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The Ocean’s Nursery

The intricate edgewater where the Colorado River releases its energy into the sea in Matagorda Bay serves as a nursery to marine life.

By Jim Anderson

Louis Martino is the third generation of his family to live near and love Matagorda Bay. He grew up in the 1950s, a time of wooden skiffs and rope-start outboards, a time when commercial fishing was rare and catch limits unheard of, a time when a boy could make big adventures out of a free summer day and a cheap fishing rod. From age 6 he tagged along with his father or one of his three uncles, learning the secrets of the bay. In the years since, even with a full-time career, he has worn out several outboard motors pursuing an ongoing romance.

“One day I sat down and estimated the amount of time I’ve spent fishing,” he says. “It’s scary. But I try not to think about it too long.”

Like many of us who fish, he subscribes to the bumper sticker philosophy that time spent fishing is not deducted from our allotted time on earth. Well, it’s a handy excuse, anyway. Besides, there’s always another secret spot to discover.

“I know this shallow cove where the water is usually crystal clear and the bottom is pure white sand and there’s just the right amount of seagrass,” he says. “I call it the ‘aquarium’ because of all the different kinds of life you can see there — flounder, specks, redfish, stingrays, crabs, turtles — just like looking into an aquarium.”

Nearby boatbuilder V.T. Tran is another descendant of bay fishermen who grew up during the same time as Martino. But Tran’s boyhood waters are at the edge of the South China Sea, where the Mekong River Delta splays out from the mainland of Vietnam. Like many of his fellow Vietnamese immigrants who came to America after the war, Tran saw a comforting familiarity along the Texas Gulf Coast.

“This water is like where I grew up — lots of shrimp and fish. I always loved the water, loved to fish and build boats…. People ask me why I work so hard, but every time we finish a new boat, I stand back and look, and it makes me feel good. If you have work you like, it’s not really like work.” The proof is impressive. His “TranSport” custom bay boats are in big demand, and he has just moved his family into a beautiful new two-story home.

At approximately 350 square miles, Matagorda is the second largest of Texas’ seven major bay systems. (Galveston Bay is the largest; the others are Sabine Lake, San Antonio Bay, Aransas/Copano Bay, Corpus Christi/Nueces Bay and Upper and Lower Laguna Madre.) So far, fate has been kind to the area by sending “progress” elsewhere, leaving it as one of the last surviving condo-free zones along the Gulf Coast. The surrounding plains are rural and agricultural, bayside towns are quiet and uncrowded and the fishing, shrimping, crabbing and oyster gathering are excellent. But don’t tell anybody.

Calling itself “The Shrimp Capital of Texas,” Palacios is home port to more than 400 shrimp trawlers, big beamy offshore boats with powerful diesel engines and twin steel outriggers for dragging a pair of nets off each side. These vessels are equipped with freezer storage and stay at sea for up to 30 days, fishing around the clock. The Gulf of Mexico produces more than 40 percent of the total U.S. seafood harvest, and commercial boats based around Matagorda Bay bring in a major portion of the bounty, generating about $63 million annually. And the booming sportfishing industry on the bay generates $115 million annually. Matagorda Bay, with its estuaries nourished by fresh water from the Colorado River, is a mother dynamo of sea life production.

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An Estuary Primer

Much of the Texas coastline is not exactly postcard pretty. Flat, brushy plains feather off to mucky marshes of coarse grass and muddy tidal pools. But there on the boggy brown fringe, where the border between land and water blurs, is precisely where the true beauty lies. These uniquely rich ecosystems are called estuaries.

The phenomenon begins with the most basic of natural facts: rivers run to the sea. Along the way, the current picks up decaying organic matter and minerals from the soils of its watershed. As the rivers flush into the bays, this matter nourishes plants and microorganisms, which feed other tiny organisms, which feed bigger organisms, and so on up the food chain to the primary organisms humans depend on.

Equally critical, the fresh water dilutes the ocean’s salt content, creating a zone of mild brackish water essential to the reproduction and/or early-stage development of hundreds of species of fish and shellfish. During one life phase or another, 97 percent of the marine creatures in the Gulf depend on healthy estuaries. If the freshwater inflow of an estuary declines, the productivity and diversity decline. It’s a simple case of cause and effect.

