Conserving Corpus Christi Bay:
Stewardship Built by Consensus
by Pamela Casteel
from Texas Sea Grant Texas Shores, Spring 1994
Strip away the stunning miles of mansions built on the bluffs of Ocean Drive. Subtract the thriving deepwater port, the strong military presence, the city skyscrapers that mirror the azure of the atmosphere and crescent-shaped bay below.
Move some 500,000 regional residents and millions of visitors out of the picture and visualize Corpus Christi when Mexicans labeled the area El Desierto de los Muertos, or Desert of the Dead.
Stretch imagination far enough to see extinct bands of coastal Indians fishing the bays and lagoons in boats carved from hard to come by trees. For hundreds of years these were virtually the only people willing or able to inhabit this desolate country of wind-whipped sand dunes, scrubby thornbushes, prickly pear, drought-parched earth and sparse watering holes.
Passing through such uncompromising terrain in the mid-1800s to battle Maximillian's armies prompted Gen. Philip Sheridan's legendary quote, "If I owned Texas and hell, I'd lease Texas and live in hell."
To Col. Henry Lawrence Kinney, Corpus Christi founder, imposing bluffs overlooking an expansive bay with a single navigable entrance looked more like a trader's paradise.
Not a novel idea given that long before Kinney's arrival, bands of pirates were making their fortunes smuggling contraband into and out of the refuge of Corpus Christi Bay.
A century and a half later, Corpus Christi is the seventh largest city in Texas centered on a 12-county Bay area population nearing the half-million mark. The frontier port, now the deepest on the Gulf coast, ranks as the sixth busiest in the United States.
The Desert of the Dead has blossomed into Col. Kinney's vision of building a "Naples of the Gulf." Desolation has been paved over by development and the vast Corpus Christi Bay system suffers from all the human interest in it.
To survive, it demands the federal, state and local attention it has gained since its acceptance into the Environmental Protection Agency National Estuary Program in October 1992.
"Our bays and estuaries are the life-blood of the Gulf Coast community, providing billions of dollars in economic activity and countless hours of recreational opportunity," says Gov. Ann Richards, who formally nominated the bay for inclusion in the federal program in April 1992.
"The Corpus Christi National Estuary program is a wonderful opportunity to bring the Coastal Bend community together in an effort to protect the viability of the region's bays. It is my hope that diverse groups of individuals serving on the National Estuary Program's various committees will be able to forge a consensus on the bay's protection that will serve future generations well into the next century."
Congress established the National Estuary Program (NEP) through the federal Water Quality Act of 1987 to identify and protect nationally significant estuaries. There are 21 estuaries now funded and administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including Galveston Bay, home of the nation's largest petrochemical complex and the country's second most productive estuary for seafood.
The NEP requires convening a management conference charged with developing a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) within a four- to five-year period. The management conference assembled for the Corpus Christi Bay National Estuary Program (CCBNEP) is comprised of anyone and everyone with an interest in the health of the marine environment. Members include government agents, scientists, industry and business leaders, commercial and recreational fishermen, windsurfers, environmentalists and citizens who simply want to walk on clean beaches washed by uncontaminated water.
Hammering out an agreement among five CCBNEP committees of 220 people representing 35 different user groups is a blatant challenge that must be met to combat freshwater inflow problems, habitat degradation, seagrass destruction, shellfish contamination, point and nonpoint source pollution, persistent brown tide and mysterious marine mammal and sea turtle die-offs.
Richard Volk, CCBNEP director, is well-prepared for the fireworks of opposing opinions as to what's wrong with the bay complex, who did it and how to fix it. His experience includes a dozen years in the South Pacific as an environmental planner in coastal management programs for American Samoa, Tonga and the Solomon Islands. Most recently, he was involved in developing management strategies for coastal areas of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"We're trying to diminish some fears about this program. One misconception is that it's a regulatory and research program and it is really neither. It's a management program designed to coordinate the activities of all the regulatory authorities along with input from the non-governmental sector. We're trying to offer incentives to the citizens, businessmen and corporate owners to get ahead of the curve, before a heavy-handed regulatory approach is required.
"It's no different here in South Texas than in American Samoa or the U.S. Virgin Islands or wherever people feel their land is sovereign and it's up to them to determine how to use it. The whole concept of growth management and coastal planning is generally new to most people. But, a quarter-century of intensive shoreline development has shown guidelines are needed for future residential, commercial, industrial and municipal growth to avoid further habitat alteration, pollution and reductions in fish and wildlife populations. This isn't an attempt to take property or limit it's use, but manage it to ensure that the infrastructure is adequately designed and constructed before new growth actually takes place."
