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Return of the Grand Bay

Community support plays a key role in the largest wetland restoration project in U.S history.

By Karen Hastings

South Texas rancher Frank Yturria remembers picnics along the shores of Bahía Grande as a boy. The crabs and shrimp were so numerous, you barely had to get your feet wet to scoop them up with a net. Flocks of migrating redhead ducks floated on the shallow, salty water, while egrets and other wading birds stalked the shoreline. On Bird Island, thousands of nesting terns found refuge from predators.

“When I first looked at it as a kid,” he says, “it looked like an ocean to me.”

Yturria is one of few in the Lower Rio Grande Valley who remembers the “Grand Bay” the way it used to be. Cut off from the Gulf of Mexico in the 1930s by construction of the Port of Brownsville ship channel, this tidewater basin at the tip of Texas was a dustbowl for seven decades, devoid of most life. Dust storms plagued the area and the result for Laguna Madre communities was more asthma attacks, clogged air conditioners and annoying layers of grit.

Still hale and hearty in his 80s, Frank Yturria is more than pleased to stand witness as the Bahía Grande begins its rebirth, in what is being called the largest wetland restoration project in United States history. “Oh yes — I drive out there and stop and just gaze,” he says. “I never thought I’d live to see this day.”

On a windy morning in July, about a year ago, water started flowing along a pilot channel that has reconnected Bahía Grande’s vast mudflats to the life-giving Gulf of Mexico. Acre after acre of what had been barren and dry land now reflects the sky in a vast, waist-deep expanse of hyper-saline water. If funding for a much wider permanent channel can be secured, then Bahía Grande has the opportunity to become what it once was: a watery nursery for finfish and shellfish, a rich habitat for animal and plant life, a magnet for recreational fishermen and birdwatchers.

But even as the dust settles for communities like Port Isabel and Laguna Heights, and life returns slowly to the waters, shore and sky over Bahía Grande, the fate of this massive project is still uncertain. Opening a pilot channel was an important step — but only one — in an ambitious plan to re-flood the entire 10,000 acres of Bahía Grande, Laguna Larga and Little Laguna Madre, the three bays that dominate the 21,762-acre Bahía Grande complex.

With the arrival of the triple digit temperatures typical of South Texas summers, scientists warn of water stagnation, fish kills and even an unwelcome encore of the dust problem. Without a permanent, abundant source of water to keep the Bahía Grande healthy, it may never live up to its full potential.

Standing at the pilot channel, overlooking a scenic expanse of sparkling water, the manager of what is now a federal refuge worries the public may lose interest.

“One of my fears is that people will look at this and think it is restored,” says John Wallace, who manages Bahia Grande as part of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. “It’s not fully restored. Not yet.”

According to newspaper archives and other records, calls to re-flood the Bahía Grande began only a few years after Brownsville celebrated the opening of its deep-water port in 1936. It was a boon to the border city’s economy, but its construction came long before the advent of “environmental impact studies.”

Spoil from the dredging of a 17-mile trench from Brownsville to the Gulf of Mexico cut off the Bahía Grande from tidal flows. Later, construction of Highway 48, which parallels the ship channel for several miles, sealed Bahía Grande’s fate in concrete and asphalt. Except during sporadic rainfall, thousands of acres of productive estuary for shrimp, crabs, redfish and spotted sea trout dried up and blew away. Nearby lomas, little hills once covered in thorn brush, were suffocated into stunted gray humps by layers of salty clay.

Eventually, a film company would come to see the area as a perfect stand-in for a Moroccan desert, and New York waste haulers would try unsuccessfully to use it as a sludge disposal site. In letters to their congressmen, children from Port Isabel wrote about cancelled recess, allergies and other illnesses. “I think you should put back the water because other people are breathing in (the dust) and they are getting sick,” wrote one student.

