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Many Bayous, One River

Recently designated one of America’s most endangered rivers, the San Jacinto is under attack by sand mines.

By Wendee Holtcamp

One of my favorite photos shows my two young children on the riverbank, laughing, wearing nothing but mud. Living on a tributary of the San Jacinto River for years, my kids awoke every morning to sunshine sparkling on its surface. When I felt the stress of life, I would walk outside and sit on a log, watching the river under my feet, remembering the words of Winnie the Pooh: “Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”

In the San Jacinto and its tributaries, my family has kayaked and caught crappie and watched beavers play. We have piled a tent, sleeping bags, a camp stove and two kids into a tandem kayak and camped on an island in the middle of Lake Houston, the impounded San Jacinto. A bald eagle swooped down and captured a fish in front of the kayak. The river has helped raise my two children in the same way the Oregon woods nourished my spirit as a child.

Nature writer Rick Bass wrote: “Suppose you are given a bucket of water. You’re standing there holding it. Your home’s on fire. Will you pour the cool water over the flames or will you sit there and write a poem about it?”

Bass, a native Houstonian, moved to Montana’s Yaak Valley, where he intertwined writing and activism to preserve what became part of his own heart. I settled in Houston on the banks of the San Jacinto nearly 10 years ago, and like Bass, I am crying over what is happening to my home. My river, my home, is on fire.

Although the San Jacinto actually did burn after the 1994 floods caused an oil pipe to burst, this 10-alarm “river fire” hails from the mining of sand from its bed and banks, and the muddying that has cast a ghostly pall over the river’s once clear, flowing water. In April 2006, American Rivers (a national nonprofit river-conservation group) named the San Jacinto one of the nation’s Most Endangered Rivers.

“The San Jacinto has endured some pretty horrendous assaults over the years,” says Rollin MacRae, TPWD wetland biologist. “It was apparently a beautiful, shallow, sandy-bottom stream running through dense woods for most of its history, but its proximity to the explosive growth of Houston made that sand a prized commodity.” Sand and gravel is used to make concrete, which primarily feeds the transportation industry.

Today, I’m heading up the San Jacinto in an airboat with three TPWD Inland Fisheries biologists, Mark Webb, Earl Chilton and Bill Johnson, a crackerjack airboat pilot. The river’s east and west forks wind through forest north of the city before joining at Lake Houston and continuing an additional 28 miles to Galveston Bay. Webb, Johnson and others have studied differences in the fish community between Lake Conroe and Lake Houston — with 3,000 acres of sand mines in between.

“We know we have higher turbidity in Lake Houston than Lake Conroe,” Webb explains. “A lot of that is coming from different sources in the San Jacinto. We’re trying to do some basic ecological evaluations to see if we have differences in fish community and habitat from one section of the river to another.”

We head upstream, and as we pass the confluence of Spring Creek and the San Jacinto’s west fork, I notice that Spring Creek runs murky, but only on the San Jacinto side does a massive algae bloom swirl atop the water’s surface, turning the water pea green.

Though sand mines exist on both sides of the river, earthen levees keep them hidden from our view. The typical Texas sand mine clears riverside land, then gouges sand in deep pits. When finished, nothing regrows because the topsoil has been stripped. Most build their levees only to the annual water line, rather than the 100-year flood plain. Come flood or high water, rains often wash out low levees, emptying the silty water right into the river.

Sand mining is not a regulated industry in Texas, unlike in most other states. In other words, so long as they operate on private property, the industry has no regulations to follow, no permits to apply for and no reclamation to complete once finished. But when they affect a public resource — the river — they fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.

The state’s water quality standards are:

  • Surface waters shall be essentially free of settleable solids.
  • Surface waters shall be maintained in an aesthetically attractive condition.
  • Waste discharges shall not cause substantial and persistent changes from ambient conditions of turbidity or color.

“It’s not supposed to look like this, with all of these channels and mudbars,” says Webb. As the river narrows, Johnson maneuvers the hovering half-plane, half-boat around them with skill. Natural sandbars with gravelly bottoms provide substrate for fish eggs, but these bars are a result of excess fine sediment dumped into the river, disrupting the natural ecosystem balance.

Ten years ago, TPWD Resource Protection biologists examined the impact of sand mining on this same San Jacinto River segment. “Texas Parks and Wildlife documented … massive changes in channel size, shape and location; a loss of fish species dependent on the pre-project habitat conditions (stable bars and banks, pools and clear water); and an almost complete loss of mussel species,” reads the report. Using historical aerial photos, biologists showed that a single sand mine had shifted the entire river course, widening its banks and braiding its interior with the same mudbars we’re maneuvering around. For comparison’s sake, they looked at a segment with no sand mines; there, the river flowed through the same channel as in 1958.