Volk definitely has his work cut out convincing the Republic of South Texans that managing use and limiting use of private property are two different things. This is war-torn country carved out of bloody battles with Indians, Mexicans and Union soldiers. Here is the genesis of the "Wild West" complete with gunslinging cowboys on dusty cattle drives up the Chisolm Trail. Here are the celebrated King and Kenedy ranch empires-
This is where land owners rule.
It's also a melting-pot of people apparently capable of consensus building given the lasting peace with Mexico and the United States.
Six months into the start-up year, the CCBNEP committees "are up and running, but that's not to say we all have a common vision of where we're heading. We're working on that now," says Volk. By September 1, when EPA and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) begin funding development of a CCMP, the management conference will have "at least a road map of where we're going, then we'll fill in the street names later on."
It will be an enormous map considering the size of the area encompassing the CCBNEP - 75 miles of south-central Texas coastline and 12 member counties of the Coastal Bend Council of Governments. The 550 square miles of water includes all the bays and saltwater bayous in the Aransas, Corpus Christi, Baffin and upper Laguna Madre systems.
Within this unique estuarine environment are the luxuriant seagrass beds of the Laguna Madre, a rare hypersaline lagoon, and Padre Island, the longest barrier island in the world. The bay system boundary lies between low salinity bays to the north where endangered whooping cranes make their home and high salinity bays to the south.
Locals started worrying about the health of the marine environment a few years ago when shrimp harvests began declining, possibly from a combination of reduced freshwater inflows and intensive harvesting. Then came red tides and brown tides, the latter being a chronic problem for the past four years. While fish and shellfish populations decline, the number of fishing boats increase. Barge collisions, oil spills, ruptured pipelines pouring toxins into coastal marshes and, on the horizon, the possibility of spills from supertankers moving in and out of a proposed "Safe Harbor."
It all adds up to trouble in sub-tropical paradise. Water quantity, alongside quality, is a driving issue in this drought prone area. While average rainfall is 24 to 36 inches per year, the annual surface evaporation rate is about 60 inches. From 1931 to 1985, 96 seasons out of 216 had less than normal rainfall and 28 of those 96 represented severe drought potential.
Freshwater inflows into the estuarine system are largely from the San Antonio, Mission, Aransas and Nueces rivers. Freshwater from surface runoff comes from three river basins located in a semi-arid region. Choke Canyon Dam and Lake Corpus Christi serve as the watershed's collector points.
Compared to other Texas estuarine ecosystems, the Corpus Christi Bay complex has very limited inflow of freshwater in proportion to the volume of the receiving basin. A statistical trend analysis suggests that inflows declined from 1968 to 1987. The Nueces Bay estuary particularly suffers from inadequate inflows primarily because of a lack of natural rainfall in the watershed and increasing demand for water from domestic, industrial and agricultural users. The shortage of freshwater into Nueces Bay became serious enough to prompt a lawsuit by the Texas Shrimp Association that resulted in the Texas Water Commission (now TNRCC) establishing a freshwater release advisory committee.
Whether to take precious water away from humans to support the bay's fisheries is a hot debate that borders on the absurd, according to Corpus Christi Mayor Mary Rhodes, a CCBNEP policy committee member.
"I speak several times a week to various groups and I'm always asked the question, 'why go out and purchase more water when we are wasting this water being released into the estuaries?' I patiently explain that there is never going to be a time when we do not release any water because, in order to build the Choke Canyon Dam, we were required not to ruin the estuaries and the way to do that was by agreeing to release freshwater. We can't turn around at this point and say never mind, we're not going to do it.
"There's still some room for movement on how much and when to release freshwater into the estuaries, but there is just no question that we have to and should. It's a bone of contention with some who make it into the ridiculous fight of people versus fish. There's a real crusade group here that tries to make it seem as if we're not giving babies freshwater to drink in order to feed fishlings."
The mayor notes estuaries are not well understood by the general public, which sometimes thinks of them as "swamplands that are a nuisance to development. The NEP is a good educational tool."
Rhodes says in addition to public debates over freshwater, some Corpus Christi council members were not entirely sold on the idea of applying for the NEP. "There was some reluctance because they were afraid it was going to lead to a price tag at the end. I encouraged them to participate actively in this program because it is so important. Estuaries affect so much of our economy - not just from the standpoint that they are the bottom of the food chain and if we ruin them we're going to become extinct - but because they contribute so much to the recreational aspect of our community. I basically convinced council that we're going to be regulated anyway so it makes a lot of sense for us to have input in the process."
