Report card: Galveston Bay facing ‘monumental issues’

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For the fourth straight year the Galveston Bay has earned a C grade in its annual report card, and officials are calling on Bay Area residents to help it improve.

The Houston Advanced Research Center and Galveston Bay Foundation in mid-August unveiled the bay’s 2018 report card with the goal of informing residents and inspiring them to action.

The bay and its rivers and bayous have several problems, including a declining blue crab population, oil spills and other pollution, a reduction in phosphorous, a rising sea level and more, officials said.

However the issues the bay is facing and its grade remaining the same since 2015 are not signs the bay’s health is not improving overall. Officials said they realize change is slow and that it could take years before the bay earns a better grade, but it is possible.

“Changes don’t generally happen quickly,” Galveston Bay Foundation President Bob Stokes said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

BREAKING DOWN THE GRADE

Those in the Clear Lake area notice the state of the bay more than anyone else in Houston. Water from Harris County’s numerous watersheds, all of which are included in the report card, flow through the Bay Area before reaching Galveston Bay and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, HARC President Lisa Gonzalez said.

“When you live in the Clear Lake area, more than anyone else in Houston, the bay is on your mind just about every day because you see it almost every day,” she said.

The Galveston Bay report card is a more user-friendly and less-technical version of the Galveston Bay Estuary Program’s state of the bay report, which HARC helps compile, HARC research scientist Erin Kinney said.

HARC and the Galveston Bay Foundation surveyed residents and met with community action groups and other interested parties to ask what they were concerned with knowing about the bay, foundation report card coordinator T’Noya Thompson said. Officials used feedback to come up with the Galveston Bay report card, which was first published in 2015.

“We didn’t tell the public what we thought they needed to hear; we asked the public what they wanted to know first,” Kinney said.

The bay’s grade is an average of how it scored across 22 different indicators in six different categories. While some indicators have changed, most have remained the same since the beginning.

The shellfish indicator in the wildlife category has dropped from a C to a D since last year, which dropped the category’s grade from a C to a D as well. Contributing to the drop is a reduction in the population of blue crabs, one of Galveston Bay’s three most commercially important shellfish, Gonzalez said.

Abandoned crab traps sometimes capture and kill blue crabs, and researchers are looking into why some blue crabs have issues “recruiting” from juveniles into adults, which has contributed to their reduction in numbers, she said.

“There’s something happening with that recruitment process,” Gonzalez said.

In the pollution category, indicators denoting the total number of oil spills and the total volume of oil spilled have increased from C and F grades to B and A grades, respectively.

In 2016 a shipping vessel in the Houston Ship Channel spilled 88,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the bay, resulting in the F grade for 2017. A spill that large has not happened since, drastically improving the grade, according to the report card.

On average, 238 oil spills in the bay have been reported annually since 2003. Most are 5 gallons or less, but large spills can drastically affect the bay’s pollution grade. In 2014 more than 160,000 gallons of oil spilled in the bay, giving it an F for total volume spilled in the 2015 report card.

The only indicator to receive an F grade this year was sea level rise, which has been an F since the report card’s inception. Ocean levels are rising faster than officials can keep up with, which will affect how coastal cities, such as Kemah, Seabrook, Galveston and even the Clear Lake area, plan and develop in the coming years, Gonzalez said.

“Clear Lake is a very vibrant and growing coastal community, and I know a lot of people don’t want to think about issues such as subsidence or sea level rise, but now’s the time to plan and get ahead of it,” Gonzalez said.

The water quality category was the only one to receive an A. Nitrogen, phosphorus and dissolved oxygen levels in Galveston Bay and the rivers and bayous leading to it are all good, but researchers have noticed an unusual decline in phosphorus levels in a few watersheds, Gonzalez said.

“It just generates more questions than answers at this point,” she said of the change.

Several indicators had insufficient data to be graded, which is a frustration for researchers. For instance, data for freshwater wetlands are nearly a decade old, so researchers cannot use them to see how the quality of wetlands is improving or worsening, Gonzalez said.

It is hard to tell how Hurricane Harvey affected the bay’s grade. HARC uses data from daily monitoring programs to determine the bay’s grade, but when Harvey hit, many researchers stopped inputting data for days or weeks at a time.

“So during Harvey you’ve got that gap and then the data kind of pick up again, so to try to look at the direct effects of an event like Harvey, it’s really tough because we have that data gap,” she said.

The decline of phosphorus levels in some watersheds could be attributed to Harvey, but it is too early to tell, Gonzalez said. How Harvey affected the bay may become apparent in the future, Kinney said.

“I think we’re going to continue to see the effects of Harvey in next year’s report card,” she said.

IMPROVEMENT IN MIND

The foundation is an advocacy organization with a goal of improving the bay’s health, and HARC has aligned with that mission.

“The primary goal of Galveston Bay report card is to provide information that can help people make decisions and also to inspire them to take action to improve the grade of the report card,” Gonzalez said.

As such Stokes shared several ways residents can help make the bay better from home, work and on the water.

Residents can properly dispose of pet and other waste so it does not end up contaminating rivers or bayous. Installing rain barrels or planting a rain garden can help retain stormwater. The Galveston Bay Action Network app allows residents to easily report waterway pollution to get cleaned up.

“It’s really just simplifying things, and it allows people an opportunity to get involved,” Stokes said.

For those who do not mind getting dirty themselves, the foundation helps host volunteer events to clean beaches, collect abandoned crab traps and plant marsh grasses, Stokes said.

“It kinda seems intimidating. You’re in the marsh, and you’re getting wet and muddy, but generally people have tons of fun,” he said.

Working together officials believe it is possible to eventually get Galveston Bay up to an A grade, but it’s going to take years.

“Bay restoration is very important, and that’s got to be part of getting us to an A grade, but it’s going to go beyond that,” she said. “We really got to rethink what we want to be as a region.”

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Jake Magee
Jake Magee has been a print journalist for a few years, covering topics such as city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be an editor with Community Impact. In his free time, Magee enjoys playing video games, jamming on the drums and bass, longboarding and petting his cat.
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