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