Report card: Galveston Bay facing ‘monumental issues’

Image description
Report card: Galveston Bay facing ‘monumental issues’
Image description
Report card: Galveston Bay facing ‘monumental issues’
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.”


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.


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.”
By Jake Magee
Jake Magee has been a print journalist for several years, covering numerous beats including 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 the editor for and launch the Bay Area edition of Community Impact Newspaper.



Another 1,372 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Harris County over the Sept. 19-20 weekend along with 48 deaths caused by the virus. (Community Impact staff)
Harris County coronavirus count: Texas Medical Center positivity rate under 5% for two straight weeks

A low positivity rate is one of three metrics medical center officials are tracking that they say may indicate a declining spread of the virus.

The Kemah-based nonprofit has provided urban farm experiences to local youth since 2013. (Courtesy Gardenkids of Kemah)
Gardenkids of Kemah aims to help local youth 'protect, plant and play'

The nonprofit will participate in Eco Fest at Hometown Heroes Park in League City on Sept. 19.

Free COVID-19 testing will be available to festival staff, participants and patrons every weekend of the festival this fall. (Courtesy Steven David Photography)
Free COVID-19 testing at Texas Renaissance Festival and more Houston-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Houston area.

Free COVID-19 testing will be available to festival staff, participants and patrons every weekend of the festival this fall. (Courtesy Steven David Photography)
Texas Renaissance Festival to offer free COVID-19 rapid testing throughout season

Additionally, a free drive-thru testing site will be set up in Todd Mission on Sept. 19.

According to a Texas Supreme Court order, all eviction notices in the state must be accompanied with the CDC eviction order's declaration form. (Courtesy Pexel)
Texas Supreme Court issues order strengthening CDC eviction moratorium

The action aims to strengthen a federal order that renters' advocates say has been falling short in eviction court.

Here is a roundup of local business news in Clear Lake and League City. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
IMPACTS ROUNDUP: Pizza Lounge new location coming soon and more

Here is a roundup of local business news in Clear Lake and League City.

Here are the latest coronavirus data updates for Galveston County. (Community Impact staff)
Galveston County removes many of Sept. 8 reported deaths; total now 139

The percentage of active COVID-19 cases has also dropped below 20% for the first time in September.

Dr. Sam Rolon is a physician for Baylor St. Luke's Medical Group Creekside Family Medicine in The Woodlands. (Courtesy St. Luke's Health)
Q&A: St. Luke's physician shares advice on flu season, vaccine and prevention

The influenza vaccine is recommended for nearly all patients of all ages ahead of this year's flu season, Dr. Sam Rolon said.

student in mask
TEA launches statewide COVID-19 dashboard for public schools

The Texas Education Agency, in collaboration with the Texas Department of State Health Services, has launched its latest COVID-19 dashboard for positive cases in Texas public schools.

Houston Police Department is joining Harris County's cite-and-release program. (Courtesy HTV)
Houston Police Department to join Harris County cite-and-release program

Houston Police Department is joining Harris County's cite-and-release program.

Clear Creek ISD has more than 42,000 total students, about 65% of whom returned to in-person learning at the start of the 2020-21 school year. (Jake Magee/Community Impact Newspaper)
Clear Creek ISD superintendent search continues with board discussion of targets

The CCISD board of trustees have defined the 2020-21 superintendent targets that will be be used in the annual review process this spring during campus planning.

The Houston Food Bank is looking for more volunteers as it handles increased food distribution during COVID-19. (Courtesy Houston Food Bank)
Houston Food Bank: COVID-19 pandemic amplifies already-high food insecurity rates across region

Before COVID-19, the Houston Food Bank distributed about 400,000 pounds of food daily. That number has since increased to about 1 million pounds a day.