Galveston Bay earns C grade 5th year running, sees dip in water quality

The Galveston Bay earned a C grade in its fifth report card.

The Galveston Bay earned a C grade in its fifth report card.

The overall health of the Galveston Bay is adequate for now, but scientists and environmental leaders are pushing to improve the ecosystem’s quality over the coming years.

On Aug. 28, the Galveston Bay Foundation and the Houston Advanced Research Center unveiled the 2019 Galveston Bay report card. For the fifth straight year since the report card first came out, the bay earned an overall C grade.

The report card is a collection of grades across 22 indicators in six categories: human health risks; habitat; water quality; coastal change; wildlife; and pollution events and sources. The only category to see a grade change since the 2018 report card was water quality, which dropped from an A to a B, HARC President Lisa Gonzalez said.

According to the report card, which is based on 2018 data, water quality has dropped because there is too much phosphorus in the bay and in its many rivers and bayous. Phosphorus is found in fertilizers and is necessary to supplement plant growth, but too much of it can be a pollutant, Gonzalez said.

The 2019 report card is the first to be composed entirely of post-Hurricane Harvey data. The 2018 report card had only a few months’ worth of post-Harvey data, and lots of data was missing because it was challenging for organizations to conduct sampling and other research in the immediate aftermath of the storm, Kinney said.

Researchers were “pleasantly surprised” to find the storm had less of a detrimental effect on the bay than expected, which Kinney said proved the resilience of Galveston Bay.

“Despite the impacts of Hurricane Harvey, we still managed to bounce back,” Galveston Bay Foundation President Bob Stokes said. “The bay really is resilient.”

Hurricane Harvey was so severe it turned the water from Galveston Bay all the way down to Galveston Island from a saltwater to a freshwater body for weeks, allowing freshwater fish normally found farther upstream to enter the bay. This change adversely affected oysters, which are unable to move, and caused them to become stressed and diseased. However, populations of blue crabs have thrived since the release of the 2018 report card, which allowed the shellfish indicator grade in the wildlife category to remain a D.

“We’re hopeful we’re starting to see some stabilization of this population,” Gonzalez said.

The report card exists to give the public a digestible way to understand the quality of Galveston Bay and what can be done to improve it, she said.

“It’s a unique grading system that’s meant to put some complex data and information into a format that’s accessible,” Gonzalez said.

Despite the C grade, the bay is far healthier today than it was 30 or 40 years ago, when not even the Houston Ship Channel had fish in it, Stokes said.

“The glass is definitely half-full here,” he said.

Bay officials urged the public to take action to help improve the bay. Methods include cleaning up beaches, reporting pollution using the Galveston Bay Action Network app, picking up pet waste to keep it out of waterways, and more. With enough action, it is possible the bay’s grade could rise, but it will take a lot of time and concentrated effort, Stokes said.

“We’ve said from the beginning this is like steering a giant ocean liner; it takes a long time to change direction,” he said.

For more information, visit www.galvbaygrade.org.
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