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Liquid Highway

Created to enhance commerce and national security, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway faces numerous environmental challenges along its 426-mile route.

By Larry Bozka

The noise was unmistakable - the soggy, punctuated sneeze of a bottlenose dolphin expelling a long-held breath. The big female sounded about 10 feet off my bow, her paddle-sized tail smacking the water with a sharp and resounding slap.

I'll never forget what rose to the surface immediately afterward.

At birth, a dolphin calf measures more than a third the length of its mother. Yet, despite its already substantial size, the pot-bellied calf seemed vulnerable, even fragile. Its underside was splashed with a penetrating shade of pink that on its mid-sides diffused into a slate-gray body.

Its 7-foot-long mother returned to the surface, flanked on both sides by two other adults of similar size. Moving gently but methodically, the big marine mammals took turns nudging the baby to the surface as it gained its bearings in a salty, not-so-friendly world.

Because of their upswept mouths, dolphin wear what appear to be perpetual grins. I know I had one. It would have seemed appropriate on the banks of a remote Caribbean island, or maybe somewhere in the Florida Keys. But it happened inside the Intracoastal Waterway near the Bolivar Ferry Landing at Galveston Island.

Boaters and fishermen call it "The Ditch," or simply "The Intracoastal." By any name the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway is a remarkable stretch of water, a complicated and often-perplexing example of marine engineering that dates back to the time when waterworks projects were still the stuff of bare-chested laborers, sweaty mules and rusty dirt buckets.

The GIWW cuts, weaves and crosses approximately 1,300 miles of coastal terrain between Carrabelle, Florida, and the Brownsville Ship Channel at Port Isabel, Texas. On the eastern coast of the U.S., its Atlantic counterpart runs from Key West, Florida, to Boston, Massachusetts. Here in Texas it's a variegated liquid highway, a roughly 12-foot-deep manmade channel that flows 426 miles from its uppermost tier at Sabine Pass south to the Mexican border. It is, by a substantial margin, the largest segment of the five-state region the waterway runs through.

Texas highways can change faces fast. Inside a half-hour, drivers in the state's larger cities can watch high-rise skylines and industrial complexes quickly shrink in the rear-view. Buildings, factories and plants are replaced by suburbs, and eventually, largely untamed stretches of wide-open countryside.

In some ways, the waterway's course through Texas is much the same. In others, comparing a freeway like Interstate 10 or U.S. 59 to a massive waterway like the GIWW is like ... well, like comparing land to water.

Environmental variables rarely have long-lasting impacts on asphalt and concrete. Most damaged thoroughfares can be easily enough, if not inexpensively, repaired. The pavement cracks, a crew comes in to repair it, and it's back to business.

One of the most notable exceptions rests where U.S. Highway 87 meets the sand near Rollover Pass, between Bolivar and Sabine Pass. The GIWW, flowing parallel to the damaged stretch of Upper Coast beachfront highway, has been just as severely impacted by many of the same forces. It's not nearly so apparent or obvious, however, to travelers.

Moving water is infinitely powerful. Given enough time, river water carves canyons out of solid rock. It's no wonder, then, that the thin ribbon of sand between Highway 87 and the incoming surf has steadily deteriorated with the long-term passage of storms and hurricanes. In some locales, the beachfront has virtually disappeared.

Mother Nature is often altogether indifferent to even the best-laid plans of man. That indifference can take a long, long time to manifest itself.

In 30-plus years of fishing the Texas coast, I've seen just about every foot of the GIWW between Sabine Pass and Aransas Pass. A trip down the lower quadrant, from the Aransas Jetties past the Lower Laguna Madre to Port Isabel and the Brownsville Ship Channel, remains an unfulfilled mission.

If history is any indicator, the aforementioned dolphin being just one example of many, a lot remains to be seen.

Some see only the tugboats and barges, the incessant commercial traffic that's the trademark of the GIWW. The potential for commerce was the key reason Congress authorized the western canal's construction in March of 1873. By 1875, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had completed and submitted the first plan for construction of a canal that would connect inland waters from Donaldson, Louisiana to the Rio Grande.

The discovery of a huge oil deposit at Spindletop oilfield near Beaumont on January 10, 1901, provided substantial impetus to proceed. To this day, oil and petroleum products continue to rank among the waterway's most commonly transported materials.

Despite the growing enthusiasm for its construction, the creation of the waterway was not a one-time, all-inclusive process. For one thing, for reasons of competition the then-booming railway industry fiercely resisted the project. Railroad companies didn't care to witness the creation of another major transportation artery, certainly not one that would flow directly to the hearts of the nation's premier ports. Some railroad companies went so far as to haul materials at a loss in their ultimately futile efforts to delay the looming development.

It took the onset of World War I to spur Congress into closing the deal for a Gulf-wide continuous waterway. With German U-boats cruising within sight of the country's shores, brazenly prowling shipping lanes on the Gulf and East Coasts, national security concerns mandated that the U.S. would never again be threatened by the lack of a secure inland channel.

