The River – Why is the river important to the
community, region, and nation as a whole?
- Ecological health
- Uses (e.g. drinking water, recreation, irrigation)
- Remarkable features that make it locally, regionally or
- Natural, cultural, historic and economic values
The San Jacinto River is an underappreciated ecological and
recreational gem with a history few know. The river has an East and West fork
(69 and 90 miles) which wind their way through bottomland hardwood forest, meet
at Lake Houston and continue for an additional 28 miles to Galveston Bay. Akokisa
Indians camped along her banks, as did later explorers and settlers, including
the infamous men who fought the Texas Revolution. General Sam Houston
dramatically ended the Texas Revolutionary War on the banks of the San Jacinto when
he defeated Mexican General Santa Ana on April 21, 1836. The Allen brothers
founded Houston upstream on Buffalo Bayou, a tributary, the same year. Exxon
got its start when two locals discovered oil bubbling from the San Jacinto near
the town of Humble, leading to an overnight tent city.
The river serves as the historic western edge of the Big Thicket[i],
a heavily forested region unique enough to be dubbed a U.N. Biosphere Reserve
due to its extremely high biodiversity. In addition to segments of primeval cypress
swamp, the riparian forests lining its banks have a stunning diversity of tree
species – including the American hornbeam, hophornbeam, two-winged silverbell,
river birch, tupelo, magnolia, sugarberry, cottonwood, dogwood, sumac, black
cherry, Mexican plum, mulberry, hollies, elms, ashes, hickories, oaks, and
A recent study[iii]
found that the upper San Jacinto tributaries remain the healthiest stream
reaches in the entire watershed which includes hundreds of streams and bayous –
Houston is, after all, the “Bayou City.” Several rare, threatened and
endangered species use this area, including nesting bald eagles, wood storks,
white ibises, and Swainson's warbler. The riparian forests provide a stopover
for neotropical migratory birds just crossing from the Gulf of Mexico. The river
has two reservoirs, Lake Conroe and Lake Houston, which provide drinking water
to Houston area residents. The river is the home of “East Fork West Fork
Challenge” a unique le mans style start-at-night 16-mile canoe race.
The Threat(s) – Why is the river’s future uncertain?
- Provide detailed information on the major threat(s) facing
the river (e.g., proposed development, water withdrawals, pollution, land
use conflicts, dams, water projects)
- Explain how the threat(s) impacts river heath (e.g., fish
kills, flow alterations, loss of riparian habitat)
- Address the seriousness and
imminence of the threat(s). Focus on the threats which you believe to be
the most significant and pressing.
The river is threatened by sand mining, development in the
riparian forest, and water rights grabs. Sand mining involves excavation of bottomland
hardwood forested wetlands adjacent to the sandy river banks. The companies buy
land, clearcut, gouge out sand by the tons often with sediment leaching into
the river, and leave town, with no reclamation required. They can’t legally
dump sediment in the river without a Corps of Engineers “fill” permit but
violations are rampant. Harris County’s Dennis Johnston went on a helicopter flyover
and was shocked by the scale of devastation. He said it looked like bombs had
been dropped, and in many places, leached sediment turned the river the color
of cream-colored coffee, clear legal violations.
According to Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD),
increased sedimentation in the San Jac has had several effects: as the river
has filled in, it causes braiding, which leads the river to widen to contain
its flood flows, which in turn causes bank erosion[iv].
Downstream of the sand pits, Lake Houston, a reservoir which provides drinking
water to the City of Houston and elsewhere, has silted in at an excessively
high rate - up to 20% since it was constructed in 1954[v].
This has reduced the amount of water the reservoir can hold and particularly as
the San Jacinto River Authority continues to sell more water to other entities,
less water runs downstream to provide Galveston Bay estuaries their critical
freshwater inflow. At our request for this nomination, TPWD estimated the
extent of sand mining at over 3,000 acres adjacent to the river just between Lake
Conroe and Lake Houston using GIS (photo included).
The river faces
impending and current land development along its boundaries. Developers clearcut
right up to the water and don’t leave a forest buffer as has been recommended
by Houston’s Bayou Preservation Association. One day I (WH) was on my daily run
across the bridge over the East Fork, and spotted a bald eagle perched on a
tall dead snag. Although I’d run this route for eight years and knew eagles
nested here, I’d never seen one here. Two days later, developers clearcut
several acres of forest right up to the water’s edge to prepare for a mixed-use
development. The San Jacinto riparian forests provide the last remnant in
Houston of the historic Big Thicket, and protect the waterways by filtering
water pollutants from runoff and reducing flood potential and associated damage
to human structures and threat to life in Houston’s already flood-prone and
heavily developed urban expanse.
Last, seven pending
water rights permits which amount to massive quantities of water removal from
the river are under review by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
(TCEQ). In an 11-page permit review letter, TPWD urges, “The cumulative impact
from this and other pending applications could prove detrimental to aquatic and
riparian habitats in the San Jacinto River…and to Galveston Bay.”
