In partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District, the county is conducting a study called the Brazos River Erosion Management study, or BREM, to develop a permanent solution to manage the erosion of the river and protect historical landmarks in Richmond, such as Morton Cemetery and the Fort Bend County Justice Center. The study concerns a section of the Brazos that spans 2.5 miles through downtown.
“When you get those big rain events after a long period of a drought, all of the land starts falling and starts eroding very quickly,” said Eddie Irigoyen, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District project manager.
According to city documents, the Brazos River is eroding at a rate of 4 feet per year, and the river’s path of destruction is posing a serious challenge for city and county officials.
Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and county officials are now awaiting authorization from Congress to add a countywide watershed study to the BREM study that would ultimately provide a solution to the erosion problem that threatens assets and public infrastructure.
“The river is starting to cause significant erosion, [and] it poses a long-term threat to downtown Richmond,” Hebert said.
The Brazos' threat to Richmond
As the county seat, Richmond is home to several government buildings and historical landmarks. When Hebert initially made the project request for BREM to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District in 2015, the goal of the study was to protect those assets.
Richmond officials are advisers to the county in regard to the study.
“We wanted to make sure that we had identified all of our areas of concern with the county,” Richmond City Manager Terri Vela said. “You just don’t realize how volatile the river is and how the river will just go in a direction that it wants to go until you see it.”
In August 2014, the county partnered with the USACE Galveston District under the Flood Plain Management Services Program to study erosion issues in the area. The preliminary study showed sections of the river in the project area have shifted 400 feet from 1953 to 2012, according to USACE documents, and that this erosion correlated with peak storm events.
“We have proof there that a lot of erosion has happened, not only in the Richmond area but just along the Brazos River itself,” Irigoyen said. “If eventually it keeps eroding … it can get very dangerous … and big infrastructure like bridges could be a major issue.”
Hebert said he estimates the county has spent well over $100 million in recent years to repair county assets like bridges from flood damage. Emergency repairs are underway along the Jodie Stavinoha Bridge to stabilize the northern bank, while repairs to the Union Pacific Railroad Bridge in Richmond were made in 2016 after the bridge suffered major damage from the Memorial and Tax Day 2016 floods.
“We’ve had four major floods in that river in three years,” Hebert said. “The frequency of major floods in that river certainly in the short term is increasing, [and] we need to plan for it.”
Irigoyen said studies have proven the recent historical flooding events have resulted in erosion that has exposed bridge supports and encroaches on levees. The USACE only expects conditions to worsen.
“According to the geomantic analyses of the studies, it is projected that various bends of the river are expected to substantially increase in diameter and direction by year 2048 [based on migration rates in excess of 15 feet per year], further exposing the critical infrastructure within Fort Bend County,” Irigoyen said.
BREM protects Richmond
The BREM study would help the county plan for future floods by providing solutions to manage the erosion of the river in an effort to protect Richmond’s historically significant landmarks, public buildings, public infrastructure and private property, according to city and county officials.
“The scope of this study included reviewing previous [and] existing information, performing geotechnical investigations, conducting geomorphological analyses, assessing cultural resources and environmental permitting and updating the hydrological and hydraulic models for a 2-mile stretch of the Brazos River within proximity of the study area,” Fort Bend County Engineer Richard Stolleis said.
Several homes in neighborhoods in Richmond’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, an area of unincorporated land outside of a city’s limits, are losing their yards to the river, while more drastic effects of the erosion have been seen in Simonton, according to county officials.
Cesar Aristeiguieta, a resident from the River Forest subdivision in Richmond, can see the effects of the erosion from his own backyard; during Harvey, floodwaters rose over the banks of the river, almost reaching his home.
“It was a landslide on both sides,” Aristeiguieta said. “The trees, the dirt, everything just ended up in the river.”
Aristeiguieta said he plans on trying to shore up the bank to mitigate damage from any future erosion.
