The Hidden Bay
By Joe Nick Patoski
Photos by Earl Nottingham
With its fresh water choked off, Nueces Bay has become saltier, at times, than the Gulf of Mexico.
I’d zoomed past hundreds of times, doing 70 miles an hour on Interstate 37, sometimes stealing a quick glance at the low dam at Labonte Park just south of Exit 16 to see whether any water was running over it, which was hardly ever. But I’d never known I was glancing at Nueces Bay, because I’d never taken the time to look and ponder and follow its main channel meandering under the Interstate before disappearing into a mesquite thicket, forever lost behind the skyline of petrochemical refineries rising to the north as Corpus Christi drew nearer. If I had done that, I might have understood why the Nueces, the river that feeds the bay and the first Texas river given a prominent place on European maps, was initially identified by Spanish explorers as the Río Escondido — the hidden river. And I sure never pondered that what I was glancing at was a classic estuary, the wheel that keeps the circle of life turning in the marine world. I was always in too much of a rush, always anticipating the soft, white, sandy beaches and the great big Gulf of Mexico half an hour away. Why stop? Why pause? Why care?
“Because everything in the Gulf is connected to that bay,” Ray Allen tells me with a wrinkled smile. “Because redfish and trout depend on the bay, as do shrimp. Because if you want big redfish, you need a place for little fish to grow up and the Nueces Bay delta teems with life vital to redfish, starting with phytoplankton and working your way up the food chain. Because you have to help the food chain in order to drive the system. Because without it, the entire marine ecosystem of the Coastal Bend collapses.”
Allen is the public face of the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, or the Estuary Program, as it is commonly known (however you pronounce the acronym CBBEP, it’s a tongue twister). The “it” he is talking about is Nueces Bay, the most important body of water in the Coastal Bend. Allen is the best friendNueces Bay has ever had. A beaming, burly old salt, partial to loose-fitting, floral-print beach shirts, he wins over strangers with his gregarious enthusiasm before rattling off facts that make you want to care, even if you never knew you needed to care. And if any bay in Texas needs caring about, it’s Nueces Bay.
Estuaries and bays have suffered from bad PR since the dawn of humanity. They’re the stepchildren of waterways, lacking the see-through clarity and the poetry of rushing Hill Country streams, and nowhere as dazzling and dramatic as those special places on the coast where land meets sea. Bays are not very people-friendly. They’re gooshy, muddy, slimy and buggy. Yet neither rivers nor the sea is nearly as important to marine life as a bay.
Nueces Bay has gotten particularly bad treatment. It was a fragile watershed to begin with, situated on the edge of the Wild Horse Desert, an arid plain more susceptible to drought than storm surges and hurricanes. A century’s worth of exploitation has almost destroyed it. The mining of oyster shells from the bay’s bottom for roadbeds turned its once-hard bottom to mud, causing bird islands to erode away. Construction of two major reservoirs upstream shut off the flow of fresh water into the bay, threatening to suffocate the bay’s delta, its most critical habitat.
“Over the years, the river channel has wandered all over,” Allen explains. “Right now, it hugs the south shoreline of the delta complex and bypasses the actual delta, emerging at mid-bay rather than at the top of the delta like it used to. So we’re seeing a reverse estuary. Instead of the upper bay being the freshest part of the bay, it’s the saltiest — sometimes saltier than the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of seeing marshes, you’re seeing hypersaline flats.”
Allen has hauled me back to Labonte Park by Interstate 37 to show me the dam I’ve seen from the highway. “It’s a barrier to keep salt water from the bay out of the intake of Corpus Christi’s water treatment plant, which is just upstream from here,” he explains. Without the dam, the reverse estuary not only would threaten the health of the bay but the health of the river upstream, as well.
“Since the time of reliable data, we’ve had a significant loss of habitat, brackish wetlands and emergent marshes to urban development, agriculture and erosion, River Authority, the Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying and Science at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, the Center for Coastal Studies at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and the University of Texas Marine Science Institute signed on as partners. Volunteers since have invested 40,000 hours to get the program up and running. Fifty different action plans to help the bay and other Coastal Bend waterways through inflow strategies, stewardship and land purchases have been implemented while pursuing the greater goal of raising public awareness.
Knowledge, Allen contends, is the most powerful tool of all, and a key reason why the nonprofit group stays politically neutral. “If you’re a developer, we’ll share everything we’ve got. If you’re an extreme preservationist, we’ll talk to you. It’s all for the good of the bay. As we like to say, it doesn’t go away, it goes in the bay,” Allen says, laughing. A catchy slogan can be informative too, as long as converts are being won. “It takes a groundswell of public support to change the minds of elected officials.”
