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Silt happens: Drought already causing a return of San Bernard build-up

Posted on July 4, 2022

Just after the mouth of the San Bernard River underwent a major project to open it back up through dredging, the drought of the last several months already is refilling the opening with silt.

“We knew originally when we did this, the county and the port are on for maintenance dredging, that we were going to have to dredge it every three to seven years, depending upon the rainfall,” County Commissioner Dude Payne said. “Unfortunately, this same thing happened back when we opened it in 2009; 2011 was the worst drought we ever had and it completely fanned it up.”

The process of opening the river’s mouth to the Gulf started in summer 2021 and was completed in the spring of this year. A statement from Brazoria County says significant sediment is a direct result of the lack of water flowing from the San Bernard watershed.

“We only got a little over 6 inches, according to the National Weather Service, from Jan. 1 until June 1 in the San Bernard River Basin, which is not near enough to keep it open,” Payne said.

The county is working with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on what it can do, he said.

“There’s money left over from the RESTORE Act funds. That’s what we did this with originally,” Payne said. “So I’m talking with TCEQ about us utilizing those funds to do the maintenance dredge at the mouth and we’re talking to the Corp about utilizing their dredge, because every 18 to 24 months, they have a dredge that is dredging in the Intracoastal Waterway.”

The RESTORE Act award for the project was $10.3 million, and Payne estimated about half of it is left over. He also said that if an agreement can be made with the Corps of Engineers, the cost would be far lower and allow them to pay for at least one full maintenance dredging with some left over.

Current estimates show it will cost about $2 million to $3 million per dredge. Further drought, hurricanes and other uncontrollable factors could greatly affect those numbers, he said.

It is too late for the county to try to make an agreement with the Corps for this year with an October deadline, Payne said, because the process of modifying the county’s permit is expected to take at least a full year.

“So, we’re shooting to try to get it in on their call for projects in October of 2024, and then the maintenance dredge would occur in 2025,” Payne said.

Even with most of the area predicted to return to normal amounts of precipitation over the rest of the year, there may soon be less need in the short-term for dredging maintenance, but the county is not changing their plan. Drought will come again and they plan to be ready.
“We’re going to continue trying to modify the permit,” Payne said. “We haven’t got the engineering firm on board yet. They have some ideas about what to do, but we are not under contract with them.”

As for whether the predictions for this year will bear out and cause the mouth to stay open is, as Payne puts it, “the million-dollar question.”

“I was up there Monday before last,” he said. “Matt Hanks, the county engineer, and I went out there with the environmental engineer because we had to close out that project which we just got done and there was a gentleman fishing. He caught a nice trout and we went over there and got him to walk out. There’s areas where it’s still 6- to 7-foot depth, but it’s not very wide,” Payne said.

For now, river traffic is being monitored to ensure boats enter when it’s safe at high tide as there could be issues with them running aground.


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