Protecting this natural treasure for summer fun and a thriving local economy.
The hot, brutal days of Texas summer…Even the thought of stepping out the door is sometimes daunting, but for those with access to Galveston Bay, being outside can be a joy.
The 86-degree water temperature of Galveston Bay in July entices boaters, swimmers, kayakers and anglers to frolic in the surf, and everyone can find respite there.
But exactly how safe is it to play in the Bay?
It depends on whom you ask and how deep you want to look.
Charlene Bohanon, water quality outreach specialist at the nonprofit Galveston Bay Foundation, says, in terms of water quality for fun-in-the-sun purposes, “Galveston Bay’s open waters are generally low in bacterial concentrations and safe for contact recreation uses like swimming and boating.”
However, she says, the news isn’t all sunny.
“The more urbanized, western portions of Galveston Bay are prone to higher bacteria levels from human sources, including failing septic systems, sanitary sewer overflows, boat sewage discharges and pet waste.”
George Guillen, executive director of the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Environmental Institute of Houston, says habitat loss poses the greatest challenge to the Bay’s ecological health.
“Although losses of coastal wetlands have declined, the loss of freshwater wetlands and isolated wetlands (which have no identifiable surface water connections to navigable waters) appears to be accelerating due to continued urban development and poor enforcement of regulations,” he says. “This will lead to degraded water quality, increased flooding and reduced recruitment of species of fish and wildlife that depend on this type of habitat.”
But, thanks to the efforts of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and its partners, the Bay is showing encouraging signs of rebounding.
“Currently, Galveston Bay appears to be in relatively good shape,” Guillen says. “Gone are the days of massive fish kills and numerous chemical and oil spills. Many of the fish and wildlife populations appear to be stable or increasing. Reported oil spills in Galveston Bay have declined in number since 1998. Sediment quality is generally improving overall with cadmium, chromium, copper, and lead concentrations exhibiting declines in sediments of the Houston Ship Channel.”
A good indicator of the overall condition of the Bay is the state of the area’s oyster population, says Sammy Ray, 93, an internationally renowned oyster biologist and professor emeritus at Texas A&M University at Galveston.
“The oyster production is cyclical and is directly related to weather events, like heavy rainfall and drought. Drought conditions increase salinity, and flooding decreases it. If there is too much salinity, one of the first species to indicate it is the oyster.”
Oysters act as natural filters, removing massive amounts of micro-algae, contaminants and silt from the water. If these “ecosystem engineers” are not in a position to filter out impurities, it can result in a negative environmental effect on the Bay, he says.
The estuarine eco-system is fed by the Trinity River and the San Jacinto River, and numerous bayous and incoming tides from the Gulf of Mexico.
For oysters to thrive, there must be a balanced flow of fresh and salt water, he says.
“Because of the near 18-month drought, which ended around February 2012, there was high salinity in the waters of all the bays in Texas, and that promoted oyster predators and disease,” says Ray, who has been studying oysters for nearly 65 years. “The primary predator is the oyster drill, a small predatory snail, which drills into the oyster and devours it. The primary disease is a protozoan parasite, commonly called dermo, which is not harmful to humans.”
Oyster reefs are vital in maintaining the Galveston Bay ecosystem because they help prevent erosion and provide habitat for invertebrates and bottom-dwelling fish, which attract larger game fish upon which the Bay's thriving recreational fishery is founded.
With the drought behind us, “looking at least from the southern, lower part of Galveston Bay to about mid-Bay, the salinities are ranging between 12 to 18 parts per thousand, which should be adequate salt to promote reproduction. Oysters in mid-bay that I’ve gotten off commercial oyster reefs are developing reproductive organs real well. If we get a lot of rain, and drops in salinity, it will inhibit spawning, and they may not spawn until mid-summer or late-summer.”
Federal, state and local organizations—including the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Galveston Bay Foundation—are working on reef restoration projects, but such projects alone are not a panacea for repairing the fragile ecosystem.
Ultimately, the health of Galveston Bay has a direct impact on the health of the local economy, Bohanon says.
Not only does its natural beauty draw millions of visitors with dollars to spend at local businesses, she says, “The recreational and commercial fishing industries combined are valued at over $3 billion annually and support over 40,000 jobs in the area.”
Bohanon says the sunny side is that some of the water quality problems can be solved if everyone acts responsibly—and shows respect to the Bay for all it provides.
A key component in improving the Bay’s health is for the public to have an appreciation of the vital and a nationally significant estuary in their own backyard.
“The most important thing is for more people to just get out and swim, float, paddle, and fish on our Bay,” she says. “The more that people view Galveston Bay as a valuable place they can call their own, the more successful any attempt to improve its health will be.”