This intricate edgewater maze of pools and bogs, grass beds and sloughs also gives juvenile marine creatures shelter from predators until they can grow large enough to get a running start on life. It’s a complex ecosystem that produces a vast abundance, not to mention providing habitat for more than 250 species of birds, some of them rare or endangered.

The keystone of the habitat is no mystery: it’s fresh water. “We need every drop we can get,” says Jim Dailey, recently retired Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist and staunch defender of the bay for 30 years. “The upper Colorado drainage isn’t particularly nutrient-rich, and the Highland Lakes trap whatever there is at that point, so the nutrients picked up between Austin and the bay are vital… plus the fresh water itself. We need every bit of it.”

Today there are eight dams on the Colorado, but the first dam wasn’t manmade. Observers in the early 1800s noted an immense clot of driftwood that choked the mouth of the river and backed water for miles inland. No doubt the swamp was good for snakes and alligators, but Colorado inflow to the bay was restricted and diffused. Attempts to remove the obstruction began in the 1820s. Stephen F. Austin and his first colonists took a whack at it, but soon gave up and moved farther upriver to clear some farmland. (Ironically, their cuttings washed downstream and added to the raft.) The logjam continued to grow and defeated several subsequent schemes to clear it. In 1851, the pile was seven miles long. In 1853, a side channel was dredged around it, but in a few years flotsam plugged it again. By 1928 the jam was 40 miles long, and another channel was dredged around it. Finally, in 1929, a great flood busted through and blew centuries of accumulated silt and debris into Matagorda Bay, building a new delta, which soon grew into a land bridge reaching to Matagorda Island.

Some of the fresh inflow dispersed laterally into the bisected bay and some into the Gulf, but in 1934 an ill-advised channeling directed all the flow straight into the Gulf. Not until 1991 was the mistake fully corrected with the opening of a new channel that finally restored ample freshwater inflow to the bay. In addition, the Lower Colorado River Authority is now required to deliver water downstream to protect both the river and Matagorda Bay. In little more than a decade, the ecosystem has responded amazingly well, and a biological renaissance seems underway.

TPWD biologist Bill Balboa, based at the Palacios Field Station, has worked in some of the state’s other bay systems, but Matagorda is his favorite. He sees the positive effects of inflow on the ecosystem. “It’s a healthy, diverse system now. Inflow is essential for the production of white shrimp, blue crabs and oysters. The menhaden are thriving (a key forage fish), shellfish surveys are up, new wetlands have formed…. Now that the habitat is getting pretty well balanced, I hate to imagine what might happen if we lost any inflow.”

It’s not an unfounded worry. Some 150 miles upstream, papers are rustling, deals have been made, maneuvers are in motion.

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A Seven-Year Countdown

On Feb. 27, the countdown clock on the future of Matagorda Bay began ticking. That day, in ceremonies in Austin, an agreement was signed between the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) that could dramatically transform the lower Colorado watershed. LCRA is an agency created by the Texas Legislature in 1934 to control floods along the Colorado River, to provide electric power and water for municipal and agricultural needs for a defined area, and to be responsible for the water quality of the Colorado River basin, including Matagorda County and Matagorda Bay.

Seeking to produce water for sale to the city of San Antonio, as well as water to solve the shortage predicted for agriculture in the lower Colorado River basin, the agreement allows seven years for research to determine whether the project is technically feasible and environmentally and economically sound. If the studies indicate otherwise, the project will not be implemented and LCRA will cover half the research costs. If the deal is ultimately approved, SAWS would pay all the research and infrastructure building costs.

“The project will not go forward unless the board in office at that time [LCRA board] finds that it benefits the lower Colorado River basin,” said LCRA board chair Gale Lincke.

Interesting word choice. It will be instructive to watch how the word “benefits” becomes defined, and who does the defining.

Only a few decades ago, the word “Texas” meant wide-open spaces and uncrowded towns. That time is long gone. Year after year, the state absorbs tens of thousands of newcomers, and experts say the current population figure could double by 2050. San Antonio is already in the top 10 most populous cities in the United States, and its growth continues. The additional people will need water, and conservation is a tough concept to sell in Texas. People want long showers and green lawns, and policymakers are reluctant to deny them.