Keeping an environmental balance in Corpus Christi is "very difficult because we have the industrial district smack up against the tourist industry," says Rhodes. "We used to be an oil and gas city and that was it. Then oil and gas fell and so did we. Our economy has become so diversified that it really has become a balancing act. We have eight, nine equal legs holding up our economic table. I don't ever want to see us get heavy weighted on one leg again. That's why we have to trade a little of this for a little of that. The environmental community frowns at me and the industrial community calls me a bleeding-heart environmentalist."
Recreational and commercial fisheries represent a solid leg of that table by having a $364 million annual impact on the area economy. Maintaining salinity levels to ensure productive nursery grounds is critical, but there could be better monitoring practices, according to Wilma Anderson, executive director of the Texas Shrimp Association and member of the CCBNEP management committee.
"We shouldn't have to release freshwater just because it's mandatory. We need to watch the salinity levels and only take freshwater when we need it. In 1992, a lot of bays were nearly all freshwater because of the El Nino rains. I couldn't see any sense in dumping any more freshwater into freshwater."
Anderson adds shrimpers strongly oppose any new dredging that would disturb or destroy nursery areas and seagrass beds. "That's mainly what we're watching. I don't think the bay can take much more stress before it's in jeopardy. You cannot suppress it to the point that you lose tourism or commercial fisheries that provide tremendous amounts of jobs. Without healthy ecosystems, the shrimp industry is in trouble. If we overstress it, then everybody is going to lose, not just one, but all."
Protecting and improving the ecology and environmental health of the bay system for everyone directly or indirectly involved is the mission of the estuary program, says EPA's Myron Knudson, CCBNEP management committee co-chairman.
"That may sound euphoric, but it obviously says a lot in that it recognizes there are many users of the system from farmers to fishermen. Our goal is to integrate all those uses so that it maximizes the benefit to all users. This is different than what has occurred before. We're talking about how to manage the bay, which is different than the perspective of researchers or independent groups wanting to use it for specific activities.
"The emphasis is on how we work together as a partnership among federal, state and local governments and the users of the bay so that everyone is aware of what's going on. It may not be a significant cost to some users to change a practice slightly that would be of major benefit to the bay, if they were aware," says Knudson.
He adds that the Corpus Christi Bay system was designated an estuary of national significance "because it is a major natural resource to the economic well being of the United States of America."
Galveston Bay, the state's first NEP beneficiary, posed a dissimilar set of management problems, Knudson points out. "The difference is the magnitude of the number of industrial facilities and the number of people. There are more than four million people around Galveston Bay and fifty percent of the petrochemical capacity of the United States is there. Galveston Bay has been insulted a lot environmentally, while Corpus Christi Bay has been insulted some. We have the ability to see to it that it doesn't degrade anymore and hopefully, to enhance it."
Another difference between the two programs is that the Galveston Bay management conference had five years to draft its recently completed CCMP, while the Corpus group is taking a more streamline approach by doing it in four. Knudson explains that EPA has learned in the NEP process that "we were collecting too much data and should rely more on what is existing. When Texas submitted its proposal that Corpus Christi Bay be included as a NEP, it said most data were available. That's another reason it was chosen; the data just need to be organized, evaluated and put in a usable system so that government agencies and bay users can understand it and make management decisions."
What both bays have in common are highly productive ecosystems on the upside and, on the down, a large number of endangered or threatened wildlife and loss of fertile habitats.
"These are two of the most important public projects this agency has undertaken," says TNRCC Chairman John Hall, who chairs the CCBNEP policy committee. "They are about improving our economy by protecting our ecological resources. We can have both, but not without more self-discipline and respect for these tremendous resources."
Management decisions for Corpus Christi Bay must have a scientific basis before any initiatives can be taken, according to Terry Whitledge, CCBNEP chairman of the scientific-technical advisory committee and acting director of The University of Texas Marine Science Institute at Port Aransas. While some problem areas have been well researched, such as freshwater inflows into the Laguna Madre and Aransas Bay, others, including changes in area wetlands, have not.
"There's a whole range of priority problems that we will try to address and these priorities are not just defined by scientists, but by citizens, the management conference and other inputs. The problems are checked to see if they are real or perceived. When we finish with this management conference, we will have a plan on paper. Some easy problems, we can start on right away, but some of the tougher problems may take as long as 20 years to find solutions."
One mystery that may take time solving is the prolonged occurrence of an unidentified organism called brown tide made up of single-cell algae so microscopic "you could easily have a billion of them in a quart-size jar." While there have been reports of brown-colored water dating back to the 1950s, it was to such a small extent that it gained little attention. The brown tide that originated in Baffin Bay. then spread to the Laguna Madre, has also been found along the Brownsville border at one end of the Texas coast and Galveston Bay at the other.
