‘THE RIVER IS A MONSTER’ Home­own­ers and lo­cal of­fi­cials fight ero­sion by the Bra­zos, and Har­vey just made it worse

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Emily Fox­hall

SIMONTON — Sharon Galavitz knew the mo­ment she drove up to the house that she had to have it. Here, 40 miles west of Hous­ton, she could hear the birds and see the stars. She could own a horse.

She didn’t care that the Bra­zos River might take her home piece by piece — first the drive­way, then the fence, then whole sec­tions of her yard.

“I loved the prop­erty,” said Galavitz, a long­time Re­al­tor. “When it’s time for this place to go, it’ll just go.”

Galavitz stands lit­tle chance of stop­ping the mighty Bra­zos. Over thou­sands of years, the dy­namic river has shifted its path by miles, carv­ing a course of de­struc­tion that in re­cent decades has taken down road­ways, back­yards and houses.

Hur­ri­cane Har­vey only made things worse. Swollen by tor­ren­tial rains, the Bra­zos threat­ened hun­dreds of homes — even whole towns and sub­di­vi­sions — in Fort Bend and Bra­zo­ria coun­ties, chang­ing its path once again.

“The river is a monster,” said Mark Vogler, drainage dis­trict man­ager for Fort Bend County. “It takes a great deal of time and money to con­tain it.”

A house that had teetered on the river’s edge fell par­tially over the bank. Mas­sive trees slipped down the cliffs. Bridges, road­ways and rail lines took yet an­other beat­ing.

Har­vey added at least $1 mil­lion to the $20 mil­lion or more in re­pairs al­ready des­ig­nated to pro­tect the lo­cal in­fra­struc­ture.

“That’s one of the prob­lems that you have with the Bra­zos River: It’s go­ing to try and move,” Fort Bend County Judge Bob He­bert said.

The river, most ev­ery­one agrees, does what it wants.

One of Texas’ ma­jor wa­ter­ways, the Bra­zos River be­gins of­fi­cially near Abi­lene, then runs south­east past Waco, Col­lege Sta­tion and Hemp­stead on its way to the Gulf of Mex­ico.

Fort Bend County comes near the river’s end. The wa­ter­way

is part of the fab­ric of the fast-grow­ing area, home to about 740,000 res­i­dents. Places rang­ing from gas sta­tions to den­tist of­fices to strip cen­ters in­voke the river’s name. Peo­ple ex­plain lo­ca­tions by the side of the river on which they fall. To the east, de­vel­op­ment is more dense. To the west, towns re­main havens to those who pre­fer coun­try life, such as Galavitz.

From Fort Bend, it trav­els through less-pop­u­lated Bra­zo­ria County, an­other name pay­ing homage to the river, be­fore emp­ty­ing into the Gulf near Freeport.

The river may ap­pear lazy, but in re­cent years its force has been on fully dis­play. The Bra­zos hit his­toric lev­els in 2015 and again in 2016 in Fort Bend, and rose still higher fol­low­ing Har­vey, peak­ing on Sept. 1 in Rich­mond at 55.19 feet.

Pas­tures be­gin to flood at 45 feet. By 50 feet, homes take on wa­ter. By 55 feet, sub­di­vi­sions are in­un­dated. Ero­sion along the river­banks cuts deeper into lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

Lit­tle stands in its way. Years ago, it gob­bled up the orig­i­nal site of the fort in the river’s bend for which the county is named.

‘Where’d ev­ery­thing go?’

Mal­colm and Bev­erly Ger­ber moved to the banks of the Bra­zos in 2015. Trees lined their pic­turesque back­yard, com­plete with a pool.

Within weeks af­ter they ar­rived, the Me­mo­rial Day 2015 flood hit, caus­ing the Bra­zos to rise dozens of feet along the steep, rust­col­ored river­bank. One day, as the river began to re­cede, Ger­ber stepped out, un­sus­pect­ing, with a cup of cof­fee and no­ticed the trees had vanished.

“I looked out and said, ‘Where’d ev­ery­thing go?’ ” re­called Ger­ber, 73.

A year later, the Bra­zos rose even higher, tak­ing more of his land and leav­ing him in dread of the next flood. With Har­vey, the Ger­bers lost a seg­ment of their fenc­ing and an­other beloved, tow­er­ing tree.

He isn’t alone in his strug­gle.

Sev­eral culs-de-sac in the area, such as Bra­zos­wood Place and Wind­loch Lane, have ex­pe­ri­enced the same plight. Next door to the Ger­bers, on River For­est Drive, Ch­eryl Scar­brough and her hus­band lost half an acre of their back­yard, in­clud­ing their pa­tio, in floods be­fore Har­vey. They re­searched the river’s path be­fore buy­ing the lot, but the river, to their hor­ror, is now carv­ing to­ward their home. A new crater formed in their yard fol­low­ing Har­vey.

“It’s very se­ri­ous,” said Scar­brough, 73. “I have no idea what we’re go­ing to do.”

Mil­lion-dol­lar re­pairs

One thing is clear: Noth­ing along the Bra­zos River is guar­an­teed to re­main safe for­ever, not even in­fra­struc­ture.

Time and again, of­fi­cials have bat­tled the wa­ter­way, scram­bling to shore up river cross­ings af­ter each flood.

The list of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties is long. A turn­around un­der the South­west Free­way bridge, which goes along the river, closed last year and again this year for re­pairs. Two lanes on the free­way set­tled about 2.5 inches, re­quir­ing tem­po­rary lane clo­sures last month.

Up­river, the FM 1093 bridge closed last year and this year, too, for as­sess­ment, then re­opened.

