This Sand is Your Sand

At the Village of Surfside, it's not just the beaches that are eroding. It's the Open Beaches Act.

"Millions of Texans that go to the beach every year, they're not aware of the Open Beaches Act, that houses out on the beach don't belong there. And they're not saying anything, they're not contacting their legislators, they're not contacting the press, they're not contacting the land office or the attorney general. If the public knew more, you'd see a backlash."

Approximately 25 percent of homes and other structures within 500 feet of the U.S. coastline and the shorelines of the Great Lakes will fall victim to the effects of erosion within the next 60 years. Especially hard hit will be areas along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines, which are expected to account for 60 percent of nationwide losses. Costs to U.S. homeowners will average more than a half billion dollars per year." -- Federal Emergency Management Agency press release, June 27, 2000

Former Texas senator Babe Schwartz, sitting in his sleek high-rise suite overlooking the state capitol, says he'll be happy to join a backlash.

From top down: The Octagon (left background) in 1969 in happier days with Deborah Pickett, Ellis's current wife, and her friend, John Middleton; stranded on the beach in 1999; beach hazard in 2000.
From top down: The Octagon (left background) in 1969 in happier days with Deborah Pickett, Ellis's current wife, and her friend, John Middleton; stranded on the beach in 1999; beach hazard in 2000.

"I'm gonna bring people up here with babies and bathing suits and fishing rods and talk about how these folks are treated when they try to access the beach through these people's quote unquote private property."

Schwartz is Galveston-born and -bred, an increasingly occasional septuagenarian surfer, former lifeguard, former legislator, lobbyist and long-term conscience of the Open Beaches Act, which was passed by Senator Bob Eckhardt in 1959.

Babe Schwartz cut the ribbon on a section of the Galveston seawall, and he cut the ribbon on Rollover Pass on Bolivar Peninsula, and he blames the seawall for the drastic recent erosion on West Galveston Island and says Rollover Pass is causing more adjacent beach damage than it's worth.

He is a nemesis of engineered coastal erosion response, his Galveston weekend home is on the bay side, he speaks populist with a fluency granted only to the very rich and the very poor, and he is not very poor.

"There was never a session that I was in the Senate that I didn't chair a committee of some kind about the beaches and the bays and the coastal environment that I didn't have to listen to John Arrington and a hundred people like him. And they would have always changed the law if they had been able to do it. There was never a time they would not have changed the law so that somebody who invests in a piece of property precludes forever any other human being who lives on the face of the planet from having any rights or access to that water in front of their house. They will lie to you in a minute about whether that's their intention or not. Their attack this very day would be to try to make this a property rights issue, as opposed to a public rights issue. John Arrington is as nice a man as you'd ever want to meet, but he does not know shit from sand."

Commissioner Dewhurst, Schwartz thinks, deserves a gold medal for squeezing a $15 million appropriation out of the legislature, and neither Dewhurst nor Cornyn is practicing any evil greater than plain old politics, a game with which Schwartz has a long-practiced patience. The real enemies of the Open Beaches Act, he says, are the beachfront property owners themselves.

"The bottom line for those people is, I am enthusiastically for beach renourishment if the money is there. But we can't just replenish the beach in front of Sea Escape and the beach in front of Pirate's Beach because people live there and they have million-dollar homes. You either got to replenish the whole beach or nothing. I don't think it's appropriate to take someone's private investment and spend government money to enhance their particular quality of life as opposed to everybody's quality of life. That's what baffles me. I don't understand the selfish idea that 'I'm entitled to it, the hell with everybody else.' If they build a breakwater on the west end of Galveston Island, somebody's gonna get sued by everybody in Brazoria County from the east side of San Luis Pass to the Brazoria County Channel, because that'll tear up the beaches down there. So what's Brazoria County going to do? Build a breakwater and do more damage to Sargent's Beach in Matagorda County?"

Jim Gibeaut has been working around Matagorda lately, surveying the coast. Gibeaut, a coastal geologist with UT's Bureau of Economic Geology, computes shoreline rate changes for the GLO, has searched for sand sources and is referred to as an invaluable source by threatened homeowners and disgruntled surfers alike, though the two camps discriminately pick and choose their facts from his arsenal.

The root issue, for a majority of Texas's coastline, is erosion. Slowly, sea levels are rising. Barrier islands by their nature roll over themselves, shore side shrinking as bay side grows. Sand will naturally migrate away from one place, and the maintenance of healthy beaches requires a return migration of sand from elsewhere. Texas's major rivers were one such sand source, but as ancient deltas developed into bay systems, river sand dropped into the bays, not onto the beaches. More recently, in the past 100 years or so, the Sabine, the Trinity, the San Jacinto, the Colorado, the Brazos and the Rio Grande have all been dammed, and sand piles up behind dams. Some say that changes wrought in the Mississippi River delta by the United States Army Corps of Engineers constitute Texas's biggest sand source suck of all: To minimize the need for dredging the Gulf Coast's largest port, the Corps built jetties to channel river sand and silt out into deep water, where it builds underwater mountains offshore instead of drifting south.

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