"The thing that is really fantastic about this is that we believe it occurred right after a freeze at the end of December 1989 and it has continued blooming through the present time. We know it's a national record for a continuous bloom and may be an international record as far as we know," says Whitledge.
After living with brown tide for four years, he says that the initial alarm has diminished because there haven't been fish kills directly linked to it as is often the case with the occurrence of toxic red tides. "However, there are some disturbing things about this brown tide that we are concerned about. One is that small zooplankton and fish larvae do not eat this organism as they would a normal plankton diet, so we're concerned about how well they will survive without a typical food base. Another aspect is that this brown tide reduces light intervals, which could have a negative impact on the lush seagrass beds of the Laguna. It's not something that kills the plant right away, it's more like taking a tomato plant out of a garden and putting it in a dim room. Some plants just don't do well in the shade."
The appearance of brown tide may be linked to water quality, says Whitledge, and occurrences of unusual algae blooms are becoming more prominent throughout the world. "There's a great deal of thought as to whether we are doing something to our coastal areas that is clearly degrading water quality."
As for the condition of the Corpus Christi Bay complex, Whitledge hedges, "On the surface there's the perception of it being rather clean. Some measurements taken show it to be fairly healthy. I'm not willing to put forth any comment other than to say we haven't looked sufficiently to be very comfortable in saying we have good water and sediment quality. We know there are trace metals in Corpus Christi Bay, such as cadmium, selenium and zinc, that probably originated from industrial inputs. It's difficult to explain, but I think the highest content of silver in sediments in the United States is found in this area."
He addresses the issue of freshwater inflow by saying "We are walking a thin line here. We want to release enough water to maintain productivity in the bays and estuaries, but we don't want to release so much water that we're wasting it. We've got a half-million people trying to survive off a small river that you could easily throw a silver dollar across. When it flowed freely, it put a fair amount of water into Corpus Christi and Nueces Bays. At the turn of the century, 100,000 oysters were harvested from Nueces Bay at one time, now you would be lucky to find a hundred pounds.
"The urban and industrial use is fully capable of taking all the water captured in two reservoirs without releasing any to the bays and estuaries. When the last dam was built, there was a period of several years when there were really no water releases. A tropical storm finally filled the reservoirs to overflowing. The tricky part of the concept of freshwater inflow is that if you had a natural river there, with none of the urban development around it, the river would still not release a constant value of water because of natural cycles of floods and drought. What we have to talk about is the percentage, the formula necessary to maintain present productivity. It would be nice to live in a dream world and restore the bay the way it was 150 years ago, but no one in his right mind is going to propose that.
"Let's accept what we've got and try not to let it degrade anymore," continues Whitledge. "I'm not just speaking of saving speckled trout and redfish - we've got to worry about a whole lot of other things besides recreational fish. If their food disappears, they're going to die real quick. We've got to worry about the whole food base and we aren't currently doing that at all adequately. There is a temptation to forget the lower parts of the food chain. In our recent studies on freshwater inflow, we're focusing on those food items. What the scientific community is doing for the local community in terms of the freshwater question is fairly intensive."
The Center for Coastal Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi has been researching Coastal Bend ecosystems for the past decade. Wes Tunnell, Jr., director of the state-supported institute and vice-chairman of the CCBNEP scientific-technical advisory committee, says the importance of maintaining salinity levels in bays and estuaries is poorly understood.
"So many people around here don't agree with scientists who say you have to put freshwater in the bay if you want it to function as a natural system. They think we're throwing water away that should be saved for people.
"We need to let people know that water is a limited resource and a certain amount needs to go into the bay. Many people on the NEP committees are on the political and sociological side of things and say 'oh no, we can't talk about population problems because people won't want to come here.' I feel we need to tell the truth that somewhere down the road we're going to have a severe water shortage problem. We may keep stealing it from another water basin, but it's more appropriate to say up front that there's a limited amount of water and we need to work on water conservation."
Scientists have a "pretty good handle" on the right mix of salt and freshwater for estuary productivity, according to Tunnell, but the problem is in "trying to convince everybody that we're not wasting water on the bays."
Tunnell, who grew up in a small San Patricio County farming community and has lived in Corpus Christi for 20 years, is "astounded" by the increase in population. "In the early days, there was one little causeway and now we have multilane highways here. The city's population has jumped from 60,000 or 70,000 to 300,000. We need to have development if we want to keep the lifestyle we have now, but we need to use common sense with the environment. It will cost us more to develop with an environmental conscience, but we've learned from superfund sites that it's a lot cheaper to do it up front than at the end."