Although national security ranked as an immediate priority, GIWW proponents had long promoted the waterway's economic merits. From a cost-efficiency standpoint, the transportation of everything from oil, gas, petrochemicals and gravel to consumer hard goods, agricultural crops and farm products can be much more viable via water as opposed to railways and highways.

Unfortunately, on land or at sea, economically motivated projects almost invariably present ecological drawbacks. In the case of the GIWW, the magnitude of the latter did not become apparent for a great deal of time. Even then, it took astute observers to fully recognize the nature and extent of the challenges.

Jim Sutherlin is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Project Leader for Upper Coast Ecosystem Projects. Manager of the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area near Sabine Pass, Sutherlin is a professional biologist and habitat manager who by his own description is also "an amateur historian." He oversees TPWD-owned lands in Jefferson and Chambers counties, and for years has closely monitored the GIWW's relationship with the terrain that it bisects between Beaumont and Galveston Island.

"The real wizards of the Intracoastal and canal projects are gone now," Sutherlin says. "I knew several of them, but they've all passed on in the last five to 10 years. Some were in their mid-90s. One, who much later in life became manager of the Jefferson County Navigation District, as a young man, worked as a surveyor between Port Arthur and Galveston. He told me what it was like working on the waterway during its early stages. They pulled the dredges with mules, and used anchors and dredges to break and remove the soil.

"The canal was dredged 150 feet wide and 12 feet deep," Sutherlin explains. "Much like a modern-day highway, it was allocated a 300-foot easement. Today," he points out, "the banks have eroded to the extent that much of the GIWW between Beaumont and Galveston is 500 to 700 feet wide. The actual channel has remained fairly constant, but erosion from tidal surges and traffic-induced wakes has claimed much of the adjacent wetlands. Those wetlands, which once held fresh to brackish water, are now inter-tidal marsh waters.

"The area is generally not salty enough to constitute oyster country, so shellfish haven't suffered much," Sutherlin continues. "But it's now too salty for a number of plant species that cannot tolerate salinities of 7 parts per thousand or more.

"Some species, including fish and shrimp, actually benefit from the change," he notes. "But it's a short-term yield. As you accelerate erosion and land and wetland loss, it's like cashing in your bank account. You can live off the interest for a long time at a set level, or you can live off the capital and live it up for a very short period of time. In this case, the benefit exists for 5 to 6 years. After that the marsh is gone, and the area loses its productivity and dynamic. That's when we pay the price.

"The Upper Texas Coast is the backbone of the Central Flyway waterfowl wintering grounds," Sutherlin says. "For everything from ducks and geese to a number of waterbirds and shorebird species, vegetation and freshwater wetlands are essential habitat. As the value of the habitat is depleted, its ability to support those bird species and other wildlife in historic numbers also declines. Waterfowl 'make a living' in habitats that are very strong on the production of plants like widgeon grass, shoal grass, turtle grass and spartina. With increased salinity and dwindling vegetation, you don't get near the feed production."

Wildlife benefits aside, healthy wetlands are critical to people as well - especially on the Texas Gulf Coast, where hurricanes and tropical storms pose a continual threat. "We need to look very strongly at what that marshland means as a buffer to storm energy, its ability to protect the industrial and residential complexes inshore," Sutherlin explains.

"We have the largest contiguous coastal marsh in Texas right here in Jefferson and Chambers counties," he adds. "You hear a lot about coastal erosion in Louisiana, where it affects about 35 percent of the state. In Texas, it's less than 5 percent. It's hard to build the politics around property that constitutes such a small portion of the state. To a great degree, it's a matter of visibility and perception.

"For a lot of Texans," Sutherlin says, "it's the old 'Out of sight, out of mind' adage. People have a small window when they look at this landscape. They see what they saw the first time they saw it a few years back. They watch it change. As it changes, they believe it's a natural thing. However, these marshes should be building, and they're not. In fact, they're doing the opposite."

That said, the veteran biologist and land manager readily acknowledges the strategic and economic value of the GIWW. "It's critical to our economy as a very efficient shipping venue," he says. "But it's more important than ever that TPWD, the Corps of Engineers, the Texas Department of Transportation and other agencies work together to manage what many people do not realize is critical habitat, and for a number of reasons."

The Corps of Engineers executed a project on the Murphree WMA in 1995, spending $2.5 million to replace the water-control structure at the confluence of Salt Bayou and the GIWW, originally constructed in the 1930s. It's that kind of cooperation that Sutherlin and others hope to see enhanced.

Only a few weeks ago, I came across another pod of dolphins carousing in the GIWW near the Galveston Ferry Landing. This past spring, the endangered whooping cranes that winter on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge above Rockport were there as they are every year, dancing along the canal's reinforced banks as the mating birds fed and flirted in the wind-blown marsh grass.

The GIWW, the wildlife species it hosts and the people who use it as everything from a commercial transport route to a fishing hole all stand to benefit through cooperative management efforts. Whether it's bank erosion or the safe and effective transfer of dredged spoil material, it's imperative that the situation be monitored more closely than ever.

Like that baby dolphin, even the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway can use a nudge of support. In a fragile environment where unforgiving forces continue to pose a perpetual challenge, there's way too much at stake not to give it our collective best.

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