90.008 states regarding Public Access: “Except as otherwise allowed by law, a person may not restrict, obstruct, interfere with, or limit public recreational use of a protected freshwater area.”

The “protected freshwater area” referred to above is defined in § 90.001 to be “the portion of the bed, bottom, or bank of a stream navigable by statute up to the gradient boundary.” That gets complicated, but generally, it means between vegetated river banks. Sand bars in a river are normally considered part of the river bed even if above water.

Prohibition Against Motor Vehicles in Rivers

In addition to the restrictions on obstruction of navigability, landowners (and the public) are generally prohibited from operating a motor vehicle in the bed of a navigable waterway (Tex. Parks & Wild. Code Section 90.002).

Prohibition Against Unauthorized Discharges

Numerous posts on this website have dealt with the legal limitations on discharging wastewater from sand mines. In general, it’s supposed to contain no more suspended solids and be no more turbid than natural levels in water upstream from the mine.

The only problem with that concept: when you have 20 square miles of sand mines in a 20 mile stretch of the river, it’s hard to find unpolluted water. In effect, the procedure/standard continually “lowers the bar” as you move downstream.

Out of Sight Makes Blight

What sparked this inquiry? As I fly up and down the West Fork, I see things normally out of public view. Such as miners’ dredge lines stretched across the river, blocking navigation. Such as trucks crossing rivers. Such as mines flushing wastewater down the river. Such as mining the riverbed, without permits or paying appropriate taxes.

Few people ever see these violations. And that has led to boldness on the part of miners. There’s little chance they will be caught. It’s kind of like speeding through a barren desert.

I have no idea whether any of the miners involved in most of the incidents below bothered to obtain permits. I do know that in many cases they have not.

Here is a small sampling of what I see from the air, month after month.

Dredge Pipelines Blocking River

Dredge lines block river at Hallett truck crossing.
Dredge lines blocking river at Hanson Aggregates on West Fork in Conroe.

Vehicles Driving Through River

Truck crossing water at Hallett Mine.
Vehicle about to cross river toward Hanson Aggregates Mine on West Fork

Breaches Dump Wastewater into Drinking Water

Breach at Triple PG mine into Caney Creek that was left open for months, now subject of a lawsuit by the Attorney General.
Another breach left open for months at same mine.
Breach into West Fork at Hallett Mine. Hallett says this was their stormwater outfall. It was open for years, but is now closed.
Plugged breach at Hanson Aggregates on West Fork
Often mines don’t breach directly into a river where it would be obvious. Here, the LMI River Bend mine drains onto adjacent properties which then drain to the West Fork.
Same area as above but closer to breach.

Abandoned Without Reclamation

Equipment abandoned in floodway at abandoned West Fork mine. Note oily scum on water.
Another abandoned River Aggregates mine perpetually leaks turbid water into West Fork. Even though mine is not active, an adjacent Hallett pit often leaks into this one and causes it to overflow.

Pumping Wastewater to River and Adjoining Properties

Triple PG mine pumped wastewater over its dike onto adjoining properties while operating under an injunction. Note how water is higher outside the mine (strip of trees in middle of image) than inside.
Note pipe in dike at Hanson Aggregates mine at allows water to drain out into ditch that runs to river.
Pumping water over the dike at LMI’s Moorehead mine.
Pumping wastewater into West Fork at Hallett Mine
At site of former breach, note how pipes now carry wastewater to West Fork from Hallett Mine. Water experts say that intense blue color is either cyanobacteria or extremely high chloride content in water.

River Mining Without Permit

River mining without permit at Spring Wet Sand and Gravel on West Fork.

Effect on Water Quality

Looking north at confluence of West Fork (top) and Spring Creek by US59. West Fork usually runs murkier than Spring Creek right. Almost all area sand mines are on West Fork.
Same confluence as above but looking west. 56,000,000 gallons of white goop from Liberty Mine breach turned West Fork (right) white.

Contributing to Blockages and Flooding

Rivers transport sand and sediment naturally. But with 20 square miles of sand mines built in the floodway of the West Fork upstream from the Lake Houston Area, miners have increased the potential for erosion 33x compared to the average width of the river. The pictures below, taken shortly after Harvey, show the results.

A six foot high dune not present before Harvey occluded the West Fork by 90% according to the US Army Corps of Engineers. More than 600 homes and hundreds of businesses flooded upstream from this blockage.
West fork San Jacinto Mouth Bar after Harvey. Thousands of homes upstream from this blockage flooded during Harvey. It’s costing taxpayers more than $100 million to remove such blockages.

Please share this post with friends and family. It’s time to start getting ready for the next legislative session.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/30/2020

1005 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.

Google Earth Images Suggest East Fork Swimming Pools Flooded By West Fork During Harvey

A close analysis of swimming pools and river currents in Google Earth satellite images suggests that many San Jacinto East Fork homes were flooded by the West Fork during Hurricane Harvey. Stories from East Fork homeowners suggested as much in the months after Harvey. Many reported water flowing through their property from west to east, not north to south as one might expect. However, to my knowledge, no one presented photographic evidence to support those claims – until now.

Eagle-Eyed Geologist Interprets Satellite Photos

A retired high-level geologist for one of the world’s largest oil companies analyzed satellite images in Google Earth. The eagle-eyed geologist, R.D. Kissling, lives in the Lake Houston area and kayaks that area regularly.

Kissling noted water-borne-sediment coloration changes between the East and West Forks after the SJRA started releasing 79,000 cubic feet per second from Lake Conroe. The image from 8/30/2017 shows West Fork water pushing into the East Fork. Note how water from the East Fork (upper right) and Luce Bayou (far right) are crowded over into a narrow band running down the (east) side of Lake Houston.

Satellite image from 8/30/2017 shows West Fork water (middle left) pushing into East Fork (top right).

Cloud cover obscures images from the previous day.

Flooded Swimming Pools Tell Part of Story

Kissling also examined the color of water in swimming pools. Most homes in Royal Shores on the East Fork have swimming pools that look bright blue on satellite images. See the image below from before the storm.

Swimming pools in Royal Shores appear bright blue before the storm.

But on 8/30/2020 during the storm, many of those had turned brown. Water was starting to recede by then, but note the boat houses still underwater. Above the red line, all swimming pools still appear blue.

Royal Shores on 8/30/2017 during the storm. Note the concentration of brown swimming pools south and east of the red line. North, they are still blue (unflooded).

The photo above is a magnification of the Royal Shores area from the wider satellite image above. Below, I’ve zoomed back out to show the wider image. I’ve also highlighted the Royal Shores homes with brown swimming pools so you can see their their relationship to the West Fork water pushing into the East Fork.

Same image as above but with the part of Royal Shores highlighted that had flooded pools and that was ALSO apparently taking on WEST FORK water.

Conclusions

Of course, by themselves, the swimming pool colors don’t prove that West Fork water flooded East Fork homes. But when considered in conjunction with the first image, they suggest to me the validity of residents’ claims. At a minimum, these images do not contradict those claims, according to Kissling.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/23/2020 based on analysis by R.D. Kissling

998 days after Hurricane Harvey