He adds that the NEP allows researchers to look at the whole picture rather than fragmented pieces. Although many scientists are "very excited about the program, there are some who are skeptical as to what good will come of it. It's not going to be all fun sitting around a table having heated discussions, but in the long run, we'll shake out what the real issues are."
Joe Moseley, a private sector environmental engineer, is a veteran of coastal planning wars. A member of the CCBNEP management committee, Moseley has contributed to significant legislation involving coastal Texas over the last quarter century, including the state's first attempt at developing a federally approved coastal management program.
"Long-term freshwater supply is the single most controversial environmental issue facing south Texas. It will be the battleground. There are those who say we're going to be out of water by around 2015 and others who say, that's 20 some years down the road, so who gives a damn. There is dissension even among the research community as to the appropriate action to take regarding freshwater inflows."
Constructing a rational management plan "by its very nature means refereeing between competing uses," Moseley adds. "The four-year NEP, hopefully, will go a long way in coming up with more coherent and balanced uses of Corpus Christi Bay. There's a non-frantic urgency, a need to move forward to develop better decision making information on the bay from environmental and socio-economic perspectives.
"The program's goal is to reach a semi-consensus among a wide array of interests. It's not going to live up to the expectations of the advocates, but it's not going to be nearly as bad as the opponents say."
The Coastal Bend Bays Foundation, a conglomerate represented by industry, business, academia and conservationists, is widely credited with initiating the NEP proposal. Ray Allen, who has a master's degree in marine biology, is Foundation chairman, an environmental consultant for Corpus Christi Central Power & Light, and a member of the CCBNEP policy committee. He says much of the impetus for nominating the bay came from "the impressive accomplishments achieved in the Galveston Bay NEP. We recognized that our bays were in need of further understanding and better management."
Allen describes the Coastal Bend Bays Foundation as a non-profit, non-employee organization "meant to bring people together who normally don't talk to each other, frankly. The idea is for folks to discuss a common interest in protecting and preserving our bays and estuaries. Whether they're used for shipping, tourism or fishing, we all have an interest in healthy, productive bays."
While the NEP also utilizes the idea of disparate groups striving for general agreement, Allen adds, "I'll be the first to tell you that consensus building is nice where you can achieve it, but there will be times when not everyone will be happy. We may not agree on how much freshwater ought to be released, or how best to protect our threatened wetlands, but we are all committed to doing that. It's just a matter of working out the approach rather than working out the goals."
The CCBNEP, he says, provides an opportunity for locals to decide how they want the estuary to look a couple of decades from now. "We can implement our own best management practices to achieve our goals to the extent there may not be a need for the hand of Washington to require something if we can take care of it ourselves."
Allen comments on the reluctance of some to involve EPA in solving local problems. "It's a bit of a stretch to imagine that government agencies are sending us money to develop our own management schemes without rules and regulations attached. The regulations only occur if people don't act responsibly in finding their own solutions. There hasn't been a single environmental rule ever written that wasn't in response to some abuse somewhere."
Patricia Suter, president of the Coastal Bend Sierra Club, member of the Coastal Bend Bays Foundation and CCBNEP management committee, proudly describes herself as a resident "eco-terrorist." The retired university chemistry professor has lived in Corpus Christi since 1954 and says she objects freely to whatever she wants to because "I don't have a job where I could get fired for speaking out. A lot of individuals and some agencies ask me if I will present an issue at a public meeting because I can do so and no one can touch me, unless they plant a bomb in my house. I end up saying a lot of things that I may or may not be an expert in."
Suter says the bay system "is under tremendous stress from people pressure, just like everywhere else. We were ecstatic when we got the national estuary designation because it meant we would have federal money to study the situation here extensively. Our area is extremely large and all the bays are interconnected. Pollute one and it travels. Every day we have minor oil spills each time they unload a tanker, or flush a ship's bilge or whatever. Most of it is confined within the harbor channel, but occasionally we have oil sheens in various places in the bay."
Waterfront development all along the path of migratory birds has led to many species becoming endangered as their nesting sites are destroyed or fragmented, Suter notes, adding that "people pressure is very subtle. I'm a firm believer in the fact that we've got to react, do something very quickly or we're going to lose our ecosystem. The balance of economics versus ecology is something we have to come to grips with. In my lifetime the U. S. population has doubled and it's going to double again around 2060. We have five percent of the world's population, yet we use 35 percent of its resources to maintain our lifestyles. Corpus Christi is the second most important Texas bay for fish and shrimp production. We have to take extraordinary measures to preserve it."