The long campaign to resurrect Bahía Grande gained momentum in the 1990s, when state law was changed so that minerals beneath property submerged by man-made means remained with property owners, rather than reverting to the state. The Yturria and Garcia families then sold their land for conservation, and 21,000 acres eventually were acquired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The pilot channel opened with fanfare on July 16, 2005.

Supporters describe the restoration effort like an old-fashioned barn-building, a project that reunited the often-fractured South Texas community like no other. Conservation groups and shrimpers, educators and the tourist industry, ranchers and bankers, birdwatchers and sport fishermen, city, county, state and federal bureaucracies — all have pulled together to bring Bahía Grande back to life.

“Some, you might say, are on the ‘tree-hugger’ side of the equation and others are on the ‘hook-and-bullet’ side. But they all have the same goal and understanding of how important it is to restore those wetlands for wildlife,” says Wallace. “It really is a community project and the community deserves the credit.”

In an old Coast Guard station on South Padre Island, environmental sciences student Clint Roberts uses pliers and an oven mitt to transfer a small porcelain crucible, holding what looks like fine gray sand, into a glowing kiln.

Roberts and lab partner Jose Aguilar are analyzing core samples recently taken from the submerged sediments of Bahía Grande. By alternately cooking, sifting and re-weighing each sample, they hope to discover important characteristics and components of the sediments around the bay.

“The sediments are the place where life is happening,” says Elizabeth Heise, the University of Texas at Brownsville professor who supervises the lab. “The plants put their roots into the sediments and many of the organisms live in the mud. It’s important to understand the sediments in order to understand the biology.”

Actually, Roberts and Aguilar were practicing, perfecting a lab protocol, for the day when they begin working on what they call “the gold” — samples of Bahía Grande sediments collected before last year’s flooding, stored inside sections of PVC pipe in the lab’s freezer. Eventually, says Heise, comparison with post-flooding samples could be used to chart and predict the bay’s restoration.

In the meantime, Roberts and Aguilar are just thrilled to be working on a project of this size, at its very beginning. “You can’t get this kind of experience anywhere,” says Roberts. “I get goose bumps just talking about it.”

Their scientific enthusiasm is widely shared. Hydrologists, ecologists, sedimentologists and zoologists are all over Bahía Grande, paddling in kayaks and four-wheeling along the shoreline, toting bag seines and gill nets, taking water, soil, plant and fish samples.

“I have pulled more vehicles out of the mud out there than I care to remember,” says Heise, who keeps two boards, two shovels and two towropes in her truck.

“This type of a project you get only once in a lifetime,” says aquatic ecologist Hudson DeYoe, a professor at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. “You’re starting from dry dirt and watching it blossom back to what we hope will be a fully functioning ecosystem. It could transform that area if it really gets on the right track.”

There have been encouraging signs. Within a month of the channel opening, seagrasses appeared, although they didn’t last long in the bay’s super-salty water.

According to DeYoe, seagrasses are crucial because they stabilize sediments and help keep the water clear, provide habitat for wildlife, and jump-start the complex food chain that eventually attracts fish and birds. Right now, DeYoe’s students are trying experimental plantings of shoal grass in various locations, to determine how, when and where to plant.

“I know a lot of people don’t care about the seagrass, but they care about the fish and birds, and the fish and birds depend on the seagrass,” says DeYoe. “It will transform the system magically into something truly amazing, if we can get the seagrasses.”

Meanwhile, at a UT-Brownsville greenhouse and in another greenhouse at Bahía Grande, students and volunteers tend thousands of black mangrove, gulf cord grass, sea ox-eye daisy and other native plants that will be used to help stabilize the shoreline and seabed. Five elementary and junior high schools are planning to grow black mangrove and spartina grass in new 8- by-16-foot propagation ponds.

“What we’re doing is propagating the native plants that we want to grow and we’re going to put them out there to jump-start the native plant process,” says Heise, who helps supervise the greenhouses. “We don’t want the non-natives to take over and we don’t want the soil (lining the interior canals) to run back into the bay. We want to (replant) the lomas and fight the erosion.”

