You would never guess that Lake Forest Falls is under siege.

Houses dot the perimeter of the picturesque lake, while boats tow water skiers in the summer heat and grandchildren splash in the water to keep cool.

At first glance, Lake Forest Falls appears reminiscent of the Mayberry, North Carolina town that residents — mostly north of 60-years-old — compare it to. Reality, however, rarely matches the fictional purity of “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Between regular potluck picnics and ice cream socials, many of the residents in this tight-knit community are at their wits end.

Tucked into the Montgomery County woods about two miles south of Lake Conroe, Lake Forest Falls residents have spent more than $400,000 over the years removing decades of accumulated sediment — runoff from nearby developments, they believe — that has ended up in the lake at the center of their community.

Since 2011, they have removed nearly 4,400 tons of silt — enough to fill an Olympic size swimming pool. The community even bought its own dredging machine to suck out the material from the bottom of the 57-acre lake.

It is a hefty price for a group of mostly senior-citizens living on fixed-incomes across just 227 households.

Residents say they do not have a choice. Letting the silt and sediment continue to accumulate would turn the lakeside community into a swamp, dragging down property values and ruining the land.

What they need, residents say, is help.

Lake Forest Falls remains in an unincorporated part of Montgomery County, which means neither the nearby city of Conroe nor the county’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management have the jurisdiction to assist the community, representatives for both have said.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has not gotten involved, citing a lack of authority. Meanwhile, a spokesman from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Galveston District declined to discuss the agency’s involvement with Lake Forest Falls over an ongoing permit violation in the community.

‘Worth preserving’

Lake Forest Falls was developed from three ponds into the small robust, lakeside community that stands today almost 60 years later.

Incorporated in 1964 — a decade before Lake Conroe existed — the neighborhood has banded together over the years to care for its lake through hurricanes, floods and everyday maintenance.

That spirit is marshaled by the matriarchs of the community, the Ladies of the Lake, aka “the glue that holds the neighborhood together.” 

The ladies are a group of Lake Forest Falls residents who most recently organized the annual July 4 party and fireworks display to rip-roaring success.

  • Kay Martin laughs as members of the Ladies of the Lake group plan group trips during a meeting at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Lake Forest Falls
  • Kay Martin delivers an update on lake dredging during a monthly HOA meeting at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Lake Forest Falls
  • Kay Martin delivers an update on lake dredging during a monthly HOA meeting at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, Saturday, July 15, 2023, in Lake Forest Falls.

“Memories are precious things,” Kay Martin said. “It’s worth preserving … I don’t know how else to say it.”

Martin has lived in Lake Forest Falls for 17 years. The retired accountant owns two homes in the community, one she resides in and one she rents.

In 2009, a massive drought dried up the west end of the lake, revealing how much sandy sediment had built up over the years.  

Two years later, Martin and other elected members of Lake Forest Falls’ property owners association created the Lake Restoration Committee to remove the past half-century’s worth of silt as well as any new deposits.

The problems go beyond the lake, Martin explained. Base Creek also wraps around the community’s water treatment supply center. Over the last few years, runoff has caused the creek to widen, slowly eroding the ground the water tank sits on, she said.

  • An egret flys through Chapel Run’s water retention pond,
  • A truck carrying dirt drives towards the construction sites at the Chapel Run housing community
  • New houses under construction at Chapel Run,
  • Excavators work on future housing developments at Chapel Run, Saturday, July 15, 2023, in Montgomery

That cycle is only exacerbated by heavy rainfall, Martin added.

In 2017, the committee bought a dredging machine, deciding it was cheaper to remove the silt from the lake themselves than hiring an outside company.

Earlier this summer, Martin sought a meeting with Montgomery County’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, but officials said Lake Forest Falls’ silt problem is “outside of the scope of Emergency Management.”

Residents believe recent silt deposits come from Chapel Run, a residential development that sits on Base Creek, two and a half miles west and upstream from Lake Forest Falls. The community says they have tracked the red construction clay’s journey from Chapel Run to Base Creek and, eventually, the lake.

Martin has documented the developer’s efforts to prevent stormwater from washing sediment into the creek by erecting a hay bale silt fence in January 2023.

Lake Forest Falls
Kay Martin points out the cost breakdown that residents of Lake Forest Falls have had to contribute towards to address the silt deposit issue, Monday, June 26, 2023, in Lake Forest Falls. Silt runoff from developments upstream have accumulated in the western segment of the lake over time. Residents of the unincorporated lake community have had to chip in for the cost of the dredging machine and various other resulting costs. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

By July, however, a handful of straw sticking through the grass growing between rusty poles was all that remained.

The restoration committee met with Conroe’s city engineer that month to discuss how Chapel Run, owned by the Signorelli Company, could better prevent the environmental damage.

The Signorelli Company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

City Engineer Chris Bogert acknowledged in an email that the silt accumulation could be from Chapel Run, but said other sources, including a nearby county road expansion, could be contributing. Other alternatives include a school south of Chapel Run or off-site flows that the city of Conroe does not regulate, he said.

“We intend to investigate the issue, not just one proposed source,” he wrote. “If we find a source outside of our jurisdiction, we will assist the community in talking with that jurisdiction to bring others into compliance.”

Bogert said every approved developer in Conroe is required to create and maintain a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan, which includes silt fences, concrete washouts and rock check dams.

“Preventive measures exist, but, again, they are meant to minimize discharge of silt, not completely eliminate it,” he wrote. “After our investigation, if further measures are required, or if maintenance is required, we will request them.”