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been conducting a routine freshwater monitoring program since 1975 and the recreational fish populations "appear to be doing very well," according to Larry McEachron, TPWD science director for coastal fisheries. "We're concerned about the shrimp fishery and are watching that very closely. We're seeing signs of over-fishing and if we have an increase in effort in landings, we could have a major problem with the shrimp population."
McEachron, who serves on the CCBNEP scientific-technical committee, says the state is working toward a limited-entry program that would reduce the number of shrimp boats fishing the Gulf and bays.
Also high on TPWD's problem-solving list is reducing bycatch of untargeted species. Based on recent studies in the bay complex, it was found that there are from three to five pounds of bycatch to a pound of shrimp. On the up side, McEachron says that "some of the ratios we've seen in some of these bays are not as high as what has been reported in the past. That may be because of the way shrimpers are fishing or it could be they are using fish excluder devices. Right now, we're just trying to characterize what the bycatch is."
Mike Hightower, Texas Sea Grant deputy director and CCBNEP management committee member, has repeatedly voiced his concern that shrimpers are taking the brunt of the bycatch beating, while others responsible for killing unwanted fish are virtually ignored.
"If the estuary program is designed to manage and balance the use of our natural resources, then reducing the mortality of non-targeted species must address all sources and causes. Don't just single out the commercial shrimping industry. Characterization studies have proven that, in addition to shrimping activities, oil and gas exploration, toxic spills, power plants, coastal development, dredging, recreational fishing - all add to the non-targeted taking and killing of fish, shrimp and crabs. While the average person does not see the sources of these mortalities, with the exception of shrimpers kicking unwanted fish off the boat, such do exist and are equal if not greater contributors to the bycatch issue." says Hightower.
Commercially and recreationally important species found in incidental catches include Atlantic croaker, sand and sea trout, blue crabs, flounder, and black drum.
McEachron has gained considerable experience working with the Galveston Bay estuary program and says that although the CCBNEP encompasses a greater area, the number of municipalities and industrial complexes is greatly reduced. "This will help the consensus process in that we're dealing with fewer entities having to agree on where we want to go."
Industries, "you have to understand, are nothing but people," points out Bernard Paulson who represents the Board of Trade on the CCBNEP policy committee. The Board of Trade, an association of 16 port-using companies, supported efforts to gain NEP status.
"We reside here. We like to fish and spend time on the bay. Most industry is permitted to discharge into the bay that we use for shipping or water supplies. We have a very definite interest in a healthy bay."
Paulson says after oil and gas production bottomed-out in the 1980's, employment on the processing side of the oil industry and chemical refining plants surged upward. "We're a big player in the economy of Corpus Christi, affecting about half the employment in the area. Tourism is very important, but it doesn't come anywhere near the economic impact of industry.
"I don't know if you've been to many ports in the world, but Corpus Christi is probably the cleanest port you'll find. Industry has been very responsible here in helping keep the bay clean. Corpus Christi also meets all the air quality standards. A couple of years ago, a group from Venezuela came here to see how industry and tourism prosper side by side."
Paulson is chairman of the Safe Harbor committee studying the feasibility of developing a deep draft port for Texas that could deliver "a couple million barrels of oil per day" to the refineries through nearby barrier islands. "I thought this was a very good project because incoming ships would be in an enclosed berthing and if there were a spill you could contain it right there. The environmental community has always said that they thought an offshore mono-buoy, where you tie up a ship and pump the oil through a pipeline to shore, would be better. A few meetings ago, although I'm a firm believer in the way Safe Harbor was conceived, I recommended that the primary project should be the offshore mono-buoy."
His recommendation was based on a lack of product support from Houston refineries and those in the mid-continent, plus the offshore mono-buoy could be constructed for about half the $300 million price tag attached to Safe Harbor. The mono-buoy would be a smaller operation that "could handle our local refineries with not too much capacity left to go north. If industry does go to the offshore mono-buoy it will make the environmental community feel better because we're not bringing oil into the bay system."
Two other area industries that have historically kept the economy strong are ranching in the southern counties and agriculture to the north. The Corpus Christi Bay Estuary ranks fourth out of 92 U.S. estuaries for the amount of agricultural acreage in the watershed, which means there's significant potential for nonpoint source pollution from fertilizers, pesticides and sediments.
