The Broken Marsh
By Phil H. Shook
As salt water pours through artificial channels into its rivers and marshes, the freshwater ecology of Sabine Lake may be altered forever.
Built on a foundation of thick, rich alluvial soil, surrounded by thousands of acres of virgin marshes and blessed with generous rainfall and life-giving inflows from two powerful rivers, the Sabine Lake estuary was born with special privileges. When its rainfall, river flows and marine waters are allowed to co-exist in a natural balance, the bond between the estuary’s sweetwater marshes and the salt flows of the Gulf sustains a masterpiece of plant and animal life, making Sabine Lake a wilderness like no other on the Texas Coast. Playful river otters, nutria and mink make wakes along its bayous. Snapping turtles, bullfrogs and salamanders thrive in its rivers and marshes. Mallards, wigeons and wood ducks migrate each winter to its bays and potholes. Mosquito ferns, mermaid weed, wild celery and many other aquatic and wetland plants provide food and habitat for its wildlife. Orchids such as the Navasota ladies’-tresses grow in its flooded forests.
The Sabine complex also is blessed — some would say cursed — with some of the most abundant insect life on the planet. “There are 49 different kinds of mosquitoes here, one for every kind of weather and every kind of condition,” says Jim Sutherlin, project leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area. “The insects make this part of the coast dynamic. The food web starts here.” Local institutions such as Port Arthur’s Museum of the Gulf Coast accept this with humor, calling its member newsletter Mosquito Bytes.
On trips upstream along the winding turns of the Sabine River, one gets a hint of what it must have been like in the 19th century when cotton traders sailed up it to load cargoes and lumbermen rafted logs downstream to the bay. The buccaneer Jean Lafitte and Texas revolutionary war heroes James Fannin and Jim Bowie are said to have engaged in a profitable contraband trade on these rivers, including trafficking in slaves.
Today, first-time visitors to Sabine Lake are jarred by the cooling towers and smokestacks of its refineries and chemical plants. To some, Sabine Lake might seem more like Lake Maracaibo. But to those who have explored its wild shores, beencaptivated by its wildlife and gotten lost in its winding bayous and marshes, it is more like the Everglades.
The smallest of the seven major estuaries on the Texas Coast, the 14-mile-long by seven-mile-wide Sabine Lake receives more freshwater inflows and rainfall than any other bay system. But its marshes, bayous, bays and wetlands are not the same as when the English explorer George Gauld sailed into the shallow, heavily shoaled pass in 1777 and found a freshwater lake surrounded by pristine marshes. Today that Gulf pass that was once only 50 feet wide has been cleared of its oyster bars. It is 45 feet deep and 500 feet wide and the freshwater lake that Gauld mapped is a full-fledged marine estuary.
In 1898, Arthur E. Stilwell, a New York railroad magnate driven by a passion to build a major port on the upper Texas Coast, dug a ship channel around the west side of Sabine Lake to the nearby Gulf Pass. Although he would lose his investment to barbed wire and steel tycoon John W. “Bet-A-Million” Gates, he gave his name to Port Arthur. And his practice of carving up, deepening and redirecting the waterways around Sabine Lake continues to this day.
The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway now dissects its wetlands, ship channels extend up its rivers and pipelines stretch throughout its marshes. With these changes to its coastal landscape, the Sabine Lake complex, a rich and productive collection of rivers, bays, estuaries and marshes on the Texas-Louisiana border, has been systematically altered by the relentless encroachment of Gulf-driven saltwater currents.
During certain times of the year, salt water runs for miles up the two rivers that flow into the north end of the estuary. In response, river authorities have installed saltwater barriers on the Neches River, and industrial plants on the Sabine River receive fresh water through canals well upstream from the saltwater wedge.
The Sabine and Neches rivers flow into the bay at its northern end, providing boaters a glimpse of industrial landings, chemical plants and shipbuilding facilities. Pint-sized largemouths, called“marsh bass,” provide lots of action for light-tackle anglers throwing flies or small lures along the banks. The Sabine and the Neches also are home to a healthy population of bowfin, one of the last survivors of a primitive family of fishes. Their long, undulating dorsal fin causes some anglers to mistake them for snakes. These rivers have so many bayous and oxbow lakes leading off the main channel that it pays to explore these waters with a guide, or risk being lost.
In the brackish stretches of the rivers near the opening to the bay, anglers often can spot forage fish being chased by gangs of largemouth bass or redfish, and sometimes by both. Here it is not unusual for an angler to land a flounder on one cast and a bass on the next. The open waters of Sabine Lake offer some of the most exciting top-water fishing for redfish and trout on the Texas Coast.
The east side of Sabine Lake is bordered by one of the largest contiguous marshes on the continent, a big portion of which is part of the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. Along Madame Johnson Bayou, anglers prospecting for flounder and reds sometimes spot river otters playing along the narrow bayous and feral hogs foraging for food along the thick roseau cane-covered banks. Roseate spoonbills, white ibis, black-necked stilts, herons and egrets add dashes of color to the waterways.