Biologists also report that marine worms — an important early development in Bahía Grande’s rebirth — started appearing in Bahía Grande mud as early as September, less than two months after the pilot channel opened.

“In our December samples, we’re finding the same range of invertebrates, but they’re much, much bigger. They have been able to thrive and grow in the environment,” says UT-Brownsville zoologist David Hicks.

Fish, shrimp and crabs also have “wandered in,” says Hicks.

“Surprisingly there are quite a few birds, like snowy egrets, reddish egrets, roseate spoonbills, gulls, osprey,” he reports. “They wouldn’t be there unless there was something to feed on. The birds hang around the intake channel as the fish are flushed in with the tide, and they just pick them off.”

But with summer closing in, there are reasons for concern as well.

Every two weeks, Hicks and his students change out, clean and calibrate three water quality monitoring stations located in Bahía Grande. These hydrolabs measure water depth, salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH and water temperature. Run on a marine battery and solar panel, they transmit data to researchers at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, who post it on the Internet. A fourth meteorological station on land measures wind speed, wind direction, barometric pressure and air temperature.

Data so far show high salinity even during the cool South Texas winter. In late February, for example, salinity measured close to 70 parts per thousand, more than twice as salty as the Gulf of Mexico.

“The pilot channel with the culverts will never exchange enough water,” says Hicks. “What that sets up is more evaporation than water coming in. The water just gets saltier and saltier and saltier. And in the summer, it will also heat up really fast. Hot, salty water does not hold oxygen.”

This “very stressful environment” could lead to a stagnant mess, he warns. “Looks like the fish are going to float.”

Improving that environment requires a careful understanding of fresh and salt water flows into and out of the bay system, and that’s the work of hydrologist and UT-Brownsville Professor Jude Benavides and his students.

“Hydrology pretty much drives everything,” says Benavides, who is working with his students on computer models to identify how water circulates in the system, and what Bahía Grande needs to sustain its full range of flora and fauna. “It is a wetland, and if you don’t nail the hydrology, you have the potential for miscalculations.”

Surface water runoff, rainfall and the effects of man-made channels all figure into the calculation, Benavides says. Already, two additional channels connecting the larger Bahía Grande to the smaller Laguna Larga and Little Laguna Madre are under construction, with the help of various private and governmental partners. There are also plans to open a second channel connecting the system to tidal water, and one to the north aimed at adding fresh water.

Top priority, however, is construction of a 2,300-foot permanent channel, a major construction project that will be ten times wider and three times deeper than the existing pilot channel. “If everybody continues the course and sees this thing through, I think it can’t help but be a successful project,” says zoologist Hicks. “It could be a model project for restoration projects worldwide, and we’ll learn a lot along the way.”

Bahía Grande partners have met both here and in Washington in recent months to find corporate and governmental sources for the main channel’s estimated price tag of $700,000 to $1.4 million. “That,” says Wallace, “is the question everybody is trying to answer right now.”

Bouncing along rutted senderos in an SUV, it’s easy to visualize a fully restored Bahía Grande. Wallace points out the lush vegetation along Loma del Ballo, near the southern edge of the complex, where allthorn, mesquite, prickly pear and cenizo combine in a dense thicket of low brush, perfect for the endangered ocelot already found on nearby refuge land. Someday, as rain leaches accumulated salt from the other degraded lomas of Bahía Grande, they too could be reborn as productive upland habitat.

“When the dust stops blowing,” says Wallace, “you will start to see gradual, subtle changes begin. Who knows? Ten, fifteen, twenty years from now, you could support a population of ocelots out here.”

While the Grand Bay that Frank Yturria remembers from his youth may never be fully resurrected, the Bahía Grande project shows that the combination of community support and good science can turn seemingly impossible dreams into realistic and achievable goals.

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