J.F. Welder Heirs, is one of the oldest family-owned farming and ranching companies in the area. Nonpoint source pollution from agricultural runoff is a key issue that "the agricultural community is interested in doing what it can afford to do to correct any problems there might be," says Roger Welder. "However, our most important concern is that the data on which recommendations are based are accurate, that good science is applied in determining what problems exist, if any. That on the front end is going to be the most important role that agriculture wants to see played out. If we locate some problem areas, let's find workable solutions that are affordable and meaningful. My first hope is that farmers and ranchers can come up with solutions of their own and are not regulated into a corner."
Welder, like anyone in private industry, has "a healthy fear of governmental bureaucracy. This estuary program is very well represented by government agencies - I'm the only voice on the management committee that agriculture has and we have the potential of being impacted pretty heavily. There is some concern that we're not being represented locally or nationally. As the large metropolitan areas grow, people congregate in those areas where all the issues are formed and voted on. The rural communities that control most of the agricultural resources have very little representation at the state and federal level. Some regulations are politically motivated and are intended to get votes and press more than actually correct a problem. This agricultural runoff is a real popular issue right now. Municipal wastewater discharge, which can sometimes have a much greater impact, gets some press.
"News travels around in farm publications that agricultural runoff is sometimes measured inaccurately, so there's a fear of poor information more than anything else. If the farming and ranching community is satisfied that the science is correct, they won't have any choice but to look for solutions to the problems."
Farm and ranch practices have been forced to change over the years primarily because these industries are hard-pressed to survive, says Welder. "Ranchers have had to improve grazing management to enhance the environmental quality of the land. Farmers have certainly had to learn to do more with less dollars and economics is the driving force behind a farming decision. A farmer's not going to invest in a pesticide or fertilizer that's not absolutely required for him to make a profitable crop. The Food and Drug Administration pulled a lot of chemicals off the market that have a negative impact on the environment and those that are available are extremely expensive and used at a bare minimum."
Reversing environmental damage by changing the way we do things is at the heart of another burning issue facing NEP committee members - the raising of the John F. Kennedy Causeway held responsible for choking off water circulation in the Laguna Madre.
The 4.4 mile stretch of causeway, formerly known as the Padre Island Causeway, links Corpus Christi with Padre Island. It opened in 1950 to replace a wooden bridge erected in 1927 and is mostly fill that limits water exchange into the Laguna Madre and compounds hypersaline conditions. It is blamed for the lingering brown tide in the Laguna Madre that threatens shallow seagrass beds and for the drastic reduction of marine life in the waterway.
The causeway also presents a human health threat in that low elevations of five or six feet are prone to flooding and pose serious threats to hurricane evacuation for Padre Island, Mustang Island and Port Aransas residents.
In response to these concerns, the Texas Department of Transportation has funded a $300,000 study to explore options to resolve safety and environmental issues. A premature estimate for elevating the causeway and expanding the number of traffic lanes from four to six is around $75 million.
Bob Wallace, attorney, board of trustees member of the Coastal Bend Bays Foundation, and CCBNEP management committee member, says "There is no doubt that we are going to raise the causeway. The community won't pay for it, the federal and state government that built the highway in the first place will pay for it. They just love to hear me say that, but I think they understand where I'm coming from.
"The Texas Department of Transportation proposed to build a new highway to the island that would elevate one side, but would basically leave the dam in place and the environmental community went ballistic. The Bays Foundation volunteered to be the point organization to create a better plan."
Wallace explains that even at low tide, Kennedy Causeway may not be more than a few feet above sea level at its lowest point. "Even without a storm event, water can literally cover the whole causeway. That happened a couple of years ago and people were stuck on the island. My opinion is that if we move the problems we've created, nature will fix itself. That's what's ironic about the Kennedy Causeway, Hurricane Carla removed the whole thing for us, then we were smart enough to rebuild it."
The NEP will prove invaluable, Wallace notes, because "it's going to create a whole different level of communication that hasn't existed in this part of the world before. People in this community are trying to find solutions - and I don't mean solutions where we tell businesses they can't operate - but where business flourishes in a fashion that is not detrimental to our environment. If we use that as our focal point, we're going to have a plan for our system that will be beneficial to all concerned.
Four years from now, the committees of the CCBNEP will have grappled with management solutions for a list of serious environmental problems unique to the area. Alongside freshwater issues, industrial and agricultural practices, brown tide and water circulation troubles, wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimates that 35 percent of the state's coastal marshlands were lost between the mid-1950s and 1979. The wetlands of the Corpus Christi area are some of the most varied in the state with more than 20,800 acres of emergent wetlands and 46,720 acres of grass flats. Wetlands and submerged seagrasses are home to a wide variety of wildlife and several endangered species of migratory waterfowl. Ninety-five percent of the commercial and recreational fish-species caught in the Gulf of Mexico are spawned in estuarine ecosystems.