The LCRA/SAWS water project agreement calls for developing an additional 330,000 acre-feet (one acre square, one foot deep per year) of water in the lower Colorado River basin, half of which would be piped to San Antonio. Groundwater would be developed for agricultural uses in the Colorado River basin when river flows are low. Only surface water would be exported out of the river basin. The engineering methods to accumulate this much surface water would require several new reservoirs to be built. (However, no new dams on the main channel of the Colorado itself are proposed.) Pumps would pull water from the river into off-channel storage reservoirs during high-flow periods. The agreement requires all water needs, including environmental, in the basin and under contract for San Antonio, to be met even during a repeat of the worst drought conditions on record.

Proponents of the plan say the lower Colorado region and Matagorda Bay would get even more water than it currently does (presuming normal or wet years outnumber droughts). A skeptic might wonder if, once the system is in place and serving the big paying customer of San Antonio, allotment formulas might be rewritten.

There is some humor to be found in the terms of the agreement. It states that at the end of the 80-year contract period, the water export would cease, and the lower Colorado River region would suddenly have 75 percent more water than it had before the project. As if San Antonio will then say, “Thanks, it’s been a swell 80 years,” close the tap and send several million residents packing off to North Dakota or maybe Venus.

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Remembering the Other Colorado River

It’s an odd coincidence — two rivers of the same name, both dammed at several points, both heavily tapped for irrigation and development, and both terminating at bay deltas. Hopefully, the parallels end there. The other Colorado River — the one that flows through the Grand Canyon and creates Lake Powell, Lake Mead and seven other reservoirs — no longer runs into the Gulf of California as it did for aeons. The lower 100 miles of the other Colorado are fast becoming dry riverbed, and its former coastal estuary is parched to a crisp. As an example of what can happen in 80 years, it was just that long ago that the young Aldo Leopold, who would become a renowned naturalist and writer, canoed through what was then one of North America’s most lush and diverse estuary ecosystems. As he paddled, lost in the profusion, he saw what he described as “a maze of green… verdant walls of willow… a hundred green lagoons…”

Those 3,000 square miles of teeming habitat are now cracked mud flats and salt cedar thickets. Because estuaries are literally at the end of the line, that’s often where they fall on a list of water priorities. The upstream dependents of the western Colorado — San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, the vast irrigated farms and orchards of the Imperial Valley, the hydroelectric turbines of Hoover and Glen Canyon dams — are not likely to return any water. Water demand doesn’t decline, it only increases.

Certainly, the two Colorados are different. Much of the western one runs through desert country, especially in the lower reaches. Our Colorado gathers in a headland that’s somewhat better watered, and below the last dam at Austin it flows through a landscape that receives up to 40 inches of rainfall annually. But examples of overtaxed rivers can be found here in our own state: for one of the first times in history, last year the Rio Grande petered out well short of the Gulf, and the coastal estuary it once fed has dried up. Less dramatic but worth considering is the Navidad River. In the late 1970s, the U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation dammed the Navidad, creating Lake Texana not far above Lavaca Bay, which is just around the corner from Matagorda Bay. Despite requirements to deliver fresh water to Lavaca Bay, fishermen say catches have since declined in those waters.

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Until the Next Shoe Drops

Rainfall is our primary freshwater source, and Texas weather is prone to extremes, often whipsawing us from drought to flood to drought. Drafting water policy for the state is a maddening task. Haskel Simon, Matagorda County resident, former rice farmer and member of the Matagorda County Water Council, is a well-informed citizen-activist who thoughtfully weighs the issues. “It’s a complex subject, and the various viewpoints overlap in interesting ways,” he says. “For instance, environmentalists are generally against irrigation, but down here, even the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club recognize that rice fields — I call them ‘constructed wetlands’ — are a boon for migratory birds. It’ll be tough to put a value on the Colorado water. There’s a lot we don’t know yet, but we do know that if we lose the water, lots of people’s livelihoods will go with it.”

At the end of a bright winter day, a low sun turns the brown tidal pools to gold. Hawks wheel and dip in the yellowing sky. In a distant patch of marsh, a dozen roseate spoonbills, all cherry and pink and creamy white, probe the mud for slimy delicacies. Farther on, there’s a gathering of slate blues, iridescent blue-greens and snowy whites — 30 or more various egrets and herons stalking fish in the shallows. Near the mouth of the river, people cast their fishing lines. A man reels in a thrashing silvery fish and puts it on a stringer. Children run and squeal. All seems well here as the late sun hangs above the horizon. For the time being.

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