Perhaps the most critical need is to preserve freshwater inflow. Unlike in most of Texas, standards requiring pass-through releases from dams upstream were set as part of the deal to build Choke Canyon Reservoir upstream on the Nueces River. As vital as the practice is to the bay, it is a political hot potato. Even though releases are suspended during droughts, when water levels drop at Lake Corpus Christi and Choke Canyon reservoir, homeowners blame it on the release requirements.
“Some segments of the public don’t understand or appreciate the benefits of freshwater inflows,” Allen admits. “We’re still faced with an attitude of ‘There’s plenty of water out there [in that bay], isn’t there?’” Overcoming that perception is one of Allen’s biggest challenges. “You try to relate to the public the importance of a healthy estuary from an aesthetic and economic perspective. White shrimp, brown shrimp, pick your fish — they all depend on fresh water coming into the bay. Those freshwater releases try to mimic natural cycles. Without them, recovery times are lengthened, the system changes from what it was to something completely different, and ultimately the bay dies and so do the coastal fisheries. You can cut off all freshwater inflow and it won’t turn into desert, but the rule of consequences will get you, and you won’t like it.”
Floods once moved water into the Nueces Bay delta three or four times a year. Now such floods happen every two to three years at best, robbing the delta of the nutrients it needs. One solution has been to open diversion channels to get more fresh water directly into the delta. Another is the pilot project to pipe 2 million gallons of effluent — fresh water nonetheless — from the city’s Allison wastewater-treatment plant to the delta.
Those projects have been financed by the City of Corpus Christi, which is bound by law to release fresh water downstream from Choke Canyon and Lake Corpus Christi, but did so only when shrimpers and environmental groups sued in 1991 to force the city to comply. Since then, Corpus Christi has become one of the bay’s good guys.
“I won’t lie and tell you we didn’t go into this kicking and screaming,” says Eduardo Garaña, the director of the city’s water department. “We’re not going to link arms and sing ‘Kumbaya’ with some parties. But by God, we’re talking. We’re not drawing lines in the sand.”
All that talking has led to adjustments in the freshwater-release schedule, which gives the city more flexibility, and has led to the city’s involvement in Nueces delta restoration projects, a high priority with Coastal Bend conservationists and environmentalists. There’s plenty of incentive: every gallon of fresh water that gets into the delta through those restoration projects means one less gallon of fresh water that has to be released from the dams upstream.
Garaña uses himself as an example of what talking can do. “Look at me. I’m a water guy. I’m an engineer. I know all about drinking water. When you realize what it takes to make drinking water drinking water, you start seeing the biology involved and the big picture. No one’s saying, ‘Don’t use water for lawns.’ You just need to be effective, efficient. I used to clean my driveway by watering it with a hose once a week. Now I do it maybe once every six months. Understand, there’s still a lot of Wild West down here. No one’s saying, ‘Don’t use water for lawns.’ We’re saying, ‘Maybe you don’t have to water every day, when once or twice a week will do.’ People have to realize the old Wild West is gone and water is a precious commodity. We’re going to have to reduce the demand. Fortunately our city council understands there’s more than one side to this water story.”
As do the scientists. Of Texas’ seven estuary systems, the Coastal Bend offers more to study because of its extreme fluctuations of inflow and rainfall. Salt marshes and oyster beds common on the upper coast and seagrass beds and wind and tidal flats typical of the lower coast are both found here. This is also where evaporation and precipitation meet — south of Corpus evaporation exceeds precipitation. To the north, precipitation exceeds evaporation.
Some years, the Coastal Bend bays function as wet and tropical bodies of water; some years they’re more like the dry Peruvian coast. In that respect, they’re a marine version of the Hill Country, where several different climatic zones collide. The stresses placed on the estuary system by bouncing from drought to flood give researchers more variables to study.
“So much knowledge has been gained in Nueces Bay over the last 50 years,” says Wes Tunnell, the Harte Research Institute scientist who also directs Texas A&M Corpus Christi’s Center for Coastal Studies. “My colleague Paul Montagna at the UT Marine Science Institute, who’s studied the bay longer than anyone, thinks this will be a model for the rest of the world. Problems happening here will be migrating elsewhere up the coast if they’re not taken care of. The data’s sound. It shows what’s there and what’s needed. But there’s a big disconnect between the scientists and the policy makers. We’re not seeing laws respond to the science.”
Inside the delta, that disconnect, the piles of stats and data, the long history of degradation, all the good sentiments voiced by Ray Allen, are reduced to background chatter and trivial pursuits. Erin Albert, a resource specialist at the Center for Coastal Studies at Texas A&M, Corpus Christi, monitors several pilot restoration projects in the bay. She offered to take me on a trip to see for myself. She enlisted Jim Tolan, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ecologist studying juvenile fish populations in the delta. Tolan hustled up a shallow-draft boat and brought along graduate student David Newstead. Newstead has just completed a four-year-long study of ichythoplankton — fish eggs and larvae that are basic building blocks in the marine food chain — that was funded by the Corpus Christi Bays and Estuaries Program. He is analyzing the data for his master’s thesis.
