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Rita's Wakeup Call

While the hurricane carved a path of destruction, it also helped shine a spotlight on a more insidious problem — human impact on wetlands.

By Joe Nick Patoski

Six months after the fact, Hurricane Rita still weighed heavy on the minds of everyone, including the four biologists gathered around a table in the offices of the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area on the outskirts of Port Arthur. Most of the storm debris had been cleaned up, save for snapped trees and twisted sheets of metal shimmering in a meadow. But a lot of cleanup work remained.

So Jim Sutherlin, the Upper Coast Wetlands Ecosystems Project leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, called in three wildlife biologists, Andrew Peters, Tucker Slack and Amos Cooper, to strategize about their presentation to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The foundation was awarding matching grants for cleanup after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the men around the table wanted to steer some money to the upper coast state wildlife management areas they were charged with overseeing — the J.D. Murphree WMA, the Lower Neches WMA and the Tony Houseman WMA in Orange County, and the Atkinson Island and Candy Abshier WMAs on Galveston Bay.

The wish list to repair terraces, wave fences, levees and sills compromised by Rita totaled a cool $1 million. Hustling funds is a major aspect of hurricane cleanup, one quickly learns while sitting at the table. For better or worse, Hurricane Rita transformed all the upper coast wildlife management areas into laboratories. No one is exactly sure what the impact was, or what it will be, although the biologists have a pretty good idea what needs to be done. But without money, not much can be accomplished. Two other revelations come with listening to the men plan their presentation. One, there’s a lot more to wetlands management than cleaning up after a hurricane. Second, considering that all four men at the table are educated to know the biological impact of the ongoing destruction of the wetlands they are charged with stewarding, it takes a hardnosed cuss to tackle the task. Small wonder all the vehicles on the premises had bumper stickers that read “No Wetlands, No Wildlife.”

Wetlands are neither pretty nor inviting, unless you happen to be a biologist, a duck hunter, a fisherman, a birder or just real different. Wetlands are squishy and buggy and emit foul smells and are inhabited by alligators, snakes and who knows what else. They register zero impact as a political cause, although Hurricane Katrina certainly raised awareness of how more wetlands instead of concrete could have prevented the New Orleans levees from breaking. Instead, coastal wetlands are crumbling into the sea in both Louisiana and Texas, as we fuss and fight about other matters.

In many respects, Hurricane Rita let Southeast Texas off easy. With sustained winds of 124 mph for four hours and gusts up to 170 mph in Port Arthur, Rita blew ashore a few miles east of Port Arthur and the state line as a Category 3 hurricane on September 24, 2005. Houses and commercial structures lost roofs, trees snapped and were uprooted, and all sorts of stuff was either blown down or blown away. More than $2 billion in damage was done on the Texas side of the line.

Texas’ coastal wetlands suffered moderate damage from erosion and saltwater intrusion, mainly because the marsh was fairly healthy and the plant community in good shape before Rita went in. High winds from the north pushed up to four feet of water into some marshes and caused major die-offs and more erosion, which are familiar conditions on the upper Texas coast. “We get blackwater conditions with floods,” Sutherlin explained. “There’s a whole lot of dying going on. Alligators get a smorgasbord. Water stands on the prairie, turns to black tea, plants die and fish are killed.”

“We had fish kills all the way up to the I-10 bridge,” Andrew Peters says. “It stunk bad.” Erosion, seemingly a permanent condition on the upper coast, simply accelerated.

Southwestern Louisiana should have been so fortunate. The storm surge east of the hurricane’s eye flooded dozens of communities and erased one coastal village entirely off the map. Several decades’ worth of erosion was done in a single day. According to one U.S. Geological Survey estimate, 100 square miles of Louisiana marsh became open water after Rita.

“We were extremely fortunate to be hit square by the hurricane and not on the eastern side of the eye,” Jim Sutherlin says. “That tidal surge rolled up marshes [in Louisiana] like a rug. Holly Beach is gone.”

Farther inland in southeast Texas, Rita left behind a wide swath of fallen timber, 400,000 acres of pine and hardwoods damaged or destroyed, according to the Texas Forest Service, causing losses estimated at nearly $1 billion. Much of that timber has been left as is because it is too inaccessible to log out. The remaining deadwood portends something even more ominous. “We expect one of the biggest blooms of bugs we’ve ever seen in our lifetime,” Sutherlin surmises. “Whether we see an increase in birds showing up to feast on those bugs is something we don’t know yet. The woodpecker numbers might come up. Or maybe they won’t. The bloom may be real pretty beetles that don’t bother anything or it might be termites. Will it be this spring, or a couple years down the road? We shall see.”

By the time all the hurricane stories had been told, it was clear that Hurricane Rita’s biggest impact as far as wetlands go had been to pour salt into an old wound, making more stressful an already stressed situation. Compared to the long-term effects the development of land and the canalization of water were having on wetlands, Rita was a minor irritant.

“The threat to wetlands in Texas and Louisiana comes from changes we’re making on land and water surfaces,” Sutherlin says. “We’re suffering considerable land loss and secondary loss from hydrological changes. Some areas already suffering from erosion were opened up. Windblown flats got bigger.”

The waterways engineered to facilitate shipping are perhaps the biggest culprits. The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW), an inland channel cut through marshes and wetlands along the coasts of both Texas and Louisiana for barge traffic, bisects the J.D. Murphree WMA, which at 24,250 acres is the largest state wildlife management area on the upper coast. The waterway was designed with a surface width of 150 feet, a depth of 12 feet, and an easement of 75 feet on both sides. Slow but steady erosion from wave action has expanded that easement anywhere from 540 feet to 740 feet from Sabine Pass to Galveston Bay. “We need to recognize the threat from the change of hydrology and stabilize the canal banks,” says Sutherlin.

