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Published on November 30, 2021

San Bernard silting woes identified in 121-year-old report

By Jan Edwards
The Bulletin

Living on the coast so close to Mother Nature, I’ve learned to become more sensitive to and appreciate the changes she brings our way.

Lately, I’ve been contemplating putting the river’s mouth back where it should be, which will become reality in the next few weeks. It will be one of the most awesome events of my life – watching the singing river again flow to the sea and recover her song.

I’ve been Googling the San Bernard River and found a very interesting book (digitized by Google) in the public domain. It is the “Annual Reports of the War Department for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1900 – Report of the Chief of Engineers – Part 4.” It was originally printed in Washington, D.C. in the Government Printing Office.

The engineers of this group became what we know as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
This book deals with project recommendations to improve the waterways of the country. I honed in on the portion dealing with the San Bernard River. Even in 1900, it was on the government’s radar for improvement.

The recommendation made by Captain Riche’ (pgs. 2334 and 2335) was to improve the “Brazos River between Velasco and Richmond, West Galveston Bay Channel, Double Bayou, and the mouths of the adjacent streams.

What they wanted to accomplish was a navigable channel depth of between 4-6 feet across the bars at the mouths of most of the streams and bayous along the Texas coast.

The report goes on to explain recommended improvements for various Texas waterways. Anticipating the current day “improvement” of the San Bernard River mouth, I skipped ahead to page 2438 – the “Examination and Survey of San Bernard River, Texas,” dated Feb 15, 1900.

This report was made by John M. Wilson, Brig. Gen., Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army to Elihu Root, the Secretary of War.

The recommendation reads: “An improvement of the mouth of San Bernard River can be affected by the construction of two nearly parallel jetties, which, assisted by some dredging, would create and maintain a channel available for vessels drawing from 6 to 8 feet of water, at an estimated cost of $300,000.00, and $5,000 annually for maintenance; but this work would result in no benefit to any other section than the lands bordering the river, and Captain Riche’ states that an improvement of the river can be made in another and more economical and useful manner, a project for which is accordingly presented.”

“This project contemplates improvement by connecting the San Bernard River with the Brazos River to the east and Matagorda Bay, via Caney Creek, to the west by dredging inside channels 4 feet deep and 100 feet wide through the marshy depressions just back of the sand hills along the shore of the Gulf, and it is estimated that this work, if done by contract independently of other work, would cost, including contingencies, $270,000.00, which is exclusive of the cost of right of way, as in Captain Riche’s opinion the necessary land should be donated free of cost by the owners.”

The report goes on to include statements from the movers and shakers of the time - like engineers, the Galveston Chamber of Commerce, C.P. McNeil and others - to make the case that the local industry would benefit from an “Intracoastal Canal” and that the canal would be more economically feasible than bringing in the railroad to service the area due to the many bridges that would have to be built to allow the railroad to come to the coast.

Then, it hit me, like a bolt out of the blue. What they were planning 121 years ago and today’s projects are very similar – but like mirror images.

In 1900, the report came out in February. Our river mouth dredging will be finished a bit before February.

In 1900, the San Bernard river mouth was not dredged so they could use the funds to benefit the entire coast and create an “Intracoastal Canal” in order to facilitate industry. In 2021, we are opening the mouth of the San Bernard River to better utilize the Intracoastal Canal.

In 1900, a canal was proposed to get the products of industry to the port at the Brazos, which could take a deeper draft boat than the San Bernard. A “quicksand” bar across the Bernard’s mouth limited boats entering the river to only a 4-foot draft.

In 2021, the result of re-channeling the Brazos to make a deep-draft, dead-water port at Freeport closed the mouth of the San Bernard River. So now, the mouth of the San Bernard must be re-opened so vessels can navigate the gates of the Brazos to make it to the port.

History shows that everything is connected. The rivers of the coast are connected to the people of the coast, and what we have done to the rivers of the coast is connected to what we are doing today.

By putting our river back to where it should be, maybe we can create a better connection to Mother Nature - through the San Bernard River. I hope so.

(Write Jan in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)