Kevin Hennis paddles his boat back to shore at Lake Forest Falls
Kevin Hennis paddles his boat back to shore at Lake Forest Falls, Monday, June 26, 2023. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Community takes control

On a steamy morning in late June, Kevin Hennis wiped away the sweat from his forehead.           

The retired firefighter from Phoenix was 15 minutes into his shift operating Lake Forest Falls’ DINO Six, a portable dredger that is part excavator, part giant vacuum cleaner.

Hennis has lived in the community for four and a half years and has been manning the 7:30 a.m. to noon dredging shift the past two summers.

His job is to guide the dredge to suction up the silt in the lake and dump the muck into a wooden box 80 feet long, 16 wide and four feet deep.

Kevin Hennis spends the morning dredging slit in a segment of Lake Forest Falls
Kevin Hennis spends the morning dredging silt in a segment of Lake Forest Falls, Monday, June 26, 2023, in Lake Forest Falls. Silt runoff from developments upstream has accumulated in the western segment of the lake over time. Residents of the unincorporated lake community have had to chip in for the cost of the dredging machine and various other resulting costs. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Halfway through the summer, the dredgers have filled the box four times. Hennis anticipates they will fill the box six or seven times by the end of the summer.

A trucking company owned by Josh Hellard periodically empties the box, which holds 13 to 15 tons of material.

Hellard was raised in Lake Forest Falls and helps out any way he can.

He sympathizes with the lakeside community, but acknowledges that even if you could determine the source of the silt, it would be impossible to hold anyone accountable.

“There’s no serial number on the sand coming down the creek,” Hellard said.

The whole situation is beyond frustrating for residents.

“You’d think somebody would care, but looks like we’re on our own,” Hennis said. 

Martin said the committee has tried to contact TCEQ for help, but have received no response despite numerous phone calls and emails.

In an email to Houston Landing, TCEQ Community Relations Manager Laura Lopez wrote that the agency regulates Lake Forest Falls’ dam, which feeds into the San Jacinto River, and stormwater, but not silt accumulation.

  • Josh Hellard loads silt onto a dump truck, Thursday, July 13, 2023, in Lake Forest Falls.
  • Lake Forest Falls silt truck
  • Josh Hellard loads silt onto a dump truck in Lake Forest Falls
  • Matt Wragge dumps a load of silt onto a Lake Forest Falls resident’s property
  • A silt retention testing unit sits in Base Creek

She said the agency “regulates stormwater discharges from certain construction activities and urban areas,” but she did not respond to a question about whether TCEQ has addressed Lake Forest Falls residents’ concerns about nearby developments.

She directed the residents to submit any environmental complaints they had to the agency’s website.

Michael Barrett, an environmental and stormwater research professor at UT Austin, said he was not surprised.

“The whole enforcement process is a big headache for them,” he said. “TCEQ is not going to be swooping in to be your savior. It always kind of devolves back to the responsibility of whoever’s downstream to take action.”

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    With expertise in erosion, sediment control and stormwater monitoring, Barrett has consulted on several commercial and real estate projects because developers have been sued for violating their construction permits.

    TCEQ rarely has been helpful, he said.

    “We’ve had Republican governors for the last 30 years and they appoint all (of TCEQ’s) commissioners who want to do the least to mess with business as possible,” Barrett said. “They take a cue from the leadership not to pursue environmental issues very aggressively.”

    Future unclear

    Without much direction from the state, Lake Forest Falls residents’ efforts to dredge their lake have been the result of trial and error.

    “Everything is a lesson learned here,” Hennis said.

    Before the community bought the dredge, it tried geotextile bags designed to capture silt runoff.

    A resident, however, complained the restoration committee did not have the proper permits to clean the lake and reported it to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    The committee applied for a permit from the corps in July 2017.

    The agency denied the application because the project involved the discharge of material into the lake, a protected body of water under the federal Clean Water Act.

    The agency instructed the committee to remove the geotextile bags and “provide us your monthly report and pictures as work progresses until we determine that restoration is complete.”

    Martin said she has dutifully emailed the corps every month for the last five years with little, if any, response.

    Corps representatives visited Lake Forest Falls in March, and told the committee to proceed with the dredging, but never sent any instructions or resolved the geotextile bag violation, Martin said.

    The Corps’ Galveston Public Affairs Office declined to comment on its communication with Lake Forest Falls.

    For now, the future of Lake Forest Falls remains unclear.

    Barrett, the UT Austin research professor, said the problem is that no single agency can fix this.

    “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet for these guys,” he said. “Nobody’s trying to get involved, so it really falls on the citizens to be proactive, keep on eye on things and document incidents that do occur.”

    Martin, and the rest of Lake Forest Falls’ property owners association, know they are facing an uphill battle on a limited budget.

    On a July afternoon, she sighed, sat down at her kitchen table and adjusted her wire-rimmed glasses. She pointed to a stack of printouts, unanswered emails from the Army Corps of Engineers.

    “It’s personal,” Martin said. “This is our home and we want to protect it.”

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    Céilí Doyle covers the region’s suburbs and rural communities for the Houston Landing. She comes to Texas by way of the Midwest, most recently working for The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio through the...

    Antranik Tavitian is a photojournalist at the Houston Landing. He previously worked at The Arizona Republic, where he covered the border, Arizona politics, Mezcal production in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Phoenix’s...