The Slighted Beauty
By Gary Cartwright
Despite a tough, urban exterior, Galveston Bay is an extraordinary natural beauty that keeps giving and giving.
Approached from the north, Galveston Bay looks like hell’s own trollop: petro-chemical plants, drilling rigs, dikes, junkyards, stacked hully-gully against a turbid body of water the color of heavily creamed coffee. This ain’t the girl you take home to Mama. She has none of the pizzazz of Chesapeake or Biscayne or America’s other elite bays. Then you take a closer, more personal look. Remember the unattractive librarian in all those 1950s movies, plain as a kitchen mop — until she unexpectedly removes her eyeglasses and shakes loose her hair? That’s when it hits you. Why, why, she’s… beautiful!
The Galveston Bay system is 600 square miles of contradictions and enigmas, so big, shallow and alive that it defies man’s determination to spoil it. It’s the largest and most productive of our state’s bays. More than half of our annual harvest of bay shrimp comes from these waters. Galveston Bay produces more oysters than any single body of water in America, and rivals the output from the entire states of Louisiana and Washington. It supplies the country with more than a million pounds of blue crabs. If you order oysters or crab at a restaurant in Baltimore, chances are they came from Galveston Bay.
The bay is so vast that you have to understand it one piece at a time. The segment known as Trinity Bay, where the Trinity River empties into the bay system, is as different from West Bay as Beaumont is from Odessa. Fresh water is the life force of any bay system and the Trinity supplies more than half the inflow to the bay. The remainder of the fresh water is delivered by various bayous and by the San Jacinto River, which empties into Upper Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel. Though there are 200 miles of manmade channel in the bay — and industry is constantly clamoring for more — the bay is essentially healthy and stable. That’s because its wind-driven tides work like a giant mixer, stirring nutrients, sediment and bacteria and periodically washing the wastes through the natural cut at Bolivar Roads and into the Gulf of Mexico. A strong norther can flush half of the water out of the bay; on such occasions you can almost walk across. Strong southerly winds reverse the process, forcing up the bay’s salinity. The squeeze play between fresh and salt water is unending. So is the war of attrition between environmentalists and developers.
My love affair with Galveston Bay started in late February when I spent a week exploring the great bay with my friend Shannon Tompkins, a biologist and outdoor writer who grew up here. Hauling his small boat, we drove from Houston, east on I-10 into Chambers County, to the north and east sides of the bay system. The interstate, I was amazed to learn, was built with corpses of tons of live oyster reefs, dredged out of the bay in the ’50s. Oyster reefs are the lungs of the bay, natural filters that clean and purify water; dredging, if the spoil is disposed of improperly, can pollute and destroy habitat, making an area unlivable. At the same time, dredging opened the bay by deepening its shallowest part between Smith Point and Eagle Point, a key area for oystermen.
“Environmentalists don’t like to hear me say this,” Sammy Ray, a marine biologist at Texas A&M Galveston and expert on oyster diseases, told me, “but some good can come from dredging.” Compromise is a way of life on the bay, not always pretty but usually endurable.
Just past the bridge where I-10 crosses the Trinity River, we stop to view one of the last cypress swamps in Texas, a place so exotic and magical that we seem to have slipped into a parallel universe. Ignoring the rumble of 18-wheelers, we cross a footbridge to a shimmering spread of electric-green water plants, Spanish moss, alligators and a hallelujah chorus of birds. There are so many birds in this rookery that the far shoreline appears to pulsate with massive clusters of snowy egrets with bright yellow feet, great blue herons, neon-pink roseate spoonbills, terns and ducks of all kinds.
This entire section of the lower Trinity would have been under water if the original plan for the Wallisville Dam — proposed by the City of Houston, various port, industrial and commercial interests and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — had been completed. Wallisville was to have been the initial step in a humongous project that would have turned the Trinity into a 370-mile-long ship channel, connecting Dallas-Fort Worth to the bay and hence the Gulf. Stopping the Wallisville Dam was a major victory for environmentalists and common sense: the scaled-down Wallisville saltwater barrier that was built instead spared 19,000 acres of marsh, cypress swamp and marine nursery.
The east side of the bay has an understated elegance and beauty redolent of the Old South: still, quiet and fragrant. Chambers County is said to have more alligators than humans. Hard to believe that just across the bay beats a metropolis of 4 million people. John James Audubon visited the bay in 1837, a year after the Texas Revolution. Legend has it that after the Battle of San Jacinto, Santa Anna spent a night tied to an oak tree on the old Middleton estate at what used to be the town of Wallisville. At the ruins of Fort Anahuac, overlooking the mouth of the Trinity, a historical marker reminds us that we are near the place where Texican colonists drafted the Turtle Bayou Resolutions, protesting the Mexican customs collector’s arrest of their lawyer, William B. Travis.
