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As sand shrinks river capacity, Kingwood residents feel like ‘sitting ducks’ for floods

Chron logo Chron 3/2/2018 By Mike Snyder

A late-February downpour, barely noticed across much of the Houston area, produced about a half-inch of rain in Kingwood. That was all it took to push the sand-choked San Jacinto River out of its banks — and to alarm residents going about their daily routines in the sprawling master-planned community.

Water covered the bases of the swing sets in a popular neighborhood park. Cars sloshed through fender-high pools under Interstate 69. The scenes were not dramatic, but the lingering trauma of Hurricane Harvey intensified their impact.

Jennifer Coulter got the news in an email from a friend. The attached photos of River Grove Park seized her attention.

“It was completely under water, almost to the picnic tables,” said Coulter, who is living in a travel trailer in her driveway while her family prepares to rebuild a house flooded when Harvey dumped record amounts of rain on the Houston area six months ago.

Chloe Coulter, 11, carries a cat named, Cali, past the travel trailer where her family lives while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey shown Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 in Kingwood. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle ) © Melissa Phillip, Staff / Houston Chronicle Chloe Coulter, 11, carries a cat named, Cali, past the travel trailer where her family lives while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey shown Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 in Kingwood. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle ) Chloe Coulter, 11, left, sits with her parents Chris Coulter and Jennifer Coulter and the family dog, Max, as they eat dinner outside their flooded Kingwood home Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. They are living in a travel trailer in the driveway of their home while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle ) © Melissa Phillip, Staff / Houston Chronicle Chloe Coulter, 11, left, sits with her parents Chris Coulter and Jennifer Coulter and the family dog, Max, as they eat dinner outside their flooded Kingwood home Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. They are living in a travel trailer in the driveway of their home while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle )

The water soon receded, but the episode did nothing to soothe the anxieties in Kingwood, Humble and other towns and developments near Lake Houston, where the local chamber of commerce estimates that 16,000 homes and 3,300 businesses were damaged by Harvey’s floods. Local leaders say the damage was made much worse by sedimentation, some of it linked to nearby sand mines, that has dramatically reduced the capacity of the river and the lake to hold floodwaters.

A marker in the Kingwood H-E-B shows the height of water during Hurricane Harvey flooding. © Jerome Solomon A marker in the Kingwood H-E-B shows the height of water during Hurricane Harvey flooding.

These communities in northeast Harris County, still struggling to recover from Harvey, are distinctly vulnerable to more flooding. Yet Coulter and her neighbors worry that their needs are being overlooked as regional leaders pursue bold initiatives focused on protecting central Houston, western suburbs and coastal areas.

Chris Coulter, left, his wife, Jennifer Coulter, talk as their children, Luke, 9, and Chloe, 11, ride scooters inside their flooded Kingwood home Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. They are living in a travel trailer in the driveway of their home while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle ) © Melissa Phillip, Staff / Houston Chronicle Chris Coulter, left, his wife, Jennifer Coulter, talk as their children, Luke, 9, and Chloe, 11, ride scooters inside their flooded Kingwood home Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. They are living in a travel trailer in the driveway of their home while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle )

“It isn’t being discussed, and that quite frankly is what ticks me off,” said Houston City Councilman Dave Martin, whose district includes Kingwood. “We don’t get a lot of attention because it’s an hour north of (downtown). That has to change.”

In the months since Harvey, public forums and private discussions have generated an ambitious civic agenda: a third reservoir on the city’s west side, an “Ike Dike” or similar coastal barrier, improvements to the area’s bayous, and other measures. Cost estimates in the billions have not dissuaded officials from their conviction that initiatives like these are essential to the region’s future.

Elected officials and community leaders in the Lake Houston area want to add a few items to that list, the most urgent being a plan for addressing sedimentation.

