Galveston Bay is arguably the region’s most important environmental resource. The bay is a significant economic asset. It is also a major recreational area.
The bay, which is bounded by Brazoria, Chambers, Harris, and Galveston counties, covers about 600 square miles. It is an estuary – an ecosystem where fresh and salt water mix. Galveston Island separates the bay from the Gulf of Mexico. Waters from the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers, Buffalo Bayou, and other waterways mix with water from the Gulf of Mexico via San Luis Pass and Bolivar Roads (the channel between Galveston Island and Bolivar). The bay is shallow, not more than 10 feet deep, except where it has been dredged to make the Houston Ship Channel.
Estuaries are among the most productive natural systems on the earth. Microscopic plants (phytoplankton) engage in photosynthesis, just like larger plants. On a per acre basis, as much carbon dioxide is converted into plant material in an estuary as is converted in a rain forest. The plant material is immediately eaten – the first step in the estuarine food chain. Without the estuarine food chain, there would be no speckled trout or redfish or flounder in the bay.
Galveston Bay is highly productive. It provides seafood for the region and for export. Ninety percent of the commercial fish and shellfish caught in the Bay and the Gulf of Mexico spend some part of their lives in Galveston Bay.
The bay offers diverse habitats, including emergent wetlands, oyster reefs, a river delta, mud flats seagrass beds, sand bars, and open water. Its wetlands and submerged aquatic vegetation filter water, provide nursery areas for fish and shellfish, and protect the land from erosion. Colonial waterbirds, shorebirds, shrimp, crabs, oysters, finfish, and many other species call it home.
Three-fourths of all North America’s bird species, including several that are endangered, use Galveston Bay habitat. The town of High Island sits at the northern edge of the Bay. The town is famous for an Audubon bird sanctuary that attracts bird watchers from all over the world. During the spring migration, brightly colored neotropical birds from Central American fly 700 miles across the Gulf of Mexico to drop exhausted into the oak mottes at High Island.
The Bay’s recreational uses include sport fishing, boating, sailing, and nature observation.
The bay remains healthy despite intense urban development on its shores because it is relatively shallow, it is fed by several rivers, and it is frequently flushed in the winter by northerly winds that push huge amounts of water through major outlets at Bolivar Roads and San Luis Pass.
Galveston Bay is also the origin of the Houston Ship Channel, which goes through Bolivar Roads, Galveston Bay, the San Jacinto River, and Buffalo Bayou to the Port of Houston. The Port of Houston, as well as ports at Texas City and Galveston, is of major importance to our economy.The Port of Houston is now building a 1,050-acre container and cruise ship terminal in residential Southeast Harris County on Galveston Bay. The facility, called Bayport, has been opposed by nearby residents and several regional air and water groups. They claim that Bayport will add an estimated 6,000 trucks and 20 trains daily to Houston’s traffic, increasing nitrogen oxide emissions, a principal precursor of ground-level ozone, by five to ten tons per day. The opponents filed suit against the Army Corps of Engineers asking for a new environmental assessment before the permit to build the project was granted. A local court dismissed their suit, and the federal Fifth Circuit court denied their appeal in the fall of 2005.Growth and development are the source of most negative impacts on the bay.
Contaminated storm water runoff, or nonpoint source (NPS) pollution, remains the top water quality problem facing Galveston Bay. NPS pollution is transported to our waterways via rainfall runoff from diffuse, landbased sources such as businesses, industries, farms, roads, parking lots, septic tanks, marinas, and residential yards. This pollution has steadily increased as population and associated urban development have increased.
Increasing use of river water for residential, agricultural, and industrial uses, as well as construction of dams and reservoirs, has significantly reduced the amount of freshwater that enters Galveston Bay. The biological community in the bay depends on the natural balance of river and seawater; disrupting this mix can impact productivity.
Environmental attorney Jim Blackburn reports that environmental groups recently scored a significant legal victory when an Austin judge ruled that the groups could apply for water rights permits from the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality to protect freshwater inflows. The Matagorda Bay Foundation, the San Marcos River Foundation, the Galveston Bay Conservation and Preservation Association, and the Galveston Bay Foundation, along with the Caddo Lake Institute, had filed permit applications for instream flows or freshwater inflows, beneficial uses that were identified in the rules of the TCEQ.Blackburn explains that usually an application can be processed and ultimately issued for beneficial uses identified in the rules. However, the TCEQ dismissed the applications without a hearing. Ultimately, the issue came to a head before Judge Suzanne Covington of the 201st District Court in Travis County. She ruled that the TCEQ had jurisdiction to consider applications for appropriation of water rights for instream uses and to protect inflows for our bays and estuaries, and that the groups have the right to a hearing on their applications. At this time, the TCEQ and the state Attorney General are determining whether or not to appeal this decision.Other progress includes work by local environmental groups to restore many acres of degraded estuary. The groups have a goal of restoring 24,000 acres by 2010. Shipwrecked vessels and other kinds of large marine debris have cluttered Galveston Bay for many years. A recent campaign has resulted in the removal of 21 items of marine debris from the bay in the past two years.
- Galveston Bay Conservation and Preservation Association
- Galveston Bay Foundation
- Discover and Drive, a booklet produced by Galveston Bay Foundation about the Bay’s attractions
- Galveston Bay by Sally E. Antrobus Texas A&M University Press: College Station, 2004
- The Book of Texas Bays by Jim Blackburn, Texas A&M University Press: College Station, 2004
- Jim Blackburn, environmental law, [email protected]