“I am going to try and make lemonade with lemons,” he said. “[But] it’s pretty scary to think the river could take everything away.”
Property owners like Aristeiguieta will have to learn to live with the river since the county has no authority to stabilize any parts of the river bank.
“We are not going to ask for that authority because where do we stop?” Hebert said. “We could spend billions of dollars and not do it all—billions of dollars and we don’t have even millions of dollars to spend.”
Residents of Municipal Utility District 140 in Richmond’s ETJ are also in the direct path of the river’s erosion. MUD 140 attorneys Jeanie McDonald and Joel Cleveland said they have held several town meetings during which residents expressed concern over the river cutting into the nearby neighborhood. McDonald said over the last two years with the flooding events, the area has lost about 60 feet of riverbank.
“The fear is always that the riverbank will eat into where the houses are,” Cleveland said. “Who knows with the kind of storms we’ve had for the last two years what will happen. It could be years, it could another big storm causes a problem and [or] it may never get to us.”
While the county cannot legally do anything to help residents who live along the river, their losses are a good indicator of what can be expected if the erosion continues without any proactive measures. County and state officials said extending the study could be critical to pinpointing other patterns.
“Even though you are trying to prevent it from—let’s say—eroding there around the Richmond area, that doesn’t mean the problem is necessarily there; it can be coming [from] a higher portion of the Brazos River that is causing that erosion,” Irigoyen said.
So far, two initial studies have been issued under BREM. A $100,000 fully federally funded Flood Plain Management Services study in 2015 and the 2017 Planning Assistance to States study that is equally funded by the county and the federal government are both part of a reconnaissance effort that marks the beginning phase of the project.
The preliminary studies will feed into a new feasibility study that can cost no more than $3 million and be completed in under three years that county and USACE officials must await authorization from Congress to start.
“Once the feasibility study is authorized ... Congress will have to authorize the project and fund the next phase for it to begin,” Irigoyen said.
Stolleis said once federal funds are approved and matched 50-50 with county funds, the feasibility study would evaluate alternative solutions.
“Once that study is approved ... a followup request is expected to be made to obtain future final design and construction funding,” Stolleis said.
The PAS study is expected to be completed by early 2018, according to Stolleis.
A quick fix
After Harvey’s toll and the devastating amount of damage the storm inflicted in areas all over the county, Hebert said receiving approval to extend the project’s reach could be critical for Fort Bend County’s recovery and planning for future storms.
“The long-term benefits of how to improve our resistance to these rain storms depends on our ability to complete the overall study,” Hebert said.
Hebert said the county is negotiating with the Corps to include the countywide study in a way that would guarantee congressional approval.
“It would save us a lot of time in going back to Congress to grant us an authorization,” Hebert said. “This is the quick fix—we think—to use BREM to get them to include it.”
The countywide study would look at a variety of factors.
“[The study would look at] the county’s criteria on development, what type of storm we are designed for, what our levee districts pump for, where we may be able to make improvements that would reduce flooding or provide better protection,” said Mark Vogler, Fort Bend County Drainage District director. “We are trying to come up with a list of all the issues that we want to have investigated [and are] hoping to finalize list by the end of the year.”
Hebert said even though Abbott requested federal money to fund the countywide study, he still plans on the county funding the study by itself. He said if the government does decide to fund the project and give it to the Corps, the county will have to wait longer for the project to be finished.
“That’s the problem, whenever the federal government and the Corps get involved ... you save money, but you lose time,” Hebert said. “I think most of the property owners in Fort Bend County after seeing what Harvey did want us to analyze it … so we can come up with some intelligent ways to spend money. That’s why we want the study.”
USACE and county officials involved with the BREM project said it could take several years before any significant solutions to the erosion of the river are made.
“People have tried to control it and build around it but at the end of the day, you really can’t control Mother Nature,” Irigoyen said. “The river is going to do what it is naturally made to do.”