A delicate balance A majority of sand used for construction in the Greater Houston area is harvested from the West Fork of the San Jacinto River. More than 25 percent of land studied by the Bayou Land Conservancy is used for sand mine operations.[/caption]

The West Fork of the San Jacinto River has become one of the area’s most prolific natural resources as a primary source for the sand and gravel used for construction in Montgomery and Harris counties. However, as fine sand is increasingly harvested from beneath the riverbanks, booming development has placed a strain on the river.

“The West Fork of the San Jacinto River is full of millions of dollars of fine sand and gravel, and most of that is being used to build roads,” said Jennifer Lorenz, Bayou Land Conservancy executive director. “No one has studied this, and no one has been looking over time. More than a quarter of [our research area] is now used for sand and gravel activity.”

The BLC, a nonprofit conservation organization, is seeking policy and funding support from local governments and developers to protect land along the West Fork, which Lorenz said could become a community amenity and ecotourism hub. Some developers are also incorporating the wetlands into their respective developments as a natural community amenity.

Mining the West Fork

The San Jacinto River has become the primary source for sand because of its proximity to the Greater Houston area, according to the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association. The sand is harvested through a practice known as sand mining, which requires land along the river to be cleared of vegetation and excavated to gather sand from large open pits near the riverbanks.

“Everything made of concrete [in Montgomery and Harris counties]—roads, buildings, bridges—probably contains sand that comes from the San Jacinto River,” said Rich Szecsy, president of Austin-based TACA.

In 2011, the 82nd Texas Legislature passed House Bill 571 to address concerns about what was then unregulated sand mining along the San Jacinto River. The legislation required dirt, sand and rock quarry operations across the state to register with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

According to the TCEQ, however, there are nine active sand mine operations along the West Fork that have not registered as of Aug. 6. There are an additional 12 operations along the West Fork that have registered since the legislation went into effect.

The legislation was supported by some local sand mine operators, TACA and BLC because of the influx of sand and gravel producers in the area. Scott Spinella, general manager of Hallett Materials—a Montgomery County-based sand mine operator—said some of those producers were not following best-practice methods. Because meeting regulations can be expensive, Spinella said noncompliant operators were able to financially undercut compliant operators.

“There [were] a lot of smalltime sand and gravel producers that were coming in here and not using proper permits or doing things the right way,” Spinella said, later adding that Hallett Materials spent about $2 million on its permits.

Szecsy said the way operations discharge wastewater is a major issue that operators are required to address. He said unregistered mining operations hurt the industry’s reputation because of the improper practices they may use. [polldaddy poll=9046088]

“Somebody could open up a sand and gravel operation, not get a permit and not care how they discharge water after it is used—creating an illegal discharge back into the San Jacinto River,” Szecsy said. “It paints our industry as detrimental to the environment or as causing negative impacts to the San Jacinto River. When we are operating in compliance none of those are the case.”

Lorenz said the rapid growth in sand mining operations along the West Fork is alarming because the land no longer has an ecological function. About 4,500 acres, or about 25 percent, of the floodway studied by the BLC is being used for sand mining operations. In 1995, about
1,308 acres, or about 7.8 percent of the land, was affected by sand mining by comparison.

“Whether it is legal or illegal, the amount [of sand mining] has been staggering over these last few years,” Lorenz said. “That 25 percent is mind blowing. I think we will probably be close to 30 percent in 2015. That is an incredible amount of land that is no longer serving any ecological function.”

Jace Houston, San Jacinto River Authority general manager, said removal of the vegetation along the river allows for siltation, a process through which sediments like sand are carried to the bottom of a body of water. Houston said sediments wash into the river and flow into Lake Houston after a major rain event.

“Everything can wash into the river and take off downstream,” Houston said. “This causes siltation, and now this heavy sand load is flowing down the river. When it gets to Lake Houston the sand just drops and settles on the bottom. Slowly, Lake Houston is losing its storage volume.”

Finding the middle ground: Preservation vs. development While she believes development is necessary, Jennifer Lorenz, Bayou Land Conservancy executive director, said clearing the land of vegetation allows sediment, herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers to freely wash into the river after a rain without any natural filtration by the wetlands.[/caption]

Preserving the wetlands

In an effort to protect the wetlands along the West Fork, the BLC has placed conservation easements on about 1,333 acres of property along the river. A conservation easement is a binding agreement that prevents development on the land or limits certain types of uses.

The conservancy often acquires land by working with private developers who are required to offset any effects they have on wetlands on their property by protecting three times as many wetlands nearby, Lorenz said. The developer can work with the conservancy, or other “mitigation banks,” to fund the protection of select pieces of land.

The conservancy is able to preserve contiguous tracts of land through this model, rather than creating disjointed preserves throughout the area, BLC conservation land biologist Stephanie Prosser said.

“By pooling land together we get to build these connected linear corridors, and they make a better habitat for large animals like coyotes and bobcats that need a lot of space,” Prosser said.

Lorenz said, if preserved, the land along the West Fork could also have features like those under development along the Spring Creek and Lake Creek greenways.

“Given funding, we could preserve the land so it could be ready [if and when] the city of Conroe is ready to go [build] a big trail system,” Lorenz said. “The functioning wetlands that are on the West Fork are some of the best in Texas.”

Efforts by developers

Conroe partners with Bayou Land Conservancy on park land tract The city of Conroe owns a 25-acre tract of land preserved under a conservation easement by the Bayou Land Conservancy.[/caption]

Developers can also integrate wetlands into their development instead of building on top of them. In doing so developers can improve the quality of life for residents and increase property values, which helps draw business and tourism to the area, said Virgil Yoakum, general manager and vice president of Grand Central Park.

The 2,046-acre mixed-use development is  under construction by Johnson Development Corp. on the former Camp Strake property. Because the West Fork of the San Jacinto River runs through the back of the property, Johnson Development is working to integrate its natural assets into the development.

“One of the strongest amenities for Grand Central Park is the rich natural assets in the riparian corridor along the West Fork,” Yoakum said. “The property is blessed in the fact that it has trail systems and resources left by the Boy Scouts on the property.”

While the development has no conservation easements, Yoakum said, the company intends to integrate a significant amount of green space along the West Fork into the property for recreational use. The plan could draw residents and visitors to the area.

“I know that there are groups interested in linking the assets along the West Fork watershed, and we would like to see that happen,” Yoakum said. “There is significant watershed acreage that flows through Grand Central Park. We want to do our part and work within the natural environment.”