An effort to dredge Cedar Bayou, the once-viable pass between San Jose and Matagorda islands, slammed into a bureaucratic brick wall this past week.
If history is any indication, the project's longtime champion, Lynn Edwards of Rockport, already is chiseling a tunnel through this latest barricade that stands between her and what most believe is a worthwhile cause.
Part of me understands this is how the process works. Apparently survival depends on an applicant's tolerance of rejection, their attention to detail, perseverance and their willingness to dig in and fight. Edwards tells me she's privately angry as hell but publicly refocused on fundraising. The price tag on overcoming bureaucratic blockades is high. Immediate plans include continuing to work with Coast and Harbor Engineering along with an environmental team to address the many concerns -- however ridiculous -- of agencies that responded to her second permitting request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
I'm not sure where to begin listing my disappointments with agencies charged with overseeing our coastal resources. The Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks & Wildlife, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the National Marine Fisheries Service each essentially have recommended the project be rejected in its present form based on a host of environmental and engineering concerns.
The agencies effectively sent Edwards back to rework four years of effort, based mostly on a single visit to the site. I think some of them went twice. They're requesting detailed proof that the project will do no harm to the areas targeted for excavation with hardly a mention of the potential far-reaching and accepted regional benefits to the estuary as a whole. The agencies seem to ignore the evidence that supported previous Cedar Bayou re-openings and other pass projects along the coast as if this is a first-time proposal for a gulf pass. I understand that each project carries unique components, but basic similarities abound with such projects regarding the ecological benefits.
To its credit, the Environmental Protection Agency offered to help develop what staffers referred to as "less damaging project alternatives." But at the same time, they say the project might degrade waters and that dredging would result in adverse impacts on Cedar Bayou and Vinson Slough. That's just silly.
Most disappointing is the response from TPW, the agency which dredged Cedar Bayou three times in the past. Apparently the department has forgotten the reasons it provided to justify previous efforts.
I've been speaking with department officials about the merits of an open Cedar Bayou for at least four years. And despite the department no longer being in the dredging business, each of those conversations included glowing general support for the project. TPW biologists, without exception, told me an open pass between the Mesquite/Aransas Bay system and the Gulf of Mexico would benefit this estuary in countless ways.
Edwards has numerous testimonials from other credible scientists who support this project and who can list the many likely positive outcomes of an open pass there. I spoke with a noted biologist recently who said an improved exchange of gulf waters could offset the bacteria concentrations, including Vibrio vulnificus, in a sluggish bay with a healthy inflow of nutrients.
Everything from crabs, shrimp, fishes, whooping cranes, fishes, water quality, water clarity and salinity would see improvements.
Surely TPW staffers were convinced that dredging Cedar Bayou would provide an ecological -- not to mention an economic -- boost to this isolated bay system when they dedicated resources to the project. Surely TPW biologists carefully weighed the range of consequences of opening the pass before sending a dredge there repeatedly. Surely the department has data or at least a hunch to support the fisheries benefits of returning Cedar Bayou to its semi-natural state.
It is important to note that this bay system was altered by man for the final time in 1995 when Vinson Slough was blocked with sand removed from the mouth of Cedar Bayou. This mistake further lowered the water pressure required to keep this intermittent pass open. Previous contributors to the silting of Cedar Bayou include the creation of the Intracoastal Waterway, the damming of rivers that feed area bays and the widening and deepening of Aransas Pass to create the Corpus Christi Ship Channel at Port Aransas. I'm not condemning any of these projects. But, again, folks who know hydraulics say the cumulative result of these alterations has helped create many of the habitat features we see there today.
The goal of Edwards' Save Cedar Bayou organization is to return the area to pre-1995 conditions and by doing so revive a bay system that has been denied by unnatural means its access to life-giving gulf waters. And yet, each of the agencies mentioned above are recommending that current conditions near Cedar Bayou be preserved or considered for possible adverse impacts by the project. Several of the agencies even suggest that Edward replace or create habitat elsewhere to offset any habitat destroyed by the dredging. Can you believe this; a mitigation penalty for an environmental restoration project?
Several response letters included language that suggests the project would negatively impact existing resources such as vegetated marsh, oysters, seagrasses and migratory bird nesting areas. Obviously when you scoop sand to enhance the flow of Cedar Bayou or Vinson Slough some vegetation or oysters beds would be displaced. Seagrass, chordgrass and oysters have had 12 years to establish a foothold there. But old timers and Edwards tell me that years ago when this area enjoyed a flowing pass and deeper channels that connected Vinson Slough to Cedar Bayou these habitat features did not exist where they are today.
Why isn't more attention being paid to what existed before we altered the area? Current conditions should be a secondary consideration at best. Where is the voice of reason here?
Sure, it's likely that birds have nested upon whatever spot on a nearby island contractors would chose to deposit sand from the channel. Nobody is suggesting we bury these birds with sand or cover their eggs with dredge material. I'm sure the project could be scheduled when birds and sea turtles aren't nesting there.
The effort has support among many pertinent conservation and angling organizations such as CCA, SEA and the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program. Each has sanctioned the effort by contributed thousands of dollars to research its design. And the Texas General Land Office, through the grants it administers, has considered the project a good idea. Additional grants are pending, and this latest development could jeopardize certain funding opportunities. The GLO must now consider that the project will cost more and take longer than previously hoped.
That's a shame, because rarely have I seen this level of support for a project. You would think natural resource agencies would be lining up to right a wrong on behalf of the estuary. Instead they seem to have aligned against it.
Thanks for posting the article. With my limited biology background (B.S.), I can't help but believe the more water exchange with the gulf, the healthier our bays and estuaries will be. The corp artifically created an environment at Vinsons. You would think that when the chance to rectify that mistake is at hand, they would jump at it. Got to keep in mind that the Corp of Engineers is part of the Fed. One big SNAFU.