Rebuilding Houston: Collaborating to understand Harvey’s impact on Galveston Bay

Rebuilding Houston: About the series

This series features perspectives from Houston and the coast about how the region could move forward after Hurricane Harvey in ways that favor wise financial investments, public safety and the long-term health of our state’s rivers, bays and wildlife. The authors are Houstonians who have long advocated for innovative, nature-based approaches to development, as well as storm surge and flood mitigation, in the greater Houston area.

Also in this series:

By Lee Anne Wilde, Living Shorelines program manager at Galveston Bay Foundation – a Texas Living Waters Project regional partner

After Hurricane Harvey made landfall along the Texas Coast and the life-threatening risks had subsided, people were quick to begin tallying the damage to property and people. Over 51 inches of rain fell, approximately 203,000 homes were damaged, at least $180 billion in damages to human assets were assessed, and so on went the numerous ways in which people categorized and quantified of the devastation this massive storm event left behind.

The devastation to some parts of the region was clearly visible as streets became canyons with walls of mattresses and carpets, the soggy remnants of lives lived stretching down block after block. People in masks and rain boots, covered in mud, carrying pictures and possessions to the curb, became shockingly familiar. People rallied to aid friends, families, neighbors, and strangers.  In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the pressing concern was on the human condition and the constructed environment we call home. But for many who live in this region, there is more to greater Houston than concrete, sky scrapers, and sprawling suburbs.

Beyond concrete and suburbs: Hurricane Harvey’s impacts on Galveston Bay

Located just southeast of Houston, Galveston Bay is home to commercially and recreationally important finfish and shellfish, numerous resident and migratory bird species, mammals, and reptiles. Many who call Houston and its surrounding cities home have second homes on or near the bay, or spend time boating, fishing, and recreating on the bay. In fact, the Galveston Bay region supports the third largest boating community in the United States with 7,000 recreational boat slips.

Galveston Island State Park

Galveston Island State Park

Economically, the bay plays an important role in the Texas economy. While not exhaustive, a few examples of the bay area’s economic contributors easily come to mind:

  • The Port of Houston is a complex of 150-plus public and private marine terminals that stretch along 25 miles of the Houston Ship Channel that runs through the Bay.
  • Oysters and shrimp are commercially harvested in Galveston Bay, and the recreational fishing industry supports the economy through fishing license sales and the purchase of goods and services near the bay.
  • People travel to the region and spend money in local restaurants, businesses, and hotels.

There are also those who make their living studying the ecosystem and actively working to ensure the bay remains healthy. For these people and many, many more, the impacts of Hurricane Harvey were of concern to this natural resource. A healthy and productive bay is key to all of these stakeholders (and many more – a complete economic breakdown is beyond the scope of this essay).

To that end, as the city dried and recovery efforts were underway in earnest, the research and environmental management communities in the Galveston Bay area each began what will likely be a multi-year process of assessing the damage to the natural environment and the non-human species that occupy it.  There are numerous federal, state, local, NGO, and educational organizations regularly involved in the various aspects of improving the health of the bay and its tributaries, and many of these groups got right to work. However, at first there was no single agency or group facilitating collaboration among the various research and management organizations, so there was the potential for inefficiencies and duplicated efforts. Those familiar with the efforts were also concerned that this would lead to segmented micro-views rather than a big picture of the effects of the storm.

Seeking the big picture: The Hurricane Harvey Task Force

Texas Sea Grant and the Galveston Bay Estuary Program recognized these potential issues, and stepped in to create the Hurricane Harvey Task Force. According to Stuart Carlton of Texas Sea Grant, the Task Force was formed to:

  • Facilitate communications between groups about ongoing research and monitoring efforts;
  • Identify opportunities for collaboration between organizations; and
  • Identify gaps in current research and monitoring efforts.

Regarding the progress of the task force, Carlton said, “So far, it has been successful. We’ve had over 50 people from the research, resource management, government, nonprofit, and industry sectors participate in the Task Force, sharing what they are doing to assess Harvey’s damages, give us qualitative assessments of their findings, and discussing what next steps are needed. Although the initial impacts of Harvey have passed, we look forward to continuing to find ways to help the research and management communities work to recover from the storm.”

The Task Force is split into two functional subgroups that are collecting data on water quality and toxins, mapping damages, and assessing the storm’s impact on “habitats and critters.” All of these areas are important to assessing the storm’s impact on the health of the bay, but the “habitats and critters” are what are most visible to those of us who work and play on the bay. While we all know that toxins are bad, and we know that we want good water quality, without scientific equipment and skills those things can be hard to assess. However, seeing birds, catching fish, and watching a dolphin’s fin break the surface appeal to a variety of stakeholders from many backgrounds – no special equipment needed.

