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How Sand Mining Helped Flood Houston

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Texas National Guard soldiers rescue a civilian in flooded areas around Houston, Texas, on 27 August, 2017. Image by 1Lt. Zachary West, 100th MPAD. United States, 2017.

Texas National Guard soldiers rescue a civilian in flooded areas around Houston, Texas, on 27 August, 2017. Image by 1Lt. Zachary West, 100th MPAD. United States, 2017.

As Houston struggles to recover from the floods wrought by last August’s Hurricane Harvey—and to prepare for the inevitable next one—city officials are warning that one little-known cause of the damage has got to be dealt with: sand mining.

Much of the concrete and asphalt that make up the city is manufactured with sand from the nearby San Jacinto River. Environmentalists and state legislators have complained for years that the enormous quantities of sand being extracted are not only damaging the river’s ecosystem, but also boosting the risks of flooding. It works like this: Sand miners strip away vegetation along the river and adjacent wetlands. As a result, huge amounts of exposed silt gets washed into the river when it rains. That silt then piles up in riparian bottlenecks, which overflow when the water gets too high, and also at the bottom of Lake Houston, the city’s principal source of drinking water, reducing the volume of water it can store.

To make matters worse, many of the mines along the San Jacinto are illegal, operating without following even the minimal regulations Texas imposes on sand and gravel operations. In 2011, State Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), helped pass a bill to fine such outlaw sand miners. It didn’t go far enough, he recently told the Houston Chronicle: "Hindsight being 20-20, the fines should have been triple, or quadruple, because all that sand that was up there on the San Jacinto River ended up…all the way down the San Jacinto River." Now, he’s pushing for tougher enforcement. He and others are also calling for the river and lake to be dredged to minimize the risk of future floods. But that might damage the river bottom and the fish and other creatures that live there. While the argument continues, the next flood season looms just a few months away.