Featured photo courtesy of Earl Nottingham, TPWD
By Erin Kinney, Houston Advanced Research Center
Since 2015, the Galveston Bay Report Card has evaluated and “graded” the lower Galveston Bay watershed’s health across six categories, helping people to understand the issues facing our Bay and how they can protect it. This week, we released the updated 2018 Galveston Bay Report Card.
The Report Card, created by the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) and the Galveston Bay Foundation (GBF), is a prime example of how scientific information about the health of this important resource can be used to educate and engage the public. The Report Card delivers information about what needs to improve so that the Bay and its surrounding watershed can continue to provide benefits to the people who use it, including recreation, food, and protection from storms. This information can be used to inform decisions and our everyday activities so that we can build a sustainable future for our Bay.
This past year, the Houston-Galveston region faced challenges new and old. Hurricane Harvey inundated the region with record-setting rainfall, but even the 35-plus inches of rain were only part of the story in 2017.
Room for improvement
Blue crab populations continue to decline, this year receiving an “F.” Abandoned crab traps, low offspring survival, and habitat loss may all play a role in the decline of this ecologically- and commercially-valuable species.
The rivers and bayous maintained an overall “B” for phosphorus levels, which can be harmful when they are too high. Phosphorus is especially troublesome in freshwater systems and can lead to algae blooms, nuisance species and other water quality issues. Although the overall watershed’s grade stayed the same, several sub-watersheds of Galveston Bay saw a rise in phosphorous levels, most likely due to nonpoint source pollution.
We continue to wait for updated data on wetlands, seagrass and oyster reefs (all earned the grade of “I,” or “insufficient data”). The latest federal information that we have on wetland coverage in the region is dated from 2010; this is particularly problematic after an event like Hurricane Harvey. Wetlands provide important benefits by absorbing and slowing the release of flood waters and improving water quality. The role they play is very important and it is critical that we have updated data describing this important natural resource.
Oysters of course support an important commercial fishery by providing us with seafood. Oyster reefs also provide important habitat for other fish and wildlife, as do seagrasses. The health of oyster populations depends greatly on freshwater inflows into the bay; oysters suffer both from too much and too little fresh water.
We know that there are plans at the state level to update these datasets when funding and time allows, and we continue to support the efforts of NOAA, TCEQ and TPWD to complete these necessary assessments of essential habitats.
Waterway trash and litter continue to be an issue that requires additional data. It is estimated that preventing and dealing with trash and illegal dumping in our region’s bayous and the Bay is a $21 million-per-year problem, but we lack information about types of trash, sources and how trash moves through our waterways. We need this information to determine effective and targeted litter prevention and removal solutions. The good news is, a network of public and nonprofit organizations is now actively working on this issue. Both HARC and GBF are working towards a Houston-Galveston Trash Based Aquatic Action Plan: donttrashagoodthing.org.
The good news
While we have focused on some of the threats, we assure you that there are plenty of areas that indicate that the Bay is headed in the right direction.
The water quality category continues to maintain high grades, which is promising for the Bay and the rivers and bayous that flow into it. We are also continuing to see improvements in the bacteria concentrations in area bayous – an issue on which numerous regional partners have been working for nearly two decades.
Fish and bird populations across the bay appear to be maintaining their numbers. From time to time, we see periodic decreases in species such as flounder and speckled trout in certain sub-bays, but these populations tend to be resilient over time. We will continue to watch to make sure that is the case. Brown pelican populations, a Bay success story, continue to increase in number.
As we move towards the future, we look forward to continuing our research efforts to make Galveston Bay and the surrounding watershed one of the best places to live, work, and play.
We thank Houston Endowment and the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program for their support, our research and outreach teams, and the thousands of citizens that have provided input into the Galveston Bay Report Card.
Erin Kinney is a Research Scientist at HARC specializing in coastal and wetland ecology. Her research interests include wetland restoration, impacts of land use and eutrophication on coastal systems, and carbon and nitrogen cycling in wetlands. Erin graduated with a PhD in biology from the Boston University Marine Program and a BA in environmental and evolutionary biology from Dartmouth College. She previously worked as a postdoctoral research associate in the department of marine biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston and at the Ecosystem Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA.
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