Duck hunters on Sabine Lake’s marshes have had some experiences not normally found on other parts of the Texas Coast. Ronnie Robison, who has spent a lifetime hunting and fishing in the area, recalls pulling his skiff up to a bank to retrieve a duck he had shot only to see it appear to be crawling up the bank backwards. “This big ol’ boar mink had that pintail and was chugging through the marsh grass for all he was worth,” Robison says.
Another marsh that lies along the Neches River is the Bessie Heights Marsh, a native marshland connected by a network of canals and bayous originally dug in the 1930s to provide access to oil-field sites. Its finger channels and backcountry shorelines provide prime habitat for redfish, spotted seatrout and flounder. Before saltwater intrusion from oilfield canals and the widening of the ship channel on the Neches River, Bessie Heights was primarily a freshwater muskrat marsh, rich in vegetation.
On the southwest corner of the bay is Keith Lake, another satellite marsh with grass flats, secluded bayous and a fish pass that is a favorite with local anglers. A fish pass connecting Keith Lake to the Port Arthur Ship Channel, cut in 1977 to enhance the production of finfish, crabs and shrimp from nearby marshes, has been eroded and now is three times its original size. The subsequent push of salt water in and out of the pass threatens to destroy backcountry marshes. One of the solutions being studied to stem the flow is the placement of an artificial reef near the estuary opening.
Also on the southeast side of the lake are the lush marshlands and bayous of the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area, home for thousands of wintering waterfowl as well as a resident population of Florida-strain largemouths. Part of the Texas Chenier plain and the westernmost geologic delta of the Mississippi River, its freshwater marshes hold Siren salamanders, bullfrogs and pig frogs. Unlike its bank-bound cousin, the bullfrog, the night-prowling pig frog prefers to do its hunting while floating in the middle of lily pad fields. And instead of the jug-o-rum sound of the bullfrog, these amphibians make a sound likened to the grunting of a herd of pigs.
The Murphree WMA and neighboring McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge are among the many public hunting areas in the Sabine complex. “From the hunter’s perspective, day-in and day-out, our waterfowl hunting has been as good as anybody’s,” TPWD’s Jim Sutherlin says. “There are some places you can hunt on public lands in Jefferson, Orange and Chambers counties seven days a week for little or no fee.”
The region’s fur-trapping and rice economies have long been supplanted by petroleum-based economy following the nearby Spindletop oil discovery in 1901 and the development of the great East Texas field near Tyler in the 1930s. These discoveries brought unparalleled wealth to the mineral owners and growth and prosperity to Port Arthur, Orange and Beaumont, the Golden Triangle communities around Sabine Lake.
“Those refineries and chemical plants represent to the people here everything that their families depended on – and for some of them that has covered three generations now,” Sutherlin says. “And they still represent the future to people who worked in those plants and to those whose children may work in those plants.”
Charles Stutzenbaker, a retired TPWD biologist who spent his career in the area, credits industry for improving its environmental practices from decades past, when plant workers would phone saying they had been ordered to release oil and sludge into the bay. Sometimes industry has even improved the fishing. The DuPont Sabine River Works, a chemical and plastics plant, discharges about 10 million gallons of water a day into the Sabine River. The outlet, referred to as the “bait hole,” is a favorite fishing spot for local anglers because it transports algae from the plant’s treatment ponds that provide food for forage fish, which in turn attract game fish.
The ship channels, Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and dams on the rivers have served the needs of industry and helped bring growth and prosperity to the region. But now these coastal communities have to deal with changed dynamics of their valuable natural resources.
“The system was built on freshwater-driven events, the big freshwater engine that was in East Texas and Louisiana,” Sutherlin says. “But today, with the channels and the dams in place, the system is driven by the tidal engine in the Gulf, a saltwater wedge.”
At the Murphree WMA, Sutherlin points to a map showing how its marshes are split by levee banks that separate freshwater marshes from wetlands inundated by saline water. “The Intracoastal came along,” he says, “and cut that entire drainage off so sheet-flow water across this country was redirected. This marsh lost its fresh water because the Intracoastal Waterway became a high bank on both sides.”
If channels and passes continue to be widened and deepened, Stutzenbaker foresees a scenario in which one day the marine environment overwhelms what is left of freshwater inflows. “We will have less fresh water coming down and more salt water coming in, which means it will totally eliminate the freshwater species – the bullfrogs and dragon flies, salamanders and crawfish.” For a short time the saltwater species would thrive in this deteriorating environment, Stutzenbaker says. They would feast on the dying vegetation, but once this organic matter is exhausted, he says, the marine species will hit rock bottom.
Other wildlife officials are just as distressed about the unstable state of the estuary, but they see the problems as fixable. “When we are able to mimic historical water regimes, we get real good recovery,” Sutherlin says.
Protecting existing river flows, piping fresh water under levees to wetlands and getting more people to use the resource are among the solutions being suggested to help restore the historical dynamics of the estuary.
“With the right approaches, water regimes can be restored,” Sutherlin says, noting that this has been demonstrated in Louisiana. “You get control of your water and you start your recovery because the country is still freshwater-driven.”
The same tools that were used to scar the coastal scene can be used to renew it, Sutherlin says. “I contend that we used dredges, draglines, concrete and steel to change the coastal complexion of the country and we can use those same things to restore it.”