While it is far too early in the process to make any definitive claims about the long-term impacts of Harvey on the bay and its resident species, the various “habitats and critters” research and monitoring efforts are worth mentioning and summarizing with an eye on future publications and findings. Below are just a few of the areas of research and data collection that are currently in process.

Harvey impacts on habitats and critters: Current research areas

Up-close photo of an oyster bed from the Gulf Coast.

Photo: USEPA Environmental-Protection-Agency

Oysters. One area of wide-spread interest is the effect the storm had on oysters, particularly after Ike’s damaging impacts to the oyster population in 2008 when many of the bay’s beds were covered in sediment and suffered die-offs. Oysters are a commercially important species in Texas with over 6.1 million pounds of meat harvested in 2000.  Oyster reefs also provide shelter, food, and habitat to over 300 aquatic species. Finally, oysters contribute to the overall health of the bay by filtering the water that flows over them: one oyster can filter up to fifty gallons of water in one day, making them important contributors to water quality. To that end, Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) is surveying all kinds of shellfish with a particular interest in oyster populations and the effect that the massive freshwater inundation from Harvey had on oyster beds throughout the bay. While it is too early to publish even initial findings, TPWD is committed to collecting data for future analysis.

Wetlands. The Texas Coastal Watershed Program has been collecting data on storm water wetlands at places like Exploration Green, their floating wetlands in Pearland, Texas, and the wetland nursery at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory in Lake Jackson, Texas. An understanding of how storms like Harvey impact constructed wetlands can help with design and plant selection in the future. For example, plants that were selected to tolerate times of lesser rainfall did not fare as well as those conditioned for constant moisture. Constructed wetlands play a critical role in habitat creation and restoration, so the analyses of data such as this will assist with planning and implementing projects in the future.

Living Shorelines use erosion control and habitat restoration techniques.

An example of Living Shorelines.

Shorelines. Another restoration technique used in both large and small-scale applications is “living shorelines.” Living shorelines are erosion control and habitat restoration techniques that mimic natural coastal processes. These are in contrast to the all-too-familiar bulkheads – constructed walls of concrete, wood, or vinyl – placed at the water’s edge to protect property. While effective in the short- to mid-term, bulkheads eliminate any existing marsh habitat, do not provide any replacement habitat value, and are prone to structural wear and failure over time. The Galveston Bay Foundation will be conducting post-storm visual surveys of existing living shoreline installations to assess wear and damage from the storm.

Nesting birds. Many birds use islands to make their nests and raise their young. These rookery islands are generally low-lying and subject to flooding during massive rain events or high tide events. Audubon Texas has been sampling rookery islands in the bay complex, looking for damage that might prevent birds from nesting during the coming season and thereby potentially impacting the number of offspring successfully hatched or the location of breeding birds. In addition to assessing the storm’s impact on nesting and forage habitat, Audubon Texas is looking at data to determine whether the islands have shifted or moved as a result of the storm.

Dolphins. The Environmental Institute of Houston/University of Houston Clear Lake and the Galveston Bay Foundation have been working together for the last four years to study the health and population of Galveston Bay’s dolphins. The team is now collecting post-storm data to determine what, if anything, has changed in the health, population, and distribution of dolphins in Galveston Bay. The teams are looking at the presence of dioxin in dolphin tissue, the locations of dolphins throughout the bay, the overall observed health of the dolphins. UHCL is also using data collected pre-Harvey to compare to data that will be collected post-Harvey to look for changes in the populations of saltmarsh top minnows and diamond back terrapins.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive and only begins to describe the amount of effort being expended to assess the damage done by this storm, it is heartening to know that professionals from many disciplines are doing what they can to collect data, assess damage, and publish results so that plans can be made to repair what is repairable, and restore what is lost when possible. In addition to learning what was lost in the storm, it will be equally interesting to understand what was undamaged or what will recover on its own. By understanding the natural processes at play that keep ecosystems in balance, we can better plan human activity so that it diminishes negative impacts on our natural surroundings.

Lee Anne holds an M.S. in Marine Resource Management from Texas A&M, Galveston. She joined the Galveston Bay Foundation in 2005 as a Marsh Mania intern while pursuing that degree and joined the staff on a part-time basis in 2006. Her current focus is on assisting private landowners with habitat creation and restoration as well as erosion control through the Living Shorelines program. She also still helps with Marsh Mania each spring.

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