Luke Coulter, 9, left, and his sister, Chloe Coulter, 11, do their homework inside a travel trailer where they are living with their parents, Chris Coulter and Jennifer Coulter, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 in Kingwood. They are lving in the travel trailer in the driveway of their home while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle ) © Melissa Phillip, Staff / Houston Chronicle Luke Coulter, 9, left, and his sister, Chloe Coulter, 11, do their homework inside a travel trailer where they are living with their parents, Chris Coulter and Jennifer Coulter, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 in Kingwood. They are lving in the travel trailer in the driveway of their home while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle )

“We need to spend millions of dollars to dredge the San Jacinto River and Lake Houston. We need to control the legal and illegal sand mining operations along the river,” said Martin. “Without these steps, we’re doomed to fail and we’re doomed to flood.”

A sand dune appeared on the bank of the San Jacinto River near River Grove Park in Kingwood after Hurricane Harvey. © Bob Rehak A sand dune appeared on the bank of the San Jacinto River near River Grove Park in Kingwood after Hurricane Harvey. a close up of a map © Hearst Newspapers

Martin and other elected officials who represent the area met Tuesday with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to discuss their concerns and possible solutions. Kingwood has been part of the city since a controversial annexation in 1996.

As a result of the discussions, mayoral spokesman Alan Bernstein said, Turner agreed to pursue a study of lake and river conditions and to seek funds for additional gates that would make it possible to release more water from the lake back into the river and Galveston Bay. Upstream, Lake Conroe has more gates and thus can control its releases better.

Turner, however, has no authority to deal with the problem that many consider most critical: the growing impact of sand mining, which involves clearing vegetation from large areas of the riverbank and extracting sand from open pits. Much of the sand is used to make concrete for construction in the rapidly growing Houston area.

The scope of these operations is enormous, and growing.

A sign marking the height of Hurricane Harvey flooding was taken down from Torchy's Tacos in Kingwood, setting off complaints by residents. © Jerome Solomon A sign marking the height of Hurricane Harvey flooding was taken down from Torchy's Tacos in Kingwood, setting off complaints by residents.

State officials have identified 16 mining facilities on the east and west forks of the San Jacinto that were active around the time that Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25. Research by the nonprofit Bayou Land Conservancy found that about a quarter of the floodplain along the west fork had been excavated for sand mining.

Sand from these open pits can end up in the river after floods. The effects were obvious in the changed landscape after Harvey.

Bob Rehak, a retired advertising executive and longtime Kingwood resident, rented a helicopter last September and took hundreds of photographs. His pictures showed enormous new sandbars within the river and dunes along its banks so high they blocked views of the water.

In an article published Jan. 29 on the Houston Chronicle’s “Gray Matters” website, Rehak argued that sand mining on the river must stop. He suggested that government purchase the sites and turn them into parks.

The effects of last week’s moderate storm, he said, demonstrate the seriousness of the problem. He photographed water standing in River Grove Park on Monday.

Jennifer Coulter helps her son, Luke Coulter, 9, with homework Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 inside the travel trailer on the driveway of their Kingwood home. The family of four are living in the trailer while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle ) © Melissa Phillip / Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle Jennifer Coulter helps her son, Luke Coulter, 9, with homework Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 inside the travel trailer on the driveway of their Kingwood home. The family of four are living in the trailer while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle )

“Last August, River Grove flooded to a similar degree on five inches of rain,” Rehak wrote in an email. “This year (post dune) it flooded as much on less than one-tenth that amount.”

A law enacted in 2011 imposed the first registration and inspection requirements on Texas sand mines, although they were expected to follow certain rules prior to that. The 2011 law required “aggregate processing operations,” a category that includes gravel and other materials as well as sand, to register and pay an annual fee to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which periodically inspects the facilities.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, who sponsored the law, said Harvey demonstrated that the law must be strengthened. Sand mining on the San Jacinto may need to be banned outright, he said.

“It’s clearly caused the majority of our flooding problems,” Huberty said.

The lawmaker said he’s prepared for industry resistance to stronger regulation.

“The reality is, the people of our community are expecting us to do something to prevent this from happening,” Huberty said. “I’m happy to have discussions with the industry to figure out where it is we can get the sand from.”

David Perkins, the president of the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association, the industry trade group, said lawmakers should not rush to adopt new regulations without a better understanding of the causes of sedimentation.

“There are a number of contributing factors when you look at development in an area over a period of time,” Perkins said. By removing sand, he said, property operated mines can actually increase a river’s capacity.