Across a stretch of East Bay, snow geese so thick they blot out a spoil bank serenade with their high-pitched barks. Snow geese are so prolific that bag limits are removed during an extended hunting season. Two brown pelicans, mother and child, scout the water from a perch atopsome pilings. DDT ravaged the bay’s population of brown pelicans in the late ’50s, but they are back now by the thousands. A swarm of ibis darkens a swath of sky above a rice field. A hundred years ago this side of the bay was vibrant wetland or coastal prairie all the way to Mobile. Now the land is mostly rice fields or pastures for cattle. Huge herds of wild cattle once grazed here. During the blizzard of 1895, hundreds of cows retreated to the edge of East Bay, where they stopped and froze to death. That’s why the spit of ground on the edge of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge is called Frozen Point.
Anahuac NWR is a wonderful example of how unintended consequences conspire to save the bay. Years ago, a big chunk of this 34,000-acre tract was a marsh owned by a family that dreamed of riches from rice farming. They drained their tract, only to discover the land was too saline for farming. To cut their losses, the would-be rice farmers donated the land to the government as a tax write-off. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is slowly returning the marsh to its natural condition.
Driving the 12 miles of gravel roads, I experience surges of euphoria and exhilaration. Everywhere I look there’s something new, at least to me. Five alligators in a clump nap amid the deep green frogbit and roseau cane of Shoveler Pond, a manmade freshwater impoundment where long-legged water birds mingle with roseate spoonbills, great egrets and white ibis. Mallards, teal and 25 additional species of ducks bob among the floating vegetation. Nearly 300 species of birds are regular or occasional visitors to the refuge. We didn’t see them, but there are muskrats, nutria, bobcats and other mammals in residence. People come here from all over the world: on the day I was at Anahuac NWR birders from London, Glasgow and Munich signed the registry. We take a leisurely boat ride down Oyster Bayou, which meanders through ancient floodplains to East Bay. At least it meandered until World War II, when someone got the bright idea to use German POWs to straighten the damn thing.
People can’t resist tinkering with nature. Old-timers say that East Bay was once clear as gin and floored with eelgrass. In 1955 the Texas Game and Fish Commission dredged a channel across Rollover Pass to improve fishing, inadvertently spiking East Bay with salt water and killing off vegetation. In the 1950s the bay supported 2,500 acres of seagrasses; now it has fewer than 700. The Texas City Dike, built in 1915, trapped nutrients and sediment and increased the salinity of West Bay. Private development and public works projects have consumed 30,000 acres of marsh and tidal estuary. Shell dredging, channelization and subsidence have increased the bay’s volume 30 percent in the last hundred years. The Houston Ship Channel was so toxic in the late 1960s that it sometimes caught fire. A Ralph Nader task force called it “the nation’s most poisoned and potentially most explosive body of water.”
Many bay watchers, including environmentalists, scientists and commercial and recreational fishermen, believe that the bay’s No. 1 enemy is salinity. Salt in moderation is essential to the estuaries, where most marine life has its genesis, but in high concentrations it kills. Bay salinity varies greatly, from five parts per thousand (ppt) in Trinity Bay to 15 in East Bay, 20 in West Bay and 25 at Bolivar Roads, the bay’s opening to the Gulf. Floods and hurricanes can change the dynamics overnight. Shrimp and crabs tolerate high salinity, spending part of their lives in the Gulf, which is 35 ppt, or 3 percent salt.
The stationary oyster can live in a great range of saltiness, but so can its predators. “Oysters need at least five parts per thousand,” marine biologist Sammy Ray told me. “But when it gets above 15 parts per thousand — and when water temperatures go above 20 degrees Celsius [70 degrees Fahrenheit] — predators like the oyster drill and parasites like Dermo thrive.” Ray was one of the first marine biologists to understand the deadly effects of Dermo on oysters (the parasite isn’t a threat to humans). He is working on a model that would calculate the effect of the interaction of salinity and temperature on the well-being of oysters. His Web site, DermoWatch, gives oystermen temperature and salinity readings in various parts of the bay and warns when critical periods are near. Because of its higher salinity, West Bay appears regularly on the warning list for outbreaks of Dermo.
On the way to Smith Point one morning, Ray explains how drought and disease have nearly wiped out oystering in Chesapeake Bay. Back in the ’60s, Chesapeake produced 3 million to 6 million bushels of oysters a year. This year’s projection is a measly 100,000. That figure seems meaningless until I’m introduced to Ben Nelson, patron of a family of Smith Point oyster harvesters. Each of Nelson’s 13 luggers (as oyster boats are called) hauls up 50 or 60 bushels a day. At that rate, this one operation will produce more oysters in six months than Chesapeake Bay can offer in a year. A century of reef dredging, and the subsequent impacts of siltation and runoff, have rendered Chesapeake oysters helpless against disease. Could that happen here?