Coastal wetlands purify water by trapping or transforming pollutants, sediments and nutrients. Their cleansing function is critical in urban and agricultural areas where runoff is heavily loaded with sediments. Marsh plants serve as filtering systems by removing nitrates and phosphates from waters that receive treated sewage.
Wetland loss can be attributed to natural causes, including increased sea level, saltwater intrusion and storm erosion. Humans inflict abuse through pollutants, dredging, waterfront development, dam and levee construction, and extraction of groundwater, oil, gas and minerals that can accelerate subsidence.
There is a clear and present need to correct environmental abuses of every sort to protect a bay system of obvious ecological, recreational and economic importance to Texas. Corpus Christi, the largest city in the Coastal Bend area, attracts 2.8 million visitors annually. In 1990, tourism generated $480 million in local spending, a whopping 37.1 percent over 1989's $350 million. By 1991, that number leaped to $530 million, resulting in an average annual economic impact of $1.3 billion and 10,600 tourism-related jobs.
Smaller towns in the area are often overwhelmed by beachgoers, campers, bird watchers, windsurfers and recreational fishermen, who in 1989 spent 1.6 million hours harvesting more than 650,000 saltwater fish.
Given the burgeoning popularity of the Coastal Bend, a "new era of stewardship" is in order, according to Corpus Christi State Sen. Carlos Truan, known locally as the educational and environmental senator.
"The recognition that Corpus Christi Bay and its sister estuaries are important to the entire nation has been long in coming. It began on June 26, 1990, when a group of concerned citizens met with representatives of the Galveston Bay Foundation, the Texas Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to plan establishing the Coastal Bend Bays Foundation. The first job the Foundation set for itself was to seek national recognition for the Corpus Christi Bay system."
Truan, a CCBNEP policy committee member, wants it understood that the NEP will not replace grassroots efforts to protect the marine environment. "It will make use of them, coordinate them and help bring these dedicated, involved people together so they can help and reinforce all their good work."
The result will be a burst of talent and energy. People who thought they were working alone on one small piece of the big picture will find that there are other committed people to share their experience. The strength of this program will be based on continuing and enhancing the fine volunteer efforts that have already made such a difference. They are not alone, but part of a great movement to clean, restore and protect this jewel that is the centerpiece of our lives here in the Coastal Bend."
His words of encouragement will hopefully be recalled when disparate interests gather at the meeting table. CCBNEP Director Richard Volk is aware that some user groups are "very suspicious, very defensive that we are going to be picking on them. However, there is no single group, no one factor to blame. It's a cumulative impact of many factors coming together in a synergistic way. Our goal is to identify our priority resource management problems and to encourage people to come to the table early to help us formulate solutions.
"Someone recently pointed out that there isn't anyone who doesn't believe the combustion engine is one of the biosphere's nemeses right now, yet we all drive cars. We don't need to be defensive about that fact, it's just the reality of where we are today. We haven't made the transition to electronic cars and there's no regulation that says we have to. We could voluntarily purchase one for more money and probably some inconvenience, but widespread change isn't likely until a certain threshold in public understanding of exhaust impacts is achieved."
Volk adds that "it takes a while for these messages to sink in, for people to say 'okay, I'm resisting change, but I still find value in it.' Eventually, there's a critical mass of people, understanding and dialogue about the situation and it becomes part of our value system.
"People want to make improvements in bays and estuaries and most are very happy to have this program primarily because it is a home-grown, self-authored process. The community will decide for itself what actions to take and how to implement them. Of course, it will be within an overall framework of NEP guidelines."
Volk acknowledges some anxiety that the program will end up stealing from the tax base. "That's another big challenge for us. We will work to identify a broad base of financial support for implementation strategies. We don't want to burden any one source of funding. We want to be creative, to get user groups to start to pay their fair share and explore a lot of other financial mechanisms. When the federal portion of our budget phases out, local money or money from other sources phases in.
Federal funding, he says, will go essentially toward assessment and interpretation of existing data, then placing it in a format that can be easily understood.
"This program is about the development of a comprehensive management plan that will be community supported and ready for implementation. Our citizens and local government advisory committees have perhaps the most challenging and important roles to play. Genuine opportunity for citizen participation and consensus building are the cornerstones of the NEP process."
Within four years, users of the Corpus Christi Bay system must answer the enduring question of how they want the bay to look in 25, 50 or 100 years.
Harder still, how will they transform that vision into reality?