Water stands in River Grove Park in Kingwood after the San Jacinto River spilled out of its banks Feb. 26. © Bob Rehak Water stands in River Grove Park in Kingwood after the San Jacinto River spilled out of its banks Feb. 26.

Perkins said he wants to study the data, adding, “We do want to insure that we are operating in a way that does not create adverse impacts to the local communities.”

Mounds of sand line the banks of the San Jacinto River near Kingwood after Hurricane Harvey. © Bob Rehak Mounds of sand line the banks of the San Jacinto River near Kingwood after Hurricane Harvey. Construction equipment stands in water under Interstate 69 in Kingwood after the San Jacinto River spilled out of its banks on Feb. 26. © Bob Rehak Construction equipment stands in water under Interstate 69 in Kingwood after the San Jacinto River spilled out of its banks on Feb. 26.

Concerns about the effects of sedimentation in Lake Houston and the San Jacinto River are not new. A 2000 report by Brown and Root Services found that the lake and its tributaries were steadily losing capacity — becoming shallower, in other words — and that this increased the potential for flooding.

In 2011, a Texas Water Development Board study concluded that Lake Houston had lost more than 20 percent of its capacity since its impoundment in 1954.

Chloe Coulter, 11, walks through the empty house as her dad, Chris Coulter, grills dinner Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 in Kingwood. The family is living in the travel trailer in the driveway of their home while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle ) © Melissa Phillip, Staff / Houston Chronicle Chloe Coulter, 11, walks through the empty house as her dad, Chris Coulter, grills dinner Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 in Kingwood. The family is living in the travel trailer in the driveway of their home while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle ) Jennifer Coulter prepares dinner as her daughter, Chloe Coulter, 11, steps out of the travel trailer parked outside their flooded Kingwood home Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. They are living in the travel trailer in the driveway of their home while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey. © Melissa Phillip / Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle Jennifer Coulter prepares dinner as her daughter, Chloe Coulter, 11, steps out of the travel trailer parked outside their flooded Kingwood home Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. They are living in the travel trailer in the driveway of their home while waiting for their house to be rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

Dredging — digging out all that sand and silt — would seem to be the most obvious solution. Potential costs of dredging the lake or the affected areas of the river have not been studied recently; the 18-year old Brown & Root study said it would cost about $10 million to dredge a small section southwest of the Lake Houston Parkway bridge.

Besides being expensive, dredging poses environmental risks. It can re-suspend hazardous materials buried in sediments, damaging water quality. This is a particular concern because Lake Houston’s chief purpose is to provide drinking water.

Still, leaders of the Lake Houston community say the stakes are so high that all options must be considered.

“The tax base is what we’re concerned about,” said Jenna Armstrong, the president of the Lake Houston Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve heard from very large businesses that (say) this is the last time, and if it happens again, they’re not coming back. That would be devastating to our economy.”

Martin, the city councilman for the area, said the potential loss of revenues could affect Houston’s already strained budget. The potential tax revenues from the flourishing master-planned community prompted the city’s fiercely contested annexation of Kingwood, he said.

Vehicles drive through standing water under Interstate 69 in Kingwood after the San Jacinto River spilled out of its banks from a relatively moderate rainstorm on Feb. 26. © Bob Rehak / Bob Rehak / Vehicles drive through standing water under Interstate 69 in Kingwood after the San Jacinto River spilled out of its banks from a relatively moderate rainstorm on Feb. 26.

Without investment in major flood-protection measures, Martin said, “Kingwood as it exists today is gone forever, and with it that tax base is gone forever.”

Jennifer Coulter and her husband, Chris, want to remain in Kingwood with their two kids, but their post-Harvey trauma has raised doubts. The travel trailer is their fifth temporary home since their house flooded, and various problems have delayed rebuilding.

“We have no desire to move,” she said. “This was kind of our forever home, but now that’s kind of a slippery slope because if it floods again, will we ever be able to sell it?”

She paused.

“There’s just a lot of fear throughout our community. We’re just sitting ducks, really, without any help at all.”

mike.snyder@chron.com

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