PORT ARTHUR, Texas—Looking across a 1,500-acre reach of coastal marsh on the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area on a late-summer afternoon in 2018, it would be hard to reconcile the robust wetland in Southeast Texas' Jefferson County with what stood there just a few years ago.
The Houston Chronicle reports today, the publicly-owned tract just west of Sabine Lake and part of the largest continuous estuarine marsh system in Texas is a mosaic of thick stands of cordgrass, bulrush and other soil holding/building vegetation peppered with shallow ponds vibrating with aquatic and avian life.
A decade ago, it was a dying marsh. Its vegetation, evolved in a mostly-freshwater environment, was slowing being done in by saltwater creeping in from the adjacent bay system. With the vegetation losing its grip, the light, fertile organic soils on which it grew dissolved and was washed away with each tide change, taking with it the fuel that drove a fresh/intermediate marsh ecosystem unequalled in its productivity and its effectiveness as a natural speed bump blunting the force of the walls of water all too regularly driven inland by tropical storms and hurricanes.
"It was falling apart," said Todd Merendino, Texas director of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited, an international wetlands-focused conservation organization.
Earlier this decade, the tract looked worse. The whole of it was covered by a gray, bare expanse that looked almost like a 2-square-mile sheet of concrete.
"It looked like a parking lot," Merendino said.
But that "cement"—millions of cubic yards of sediment dredged from the nearby Sabine Ship Channel and pumped into the leveed tract, proved the medicine to cure the marsh's ills. Once settled, the dredge "spoil" came to life. On the now-raised land, vegetation exploded. Soon, the landscape was more alive and vibrant and productive than it had been in decades.
The rejuvenation of that tract of coastal marsh is just a part of the Salt Bayou Plan, one of the most ambitious, multi-faceted and, at $95 million, expensive environmental rehabilitation projects ever untaken in Texas. Those projects are funded in large part by penalties paid in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, one of nation's most significant environmental disasters. And they are being imagined, designed, promoted and fought for by an almost unheard of cooperative effort of federal, state and local elected officials and agencies, private conservation organizations and businesses.
The projects, which promise significant environmental and economic benefits, aim to address issued tied to the Salt Bayou ecosystem, a 139,000-acre expanse coastal chenier plain, a mix of beach/marsh/prairie interspersed with oak-covered sandy ridges stretching from Louisiana's Vermilion Bay to Texas' Galveston Bay.
The Salt Bayou complex, named after the circuitous web of waterways that served as the path for freshwater draining from north to south and for eons has been the lifeline/fuel line for one of the most productive and important mix of habitats for fish and wildlife, need the help. The expanse, much of it public lands—the federal Texas Chenier Plains Wildlife Refuge Complex of McFaddin, Texas Point and Anahuac refuges, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department's Murphree WMA and Sea Rim State Park—have been savaged by a long series of assaults, some natural but most man made.
In 1938, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was dredged across the marshland between Sabine Lake and Galveston Bay, opening up what has become one of the most economically valuable reaches of the nation's commercial inland waterways. Barges plying the 80-mile reach of the Intracoastal Waterway between Sabine Lake and Galveston Bay annually transport the equivalent of one million tractor-trailer loads of petrochemicals. It is a crucial link in the nation's transportation chain.
But when the Intracoastal Waterway sliced across southeast Texas, it slit the throat of the Salt Bayou ecosystem. The waterway bisected the marsh from east to west. This short-circuited the region's natural hydrology, which saw a constant sheet of slow-moving, life-giving freshwater move south throughout the system, eventually empting into Sabine Lake.
The Intracoastal Waterway proved a barrier to the sheet-flow of freshwater that created the matric of freshwater, intermediate and brackish marshes vital as habitat to freshwater and marine life as well as habitat for a stunning array of wildlife, including some of the densest concentrations of resident and migratory waterfowl and wetland-dependent birds.
It also proves an avenue for saltwater to invade the marsh, a kind of acid that eats away at the freshwater-deprived marsh. And that avenue is getting bigger. When built, the Intracoastal Waterway was 185 feet wide. Erosion caused by waves created by barge traffic has gnawed the soft shoreline away, with the waterway now 600 feet or more wide in some areas.
Between 1930 and 2001, 4,700 acres of the 50,000 acres of Salt Bayou ecosystem emergent marsh south of the Intracoastal evaporated, transformed to open water. Over the next 11 years, another almost 4,500 acres of vegetated marsh washed away.
Even more damaging, the Gulf of Mexico was moving inland. The beach fronting the Salt Bayou complex was retreating as jetties blocked the avenue for the natural renourishment of sand on those beaches. The beachfront between Sabine Pass and High Island has retreated as much as 35 feet a year—more than the length of a football field in a decade.
It was these and other challenges to the Salt Bayou ecosystem's marshes that over the past decade triggered a concerted effort to address the crisis. That effort has been led by a wide-ranging coalition that includes national, state and local elected officials as well as government natural resource agencies and private conservation groups.
Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick has been one of the project's most enthusiastic and effective advocates and sees the effort as both an environmental and economic priority. A Jefferson County native who grew up hunting and fishing in the area, Branick said he understands the crucial environmental and quality-of-life issues associated with addressing the Salt Bayou system's problems. But he also sees the economic imperative of restoring, enhancing and protecting the marsh landscape.
"The more you understand about that marsh, the more you understand it's too important to lose," Judge Branick said. "If you think the cost of saving it is high, you can't imagine the cost of losing it."