Jefferson County has taken the next step toward pursuit of the largest coastal restoration project in the United States.
This month, the commissioner’s court approved the second part of a twenty-year effort to restore the county’s beach and dunes, in part funded by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that has brought more than $1 billion to the state.
“This will be a very important year for coastal restoration in Jefferson County, because the McFaddin Beach and Dune project is going to proceed, and that’s the largest piece of the Salt Bayou watershed restoration plan,” said Tim Richardson, a consultant working with the commissioner’s court on the project.
Other important pieces of the project include marshland restoration and flood-prevention infrastructure. Work is expected to begin by the end of the year — after hurricane season is officially passed.
Funding primarily comes from the Deepwater Horizon settlement as well as the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act. Together, these will reenergize a vibrant and unique American landscape and improve hurricane flood protection for decades to come.
Jefferson County is one of the most ecologically-diverse regions in the country, Richardson said. Situated within the Chenier Plain, which stretches from eastern Galveston Bay to Vermillion Bay, Louisiana, the area is made up of coastal marshlands, coastal prairies, forests of longleaf pine, cypress bayous, grasslands, a network of estuaries that are rich in nutrients and organic material and a healthy mix of brackish water, freshwater, and saltwater.
Dive down and you’ll find blue crab, oysters, shrimp. Look up — the area is positioned at the nexus of two essential flyways for migratory birds, like snow geese and sandhill cranes, black-chinned hummingbirds, neotropicals and blue herons, as well as the spoonbills and snowy egrets, pelicans, ibis, laughing gulls, sandpipers and red-winged blackbirds that call the region home.
“Jefferson County is home to 139,000 acres of the Chenier Marsh — that is the largest in Texas. It is important for several reasons,” said Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick. “A lot of people use it for fishing, hunting and birdwatching. Jefferson County is home to the second-most valuable seafood catch on the Texas Gulf Coast. So, you know we want to have a healthy nursery system for fish and shrimp and crab.”
But for all its beauty and recreational value, the region also has significant challenges that Southeast Texans are all too familiar with, including violent coastal weather and the consequences that sometimes come with offshore oil drilling and shipping.
In April 2010, when British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, 11 people died. Sea turtles, birds, fish, deep-sea coral, dolphins — all also were victims of this industrial disaster. Photographs after the incident showed the devastation: Feathers coated in petroleum; bodies slathered and weighed down by thick, brownish goop; and drastically-depleted populations already in a precarious situation.
But that’s only one of the most visceral examples of human-caused damage.
The local portion of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was built in 1933. Spanning over 1,100 miles from St. Marks, Florida across to the Sabine River and down to Brownsville, Texas, it has become one of the busiest inland waterways in the United States, according to the Texas Department of Transportation — transporting hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo annually and disrupting marshland flora in its wake.
The results to plant and animal biodiversity from these and other issues have been disastrous, Richardson said.
“So how do you help a fish?” he asks. “You protect the breeding and the rearing habitats, which is in the marsh. You protect their homes. How do you help the crab? Can you give them a check? No, the only way to help them is to make sure that their population is resilient in the future.”
As a result, part of the Deepwater Horizon settlement has become a sort-of reparations package for marine life in an attempt to address present and past concerns.
Many of the plants in the marshland are not saltwater tolerant. For eons, they thrived on sheet water alone — inland rain rolling down sloped land to water plants. But the ships in the Intracoastal Waterway push out saltwater — eroding the canal and killing many plants. When their roots die, they release the soil they were stationed in, which is then lost to the Gulf of Mexico and new plants cannot grow in their place.
At the same time, McFaddin Beach, which was largely eroded by Hurricane Ike and storms following, no longer keeps water from the Gulf of Mexico from seeping into the marshes and damaging aquatic vegetation. Whereas water previously only made it past the ridge in extreme instances, since 2008, it’s reached that point several times a year.
To temporarily solve this, the county and state and federal partners have invested a little over $12 million in building mounds of white limestone rock, called breakwaters, to form a barrier between the intracoastal canal system and the marshlands.
“The breakwaters stop the wakes of the barges from eroding the banks of the canal,” Richardson said. “Because when the barge goes by and throws off a wake, it rips into the shore. If you put a breakwater there, then the wake of the boat hits the breakwater. (It) goes up over the top but slows down, and then the soil … falls to the bottom behind the breakwater, where it builds up. Then marsh grass grows back, rebuilding the marsh and enhancing biodiversity in the system.”
While they’ve served as a stopgap to slow damage to the marshland, the breakwaters don’t have the engineered capacity to withstand direct exposure to waves.
As a result of the continued erosion, many animals, such as the region’s species of sea turtles, haven’t been recorded nesting on McFaddin Beach in over a decade. But this project is expected to extend protection for at least 25 years and could restore sea turtle nesting and other habitats.
It will cost nearly $90 million and use sand from the Gulf of Mexico’s floor to rebuild McFaddin.
“They have specific sand depositions mapped and dredges will go out there, scoop up sand and pipe it to the shore,” Richardson said. “Bulldozers will then move it around and build that beach and dune system.”
“Probably by December we’ll start the coastal beach dune restoration construction — the remaining 17 miles,” said Branick. “There’s another $102 million administered by the state, and we are identifying other projects for coastal restoration.”
The county already completed a three-mile pilot project, which already has shown improvement to wildlife habitat and saltwater intrusion.
Most of the Salt Bayou coastal wetland projects and McFaddin Beach nourishment are expected to be completed by the end of 2022, and the next phase will include similar projects at Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge and regional flood management.
“Regional flood control is a bonafide coastal resiliency issue,” said Richardson. “Most people think of hurricanes as storm surge and wind, but flooding can be the costliest impact. The prevalence of storms has overwhelmed infrastructure that was built many years ago.”
Climate change, he says, has increased the temperature, and precipitation regionally has increased by 9% in recent years. This has led to, among other things, sewer system failures and septic tanks that overflow polluted water that children and others walk in. Rebuilding the marsh, according to Branick, is an incredibly important part of slowing down waters and preventing flooding.
“It is a giant environmental ecosystem restoration, with many different parts. Thankfully, a lot of it can be done,” Richardson said. “Between Deepwater Horizon and GOMESA, there is needed dollars becoming available.”
Written by Rachel Kersey