“The Sabine waterway is an even bigger piece of the puzzle,” he says of the shipping channel that cuts through the Lower Neches WMA. In some cases, the waterways allow saltwater intrusion into freshwater marshes, and in other cases, the waterways prevent freshwater flow into salt water. Both situations impact soil and the plant community. “The largest piece of contiguous loss of wetlands in Texas is in Orange County, and it’s associated with the Sabine-Neches Waterway,” Sutherlin says.

“We recognize we need to stabilize the banks. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department owns seven and a half miles of canal banks. All that should be rocked in.”

Other factors are at work. The coastal wetlands of the upper coast are part of the Chenier Plain, which sprawls from the heart of Cajun Country in southwest Louisiana to near the eastern shore of Galveston Bay. The part of the plain in Texas is fragmenting as land once used for rice farming, which relied on wetlands, has been developed or converted to cattle ranching, which promotes draining of wetlands. No laws exist in Texas to protect wetlands much less regulate development near or on them, nor is there any public demand to do so.

The good news is wetlands loss in Texas hardly compares to Louisiana, which is the fastest-disappearing land mass on earth, amounting to about 29 square miles a year over the past 50 years. The bad news is, while Louisiana officials are working on ways to slow, stop or reverse the loss, Texas is still in denial. Despite wetlands’ role as a sponge and filter for the dominant life forces on the coast, their decline, regarded as politically insignificant, continues unabated. “We have the same issues here in Orange and Jefferson counties as they do in Louisiana,” Sutherlin says. “But they’re not recognized except by folks who study and work around wetlands and hunting and fishing interests. Texas is 15 years behind Louisiana in what wetlands mean politically. Direct coastal erosion, wetland loss through subsidence and saltwater intrusion, sea level rise — it all goes back to carbon and water. Those wetlands issues are here with or without hurricanes.”

Texas does have a coastal erosion program for the protection of highways and developments, but not one for open space.

“We’ve got a lot of long-term issues about wetlands health and wetlands sustainability,” Sutherlin said. “Rita was a wakeup call. But if Rita hit here like she did in Louisiana, we wouldn’t be meeting here having this discussion.”

Amos Cooper hitched a trailered john boat to a pickup to drive Tucker Slack and me for a look-see at storm damage. On the road to Sabine Pass, debris from the storm still piled up against the base of the tree line west of the highway.

We launched the boat and headed down the GIWW. At the intersection of the big canal and another small waterway cut to the north, Taylor’s Bayou outfall, Slack showed the erosive effects. “This little point here went out another 15 feet before Rita. It would’ve happened eventually,” he said, pointing to the bank erosion caused by wave action when barges and even small boats passed by. “But the storm did it all at once.”

Levees were constructed with dredge spoil along the banks of the waterway in 1958 as a means of slowing erosion. Maintenance has been an issue ever since. “These levees are breached to the point there’s a separate ditch forming behind them,” Amos Cooper said. “It won’t be here next year. It’ll be a shallow shoal.” And what’s left of the marsh will become even saltier.

Cooper crossed the canal to the south bank, where we inspected a concrete slab with rollers that small boats could use to go up and over the small levee and access Salt Bayou Marsh. The slab and rollers are solid. The soil underneath the slab had washed away. “We lose two acres of Salt Bayou a year,” Slack said. “This year, with Rita, we lost four acres.”

Back in the boat, Cooper pointed to levees covered with rocks. “The feds [at the neighboring McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge] have rocks on both sides [of the channel],” he said. “We don’t have the money to do that. If we had $20 million we could spend it. What money we do have, we try to spend it where it counts.”

“This is where we saw a lot of disturbances,” Slack said as we motored up Magnolia Cut to two concrete water control devices on opposite banks. “The land has been undercut. The bank washed out from under it so that the integrity of the levee has been compromised. It limits how you can hold water. These have to be replaced. The levees need to be redressed with mats to protect the banks from the wave action.” The cost: $115,000 per device. Ka-ching!

Back at headquarters, Mike Rezsutek, the wetlands ecologist in charge of wetlands restoration for the upper coast, offered a glint of optimism when he detailed the creation of the 90-acre Tom Jackson Restoration Wetland in the Lower Neches WMA by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps created this beneficial use project as part of maintenance dredging of the Sabine-Neches waterway (something like 10,000 acres have been lost due to the waterway). It was a sure sign that humans can be a positive force for wetlands. “Our wetlands are declining, and we know how fast,” Rezsutek said. “Unless corrective measures are taken, we will continue to lose wetlands.”

Rezsutek knows what has to be done. “The first thing we should be doing is stop the loss. The second is to remove the stresses. Otherwise, you have to increase the elevation in what used to be wetlands with dredge material, and flood it into open water. In the Atachafalaya basin in Louisiana, they’re breaching levees to bring in sediment.

“We did that at Bessie Heights in the Lower Neches WMA in 2003 when 690,000 cubic yards of dredge material were put into the marsh restoration. Since our restoration began at Bessie Heights, you wouldn’t believe the number of people trolling for redfish back and forth in front of the levees. It’s estimated that 6 to 7 million cubic yards of material are needed to get the marsh completely back. But it’s a start.”

I left Port Arthur satisfied that Rita might have put the hurt on the upper coast, but the wetlands worked pretty much like they were supposed to. The hurt my fellow humans are putting on wetlands is something else. The hardnosed Texas Parks and Wildlife Department personnel I met may not be enough to turn back the tide of wetlands destruction. It’s the other folks who “get” wetlands, like hunters, anglers, birders and outdoors enthusiasts, who hold the key to saving and restoring this important resource. If these wetlands advocates can help spread the word to the rest of the population about the economic and ecological value of wetlands, there’s reason to have hope, even after a tempestuous gal named Rita came to visit.

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