We’ve motored 20 miles upstream, and suddenly I see what we’ve come for. A channel through the bank pours milky white mine tailings into the river. This is no trickle, and no accidental levee breach. This one flagrant violation of Clean Water Act laws has muddied the entire river, affecting even Spring Creek. Immediately upstream of the plume, the river runs so clear I can see the river bottom. I can see fish.

A few weeks ago, I saw the destruction from a Cessna. “Sand pits from the air look 10 times worse than what they look like on the ground,” Dennis Johnston, Harris County Precinct 4 parks administrator, told me. “They totally dominate the landscape along the San Jacinto River. It looks like nuclear war was practiced in this theater.”

Seeing the San Jacinto from the sky opened my eyes to the scale of mining activities, the destruction of bottomland hardwood forest and the muddying of the river.

“Sediment is pollution,” says Bob Sweeney, TPWD legal counsel. “Critters are adapted to occasional pulses of sediment-laden water. They can handle floods. What they can’t handle is the constant turbidity that never settles.”

Sediment can clog fish gills and cloud their ability to find food. In a cascading ecosystem effect, heavy sediment can eliminate vegetarian fishes’ food source, aquatic plants, which reduces forage fish populations. “High turbidity limits submersed vegetation production because sunlight can’t penetrate the water to the degree necessary for photosynthesis,” explains Webb. “Aquatic vegetation provides spawning habitat, cover for juvenile fish to escape predation, aquatic insects as a food source for juvenile bluegill and largemouth bass, and ambush cover for adult bluegill and largemouth bass when they start to prey on other fishes.”

Aquatic vegetation does not grow well in Lake Houston. In recent months, the City of Houston has dealt with excessive costs for treating Lake Houston drinking water due to taste and odor problems caused by phytoplankton blooms. The lake’s ecosystem is out of whack.

Webb’s research found marked differences between ecosystems in Lake Houston and Lake Conroe. Just a few dozen miles apart on the same river, Lake Conroe boasts healthy populations of largemouth bass and other sediment-intolerant fish, including bluegill, gizzard shad and threadfin shad. Webb and colleagues found fewer fish overall in Lake Houston, with higher populations of sediment-tolerant blue catfish and white crappie. Largemouth bass experience reduced growth and reproduction in turbid waters.

“Lake Houston is one of our major reservoirs; it’s a very valuable public resource,” says Webb. “I’m very interested in anything that is affecting the fisheries.”

In the river itself, species adapted to clear, flowing streams — bluegill, longear sunfish and blackstripe topminnow — increased in numbers the farther they moved away from a sand mine. The study showed that sand mining directly impacted the fish community. In a separate study, TPWD mussel expert Bob Howells attributed the disappearance of freshwater mussel beds in the San Jacinto River to the excessive input of fine sediment destroying their habitat.

The San Jacinto marks the Big Thicket’s historic western boundary, and the remaining 20,000 acres of lush bottomland hardwood forest between the river and Spring Creek — known as the “Little Thicket” — are filled with palmetto thickets and cypress swamps. Several rare species use these forests, including nesting bald eagles, wood storks, white ibises and Swainson’s warbler, and it provides a stopover for neotropical migratory birds crossing the Gulf of Mexico. But sand mines hungrily devour its edges.

Forested watersheds not only provide wildlife habitat and maintain the river’s integrity, they also protect human life from flooding and improve downstream water quality. New York City opted to protect more than 143,000 acres of upstream forest rather than build a new water treatment facility.

According to the World Bank/World Wildlife Fund 2003 report, “Running Pure: The Importance of Forest Protected Areas to Drinking Water,” a new plant would have cost $6 billion to $8 billion to build, plus $300 million to $500 million in annual operating costs, whereas preserving the land cost $1 billion to $1.5 billion over 10 years. Lake Houston provides the City of Houston’s drinking water, and the upstream forests remain unprotected. Most of these lands are for sale.

As we head back home, a resident bald eagle alights and flies upstream. I’ve seen dozens of bald eagles in Alaska, but only two so far in Texas. As a symbol of our nation, they have recovered from the brink, a testimony to the resilience of nature, given a little help and a reprieve from the harm we too often inflict.

In a letter submitted at a TPW commissioners hearing in 1993, Patsy Goss wrote: “The San Jacinto River Association is dedicated to the protection and defense of this river. We feel that this river symbolizes the past, illustrates the present, and forecasts the future of Texas.” Goss, who had fought to protect the lower San Jacinto from sand mining damage since the 1970s, turned over to me a box full of its history — documents, letters and research papers.

As the river that saw Texas through its revolutionary war and the founding of its largest city, it seems prescient to protect, restore and preserve it — for its value to fish and wildlife and for its importance in providing citizens with clean drinking water and protection from excessive flood damage.

Houston has many bayous, but only one river.

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