Ray explains that Chesapeake Bay is different from Galveston Bay: it’s much deeper and is dependent on a number of rivers from a number of different states, as well as conflicting sets of regulations. But yes, it could happen if the bay’s supply of fresh water diminishes. Under the state’s transplant program, crews such as Ben Nelson’s are permitted to take 100 bushels of oysters a day from unapproved areas where bacteria levels often are high and replant them in approved leases. The lowly oyster has an amazing filter system that cleans itself and the bay at the same time: it feeds prodigiously on algae and binds up nitrogen and phosphorus that otherwise would foul the water. An oyster can purify itself in three days, though the state requires a wait of two weeks before marketing.
That afternoon I join Nelson and his crew as they harvest from a reef in Lower Trinity Bay. Smith Point is one of the most remote and isolated spots on the bay and one of the most productive. People here are weathered and permanently stained by the sun, and wary of city folks and their habits. Though today’s temperature hovers in the mid-30s, Ben’s son Runt is barefoot, walking without apparent difficulty over broken shells, glass and debris. I ask Ray if Runt ever surrenders to footwear and he thinks a moment before replying: “The only time I remember was at his daughter’s wedding.” Someone has brought along red sauce and crackers and we slurp down these wonderfully fresh oysters almost as fast as they dredge them up. Someone aboard asks the marine biologist if oysters are safe to eat raw and Ray inquires of the questioner: “How’s your liver?” Only people with liver problems, immune deficiency, diabetes or other chronic diseases need fear the raw oyster, Ray says.
The Nelsons remember when the bay was so polluted that buyers insisted on frying and tasting seafood before writing checks. And they worry that it could happen again. Joe Nelson, Ben’s younger brother, remembers a weird day in 1999 near Shoreacres when he watched a tern snatch a fish, fly a few feet and drop it like a hot rock. Water from a submerged pipe was bubbling to the surface and Joe dipped a finger into the water and tasted it, thinking it was a saltwater discharge pipe. “It was like an electric shock going through my lips,” he told me. ”Then they turned numb and the next day started to peel off.” The submerged pipe, he learned later, belonged to a plant in Pasadena that had a permit to dump 52 different chemicals into the bay — but not the 186 that a test sample detected. Such examples are an aberration, I’m told. Discharge pipes from chemical plants are classified as “point source” pollutants. Scientists are also worried about pollutants from non-point sources, such as runoffs from parking lots and highways. Periodic warnings against eating seafood from certain parts of the bay almost always follow heavy rains.
Unlike the serene and mostly uninhabited east side of the bay, the opposite bank is a jumble of bait shops, seafood eateries, petrochemical plants and smelly water. Galveston Island, which has a tidal range of only a foot and a half, has subsided half a foot during the last 50 years. Seabrook lies so close to sea level that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department lab flooded during high tides and now has been put up for sale. Between Seabrook and the village of Shoreacres is the future home of Bayport, a colossal $1.2 billion container port that the Port of Houston Authority proposes to build in the area.
The port authority and labor unions have squared off against residents, civic leaders and environmentalists. Five thousand 18-wheelers are expected to rumble in and out of Bayport every day, in addition to eight 8,000-foot trains. The depth of the water at the Bayport wharves is planned at 50 feet, but the ship channel is only 45 feet deep, sparking concern that the Port of Houston Authority soon will be asking for a deeper channel, which would increase salinity in the upper part of the bay. For its part, the Port of Houston Authority states that Bayport can be successful for years to come without deepening the existing channel.
Bayport opponents propose that the port build in Galveston or Texas City. “Alternative sites are available,” says environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn, founder of Galveston Bay Conservation and Preservation Association and an outspoken opponent of the Bayport project. “They’re cheaper for taxpayers and would place the port closer to areas of high salinity rather than bringing salinity all the way up.” The Port of Houston Authority contends that the Texas City site would be more expensive to develop and operate, and take much longer to build. Houston needs the project — and the jobs that come with it — now, the authority says.
The TPWD has designated Galveston Bay as the bay that faces the greatest conservation challenges of any bay system in the state. Communities along the bay are forming partnerships with scientists, industries, environmentalists and TPWD biologists to protect the bay with whatever tools they can manage. Dredge material is now being used to create bird islands. The Galveston Bay Estuary Program plans to restore 10,000 acres of marsh; it has coaxed small beds of seagrass to grow again in West Bay, and protected shallow, open-water areas in Galveston Island State Park. In various spots around the bay, groups are planting clumps of cordgrass to protect against shoreline erosion. A group called Scenic Galveston is working to reestablish marsh corridors along the I-45 highway approach to the island. Bird-nesting areas are being protected by Audubon chapters from Galveston and Houston. Another group is working to clean up Clear Creek. Christmas Bay, a shallow extension of West Bay that harbors the system’s remaining seagrasses, has been given special status as a coastal preserve.
It’s been a tough fight that could get tougher. Except for water developers, farmers and urban planners, most people in Texas spend little time worrying about water. We’re conditioned to believe that water is wasted if it gets to the bay. Houston doesn’t think of itself as a coastal town, even though the tides of Buffalo Bayou sweep past downtown every day. And that’s a shame, because if people could only see how beautiful Galveston Bay is, they would never begrudge her what she needs.