After following winding, twisting channels through a maze of low marsh, we arrive in a faraway place that is most definitely Somewhere Else. The refineries, bridges, railroad tracks, electric towers and other signs of civilization have peeled away and faded into the humid haze lining the horizon. Here, the bay is distilled to its purest essence: an abstract of water, land and sky. Humans are the intruders here. The shore and sky are the domain of whistling ducks, buffleheads, caracaras, ospreys, northern harriers, bald eagles, kingfishers, white pelicans, curlews, great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, great egrets and snowy egrets. Below the surface, fish, crabs and shrimp mix and mingle with sediments, nutrients and bacteria to make everything grow and grow up.
Our trip begins at Rincon Point in the shadow of the Corpus Christi-Portland Causeway. The causeway parallels a string of shallow oyster reef beds that were used as a historic crossing during low tide by the Pamoque Indians who lived near the mouth and, later, by early pioneers. This reef “road” separates Nueces and Corpus Christi bays. It also may function as a barrier for fish. “I’m trying to figure out if this choke point prevents them from getting back to the delta,” Tolan tells me as we pull away from the shore. “No one’s ever studied baby fisheries in Nueces Bay.”
We’ve seen one of the Conrad Blucher Institute’s real-time salinity monitors and a nearby roseate spoonbill rookery island brilliant with pink where the Estuary Program has been depositing dredge spoil as a breakwater to prevent further erosion. Albert has showed us the city-funded Wastewater Plant Diversion Demo Project that’s rerouting 2 million gallons of effluent per day directly into the delta. We find the ill-defined mouth where the river’s main channel opens into the middle of the bay, and travel up the river channel to the saltwater barrier dam by Interstate 37.
At first, the channel banks are low, flat and almost desert-like, indicative of a salt-heavy environment, dominated by spartina. “It is a real important marsh grass,” Albert says. “It can out-compete other plants when there’s a little bit of salt.” And there’s definitely salt. “You get full-strength sea water up here, just because there’s so little flow,” Jim Tolan adds. What freshwater flow there is, makes a huge difference. Within a couple of miles, the scrubby landscape transforms into a lush riparian corridor as the clumps of spartina are replaced by other grasses. Mesquite, huisache and the occasional palm begin to line the shore.
After returning to the main part of the bay, Tolan finds another channel known as Rincon Bayou, then begins to negotiate a maze of twists and curves, with some stretches so tight and narrow it’s impossible to turn the boat around. After doing this long enough to thoroughly confuse at least one passenger, Tolan cuts the engine. The four of us stand and gaze silently in every direction, taking in what Albert had earlier described to me as “the most beautiful place in Corpus.” I wasn’t sure if I believed her when she tossed out the superlative back in her office on the TAMCC campus. Now, in this splendidly isolated delta environment of low marsh and shallow bay, under a dome of big sky, her words ring loud and clear.
“I’m surprised a commercial enterprise hasn’t run an airboat tour up in here,” Tolan muses while savoring the solitude. I’m surprised, too, until we motor back out of the channel into the bay and a headwind from the southeast greets us with some serious chop, making for a blustery, very bumpy ride back to the launch. The delta is not an easy place to reach.
Albert’s description underscores perhaps the biggest negative Nueces Bay faces — it is dang-near impossible to access. The general public has no difficulty appreciating Corpus Christi Bay from behind windshields. The bayfront is Corpus Christi’s front door and showcase. Nueces Bay, insulated by Refinery Row and the Ship Channel to the south, and by sprawling farmland to the north, is hard to see and even harder to get to.
Ray Allen of the Estuary Program is working on that detail, too. He hopes the purchase of 1,470 acres of prime delta land from the John McGregor family with the assistance of the Texas Nature Conservancy will enable folks to get back into the delta without a boat. Access is being improved at Labonte Park and the nearby Pollywog Pond Nature Preserve as well, while plans are being considered for the 25-acre tract across the river from Labonte Park that the McGregors have donated as part of the Nature Conservancy land transaction.
After being in the bay, the beach looked different to me. The allure of the crashing surf and the soft, sandy beach was as strong as ever, but I recognized this
wasn’t the zone of convergence where water and land came together that I once thought it was. That was far back in the delta of Nueces Bay, a place most people will never experience. I understood why those few who do see the delta and the bay become converts, because I’d become one, too. When I headed home up Interstate 37, I couldn’t help but follow the irresistible tug to pull off the highway and detour to Labonte Park. I had no choice. I had to have one last look at the hidden bay.