An aerial photo of Sandy Creek between Sandy Harbor and Sunrise Beach Village show how much sand has taken over the riverbed. Residents cut channels on the edges of the riverbed so they can get their boats and other watercraft to deeper water. At one time, the water in this area was about 15 feet deep, Sandy Harbor residents say, and people would waterski and sail boats on it. Courtesy photo
EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
Sandy Harbor residents Soc Gonzalez and Keith Woody stood on the historic bank and looked out at Sandy Creek. The problem was a pile of sand was all there was to look at.
“Sandy Creek is over there, behind that,” said Gonzalez, referring to the massive buildup of sand that stretches up and down this length of the river.
The river, what little there is, meanders along the other side. The October 2018 flooding contributed to the pile, but it’s something that’s been growing for years, even decades.
As the two toured the Lake LBJ portion of Sandy Creek that winds alongside Sandy Harbor, they remarked on the significant changes to the creek. Stopping at a community park, they watched as a man who had beached his boat on an exposed sandbar got out and played with his dog in the shallow water.
“The sand was there before the (October 2018) flood, but it wasn’t above the water,” said Woody, who is the Sandy Harbor Property Owners Association president. “Now look at it.”
Sandy Creek feeds into Lake LBJ downstream of Sandy Harbor. This portion of lower Sandy Creek between Sandy Harbor and Sunrise Beach Village is part of Lake LBJ.
“This used to be twenty feet deep thirty years ago,” Gonzalez said about the place the man and his dog played in the water.
Several homes in Sandy Harbor that once had riverfront access now only have sand.
Gonzalez shared an old photo of a man and his daughter in a sailboat cruising along Sandy Creek in the Sandy Harbor area. It looks more like a lake in the photo, a far cry from how this area of the river now looks. Another old photo shows people swimming in Sandy Creek in the area between Sandy Harbor and Sunrise Beach Village. When Gonzalez and Woody stop at the location where the photo was taken, all they see is sand and vegetation.
“This is something the general public doesn’t see. Most people don’t understand how big of a problem it is.”
It’s a problem that has no simple, or cheap, solution.
Wide-scale dredging of the river and Lake LBJ, even the portion around Sandy Harbor, would be costly and complicated. It would also require extensive state and federal permitting.
Sand and silt are part of the natural river life cycle. Even lakes formed by dams, such as LBJ and Marble Falls, still retain river-like characteristics and remain part of the Colorado River.
Sandy Harbor residents have some experience with the cost and work associated with dredging. In 2017, when the Lower Colorado River Authority lowered Lake LBJ, several Sandy Harbor residents funded the dredging of a canal to open water. It allowed them to get boats and other watercraft from their docks and properties to the main body of Lake LBJ.
After the October 2018 flood, residents had to clear the canal again when the LCRA lowered the lake in January through March. It’s just a temporary fix.
“We need a longterm one,” Woody said.
A solution, however, isn’t likely to come soon, if at all. Woody and Gonzalez said that, even if they could clear the sand from Sandy Harbor down to Lake LBJ, it would only be temporary as more will continue to flow from upstream. The real work, they believe, has to take place upriver on Sandy Creek.
Sandy Creek, which hundreds of people cross every day on Texas 71 in Llano County, stretches from Lake LBJ and the Colorado River west toward Enchanted Rock and northern Gillespie County. It is the watershed for hundreds of square miles.
The sand and silt from Sandy Creek and its tributaries eventually make it the lower Sandy Creek area around Sandy Harbor and Sunrise Beach Village.
When word of a possible sand mining operation on Sandy Creek off Texas 71 reached Sandy Harbor residents, some saw it as possible help. Woody said the POA supported the operation, though, he added, not everyone in the community did.
“There’s a lot of questions about it,” Gonzalez said of the proposed sand mining plant, “but it’s the only solution offered right now.”
Opponents of the proposed sand mine don’t see it that way. They don’t believe it would remove enough sand to make a difference and could cause even more sand to flow downstream during flooding by the way the mining is done. Opponents also are concerned about other issues, including the mining’s effects on water tables, truck traffic, and noise. However, the sand mine might have run into a hiccup in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department permitting process.
It’s a long process, however, as riparian zone planting only takes place during a certain time of the year. Plus, riparian restoration requires specific plants. Save Sandy Creek is raising money to support the planting so it won’t cost participating landowners money, or, if so, it would be a minimal expense.
The LCRA, through its Creekside Conservation Program, offers cost-sharing incentives of up to $20,000 to private landowners who implement “conservation practices that reduce soil erosion, improve water quality or incorporate the land management practices that help protect the region’s water resources.”
In Sandy Harbor, Gonzalez pointed out it’s really going to take a collaborative effort from property owners, state agencies, and political leaders to address the problem the community faces. He added that the sand and silt buildup isn’t just a Sandy Harbor issue; it also affects Sunrise Beach Village and other residents along Lake LBJ.
“The thing is, all these different agencies claim jurisdiction of the lake and river but not the responsibility,” Gonzalez said. “It’s reverse for the property owners, who have all the responsibility but no jurisdiction.”