Actions or Decisions – How will the river’s fate be
determined in the coming year?
- Provide detailed information on major actions or decisions
anticipated in the coming year (remember that the report will be issued in
April 2006) that could magnify or lessen the threat(s) (e.g. legislation,
change in government regulation, issuance of permits)
- Identify the best protective
action(s) that can be taken to eliminate the threat(s)
Sand mining and development:
Legacy Land Trust is
working to preserve 10,000 acres of roadless wilderness in between the river’s
West Fork and Spring Creek. A sand mining company just bought property adjacent
to LLT’s most prized easement property, Curry Lake. Developers are eyeing the
land and our last chance to preserve this “lost wilderness” of Houston (aka the
Little Thicket) will disappear if action to set aside this land does not occur
soon. Midway Development is developing “Spring Trails”, a massive
master-planned community and another developer just put a contract on land in
this Little Thicket region, while Friendswood Development has planned
subdivision developments further downriver.
In 2004, TCEQ
launched a Clear Streams Initiative to investigate sand mining. Initially, the
state agency formally brought attention to the Initiative with a press
conference, announcing levied fines of $3 million to the 45% of operators
statewide operating illegally. But then TCEQ did an about-face and reduced the
entire state total fines to $30,000 and reported, “The overall finding of this
review is that the waterways on the State of Texas are not significantly
impacted by mining activities.”
can prevent sand mining from occurring in their area, but the ultimate
protection will come through state legislation protecting the river, and
requiring reclamation and reforestation. Harris County just launched an
investigation to keep sand mining off of Spring Creek, a major tributary, and
2006 will see its results. Sand mining has received little attention
nationwide. Legislators respond to egregious wrongs such as sand mining when a
public light is shined upon them. Sand mining could be turned into a far more
sustainable operation; pits could be reclaimed as lakes or used as offroad
vehicle (ORV) racing tracks rather than scarring up pristine forests and river
In a bold move, Galveston
Bay groups recently filed a water rights claim for 4 million acre-feet of
water from the San Jacinto River to ensure adequate freshwater for a healthy Galveston
Bay. TCEQ dismissed the application as invalid, but attorney Jim Blackburn is
scheduled to fight in federal appeals court this year to ensure that water
applications for “environmental” rather than consumptive use – which keep water
in the river rather than take it out – are not summarily dismissed. In
addition, several of the pending consumptive water rights permits will likely
be decided within the year.
actions could help the river: (1) Congressman Brady is drafting legislation for
the Big Thicket National Preserve at this time. We are encouraging BTNP to
acquire the Little Thicket as the only Wilderness for their preserve. Congress
would have to authorize this action, and national attention of its value would
certainly help since development interests typically outcompete conservation
interests for land unless awareness is raised. (2) In the next year, SJCC would
like to lead efforts to develop a comprehensive watershed plan for the San Jac,
requesting input from strategic partners such as TPWD, Harris County Flood
Control District, the City of Houston and others. We would document and
summarize current threats, then develop a plan to create a healthy, sustainable
The San Jacinto
River’s selection as an endangered river would raise awareness of the national
importance of this river both ecologically and historically, and could spur
legislators to take real action to better regulate sand mining, require some
form of reclamation, and scientifically evaluate the freshwater inflow issue.
There is no question that next year will see much of the river’s riparian
forest being lost unless something is done to change the tide.
III. ADDITIONAL MATERIALS & MEDIA
Only if especially useful to the
nomination, include additional relevant materials like maps, video, press
clippings, or photos.
- Aerial image documenting
extent of sand mining along the river with statistics on its extent based
on a TPWD GIS analysis (William Schubert, pers. comm).
- SWCA Mitigation document with
photos of riparian forest and aerial of land prior to more extensive sand
mining and development.
- Moonlight Meander on the San Jacinto
by Wendee Holtcamp. Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine. June 2000.
- Why Rivers Need Forest by
Wendee Holtcamp. Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine. Dec. 2001.
- Canoe Challenge! By Wendee
Holtcamp. Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine. Feb 2002.
To view the 2005 report, please visit us online at www.americanrivers.org/endangeredrivers.
McLeod, C.A. 1967. The Big Thicket of East Texas: Its History, Location and
Description. The Sam Houston Press, Huntsville, Texas.
Holtcamp, Wendee N. June 2000. A Moonlight Meander: Kayaking the San Jacinto River
after the Sun Goes Down Has its Own Special Charm. Texas Parks & Wildlife
Magazine. Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
Moring, J. Bruce. 2001. U.S. Geological Survey. Influence of Stream Habitat
and Land Use on Benthic Macroinvertebrate Indicators of Stream Quality of
Selected Above-Tidal Streams in the Houston-Galveston Area Council Service
Area, Texas, 1997-1998. Water-Resources Investigations Report 01-4010.
Sipocz, Andy, TPWD. Personal Communication.
Norris, Chad TPWD permit review letter to San Jacinto River Authority, Jan. 31,