County bridges over smaller chan­nels suf­fered worse fates. One span lost pave­ment that pro­tects against ero­sion. About a half-dozen more re­quire re­pairs for dam­age caused by ero­sion.

And then there is the Union Pa­cific rail­way bridge. On June 2 of last year, the day the river peaked, the com­pany halted traf­fic on the val­ued line to sta­bi­lize it. This time, as a pre­cau­tion, crews dumped rock to pro­tect the bridge’s base and re­moved de­bris that snagged un­der­neath. The struc­ture held.

“It was a ma­jor or­deal for us,” spokesman Jeff De­Graff said of the 2016 re­pair. “That’s the kind of is­sue where, if left to de­grade any fur­ther, we could have had an in­ci­dent.”

The big­gest project, how­ever, is the Jodie Stavi­noha bridge.

Con­struc­tion has been un­der­way for sev­eral months on a $17.2 mil­lion ef­fort to save the bridge, a four-lane stretch of the Grand Park­way over the Bra­zos. The river­bank has eroded steadily on one side, threat­en­ing the struc­ture’s longevity.

“There was no time to spare here,” said Mike Stone, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer for the Fort Bend Grand Park­way Toll Road Author­ity.

Be­fore Har­vey hit, roughly 42 feet of earth re­mained be­tween the bridge’s base and the river. More land dis­ap­peared dur­ing the storm.

Fend­ing for them­selves

When it comes to fight­ing the river, res­i­dents are left largely to fend for them­selves. Their op­tions are few.

Home­own­ers have lim­ited le­gal re­course as their land slips away, en­vi­ron­men­tal at­tor­ney Jim Black­burn said. Un­less they can clearly show an un­nat­u­ral event sig­nif­i­cantly changed the river’s course, su­ing for dam­ages would be “in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult,” he said.

Small cities such as Simonton can’t af­ford the costs to stymie ero­sion, Mayor Louis Boudreaux said. They have no choice but to let the river cut through.

“That’s an in­evitabil­ity,” Boudreaux said.

Help from the county is also un­likely. Com­mis­sioner Vin­cent Mo­rales, who rep­re­sents Ger­ber, said he would in­ves­ti­gate ero­sion prob­lems if they were brought to him, but he is doubt­ful that tax­pay­ers would want to pay for prob­lems af­fect­ing a small num­ber of homes. “To me, if you buy on a river you’re tak­ing a chance,” Mo­rales said.

Prop­erty own­ers in­stead must make do with what they can af­ford — and a bit of in­ge­nu­ity.

On River For­est Drive, Ger­ber and Scar­brough planted trees and other veg­e­ta­tion. In a nearby sub­di­vi­sion, Mike Smith took things a step fur­ther. The 68-year-old re­tired en­gi­neer col­lab­o­rated with a lo­cal land­scap­ing busi­ness to slope the gra­di­ent of his bank and in­stall an 8-foot re­tain­ing wall. It cost a “pretty penny,” as he put it, but so far has held up.

“It’s work­ing,” he said. “Not to­tally, I guess, but it’s min­i­mized fur­ther ero­sion for me.”

A last re­sort for res­i­dents is to get out, if they can, a path taken by 43-year-old Amy Vern. Her late hus­band, Mark, grew up in a house in Simonton that now hangs off the river’s edge. They sold it in 2012, know­ing they couldn’t save it. Their neigh­bor fig­ures his prop­erty will be next, but he doubts any­one would buy it.

Em­brac­ing the change?

Along the Bra­zos, no fix will last for­ever.

The loops of the river are grow­ing in­creas­ingly dra­matic, mak­ing changes to the river’s path more dif­fi­cult to an­tic­i­pate, Texas A&M Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Jean-Louis Bri­aud said.

“We’re not very good at it,” Bri­aud said, “but we can try to have these coun­ter­mea­sures in­stalled so that they can slow down the progress.”

Rather than fight against the Bra­zos, Nate Woi­wode of the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy sug­gests a philo­soph­i­cal change: Work with it.

While it’s un­der­stand­able that res­i­dents would want to keep flood­wa­ters away, both flood­ing and ero­sion are nat­u­ral to rivers, Woi­wode said. Flood­ing al­lows wa­ter to spread out and lessens the im­pact from ero­sion.

Woi­wode hopes com­mu­ni­ties, where they can, will give the river its land back, al­low­ing it to spill over its edges.

River­front parks de­signed to flood, such as sev­eral in Sugar Land, serve as an ex­am­ple of that.

“This is a chal­lenge that isn’t just lo­cal to Texas or the Bra­zos,” he said. “It is hap­pen­ing ev­ery­where.”

For now, Galavitz is re­pair­ing her flooded home for the sec­ond time in two years. It’s hard work, but she finds a re­minder in what she loves about the Bra­zos ev­ery time she looks across her lawn. Her coun­try shack, she likes to tell peo­ple, has a mil­lion-dol­lar view.

Galavitz wants to live there for as long as she can, but she knows the de­ci­sion to leave will not be up to her.

In the end, the river will win.

Mark Mul­li­gan pho­tos / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

A house hangs off the bank of the Bra­zos River in Simonton. Be­fore Har­vey, it was con­demned but not fall­ing down into the river.

Sharon Galavitz is re­signed to the even­tu­al­ity that the Bra­zos will swal­low up her beloved prop­erty in Simonton.

Mark Mul­li­gan / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Mal­colm and Bev­erly Ger­ber have been watch­ing their prop­erty along the Bra­zos River in Rich­mond quickly dis­ap­pear due to ma­jor flood events. The high-wa­ter lev­els af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey left them with even less land be­hind their home.

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