The first phase of a very challenging project has commenced on the West Fork of the San Jacinto River – the Kingwood area’s long-awaited dredging.
The nearly $70-million project was slated to begin Sept. 6, but was delayed due to a partial failure of one of the dredges, which required a replacement part to be manufactured and shipped to the site.
The USACE was tasked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to remove the 1.8-million cubic yards of debris and sand from the river. The sand, which is more than enough to fill the Astrodome at least once over, will be pumped to storage pits on both the north and south sides of the river.
FEMA responded to a request from Gov. Greg Abbott per the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Act of 1988. The dredging project falls under the purview of the Corps’ Galveston District, since the agency is directly responsible for maintaining more than 1,000 miles of channel in this region of Texas. Most of the Corps’ projects are funded by Congress, but since this is an emergency project, it is funded by FEMA. In April, the Corps began surveys to determine sediment levels.
In July, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, LLC, based in Illinois, was awarded the $70-million contract to perform the river dredge. The clock started officially ticking July 19, and Great Lakes has 270 days to complete the operations. Both dredges are in the water – nearly 300-ton beasts that are 90 feet long and nearly 30 feet wide.
Despite multiple warnings for people to stay away from the dredging area, operators have spotted boaters and jet skis close to the site. Everyone is asked to avoid accidents by staying clear of the area because there are many submerged pipes and other equipment.
Many Kingwood residents have been eagerly awaiting the beginning of dredging operations because it represents the first major effort since the storm occurred. However, people have had their hopes somewhat diminished when they found out several facts about the dredging.
First, it’s an emergency operation; it only restores the San Jacinto River to pre-Harvey conditions – nothing more. The effort is only designed to remove sediment, sand and debris deposited by Hurricane Harvey in the river, but it does not address the sand buildup that numerous studies show has occurred over the last 20 years.
There is currently no plan or funding mechanism for routine maintenance dredging. After the project is complete, the Corps is not responsible for consistent dredging to maintain the river. However, Harris County – along with other local jurisdictions – has submitted an application for federal funding to complete a study of the river and its watershed to identify flood mitigation strategies.
The last study in 2011, completed by the Texas Water Development Board, showed that Lake Houston had lost over 20 percent of its capacity since the 1950s. Experts like University of Houston geology professor William Dupre explained that the sediment will surely build up again as soon as dredging is over because that is just the natural response a river has when a lake is in front of it.
Second, the dredging is only being performed on a 2-mile stretch of the West Fork near West Lake Houston Parkway. This stretch does include unblocking the sizable sandbar that is blocking a ditch near River Grove Park – the same ditch that if unblocked last August would have provided drainage for Kingwood High School and surrounding neighborhoods. Instead, flooding affected around 650 homes and caused millions in damages to the school that was closed almost the entire school year.
Temporary measures will help temporarily, but more than a year after Harvey, many Kingwood residents are extremely frustrated at the rate of progress in making meaningful strides toward flood mitigation. Residents say that it seems like every group – including Harris County, the City of Houston and the San Jacinto River Authority – are doing studies and developing strategies, with no real action. As one resident put it, “They’re all hat and no cattle.” Many feel like the only real accomplishment has been the lowering of Lake Houston.
Council Member Dave Martin was instrumental in that effort, and he has regularly updated local residents regarding efforts being made. In a Sept. 10 press release, ahead of yet another week of heavy rains, Martin assured residents that the Lake Houston Spillway Dam gates were open because of the rain threat. He reminded residents that the city does have round-the-clock monitoring during these inclement weather events, so that if they need to adjust their water release strategy, they can. Residents can monitor the lake levels at cw.onerain.com.
The gates are being opened by the Coastal Water Authority at the behest of the City of Houston as part of their pre-release flood mitigation strategy, any time there is a 3-inch rainfall forecast that will affect the San Jacinto Watershed. Indeed, the gates have been opened several times: Easter, Father’s Day, July 4, and most recently over Labor Day weekend. Open floodgates do bring a form of relief to many residents who still become extremely nervous when streets start to flood and drains starts to back up.
What hasn’t brought residents comfort or confidence over the last year is the situation with Lake Conroe. Most residents remember the massive water release on Aug. 28, 2017. Over the last year, many routinely express anger at community flood meetings regarding the refusal over the summer to lower the levels of Lake Conroe. Many residents are extremely frustrated, saying that boating and recreation seem to definitely take precedent over potential re-flooding of their homes.
Water authority officials say that pre-release from Conroe is not an option, given that the water flows directly into the San Jacinto River and Lake Houston, thus contributing to potential downstream flooding. On Aug. 31, the lake finally reached 199 feet above sea level to create a “temporary flood mitigation benefit while dredging activities take place” at two feet below the normal lake level, according to the press release issued by the San Jacinto River Authority.
The seasonal lowering plan for spring and fall for Lake Conroe was first discussed by the City of Houston and the Authority in April. The two annual release dates are based on the rainy season in April and May and the active hurricane season in August and September. Since the City of Houston owns the majority water rights to Conroe, the final decision was theirs to make, and the city signed off on the plan in early August. Evaporation helped naturally lower the lake to around 200 feet, and slow releases during the month of August achieved the extra 1-foot drop.
Reservoir operators have shut off release of water from the Lake Conroe dam now that it has reached the target. Any subsequent rainfall will fill the lake back up to 201 feet.
Meanwhile, city and county officials have scheduled fall meetings to keep the Kingwood community apprised of ongoing Harvey mitigation efforts.
On Oct. 9, Martin will host a town hall meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the Kingwood Community Center. Several city and community representatives will discuss ongoing projects. The city’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, will talk about the progress on rebuilding Houston after Harvey. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner will attend and discuss the Rebuild Houston and fire salary referendums that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.