By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Craig Malisow
The mud stretches for 200 acres, a shimmering paddy of rutted black gumbo. It is flanked by a highway and a gravel road, real estate signs and an overpass. The developers look at it and envision an Italian village, an ambitious League City subdivision called Tuscan Lakes. But John Jacob prefers the mud.
Standing in the clingy loam, his boots caked past his ankles, the Texas A&M University soil scientist scoops up a handful of muck. He squishes it between his fingers and approvingly watches it ooze out like a sun-baked chunk of Nestlé's Crunch. This thick clay soil once formed a bed of the Brazos River, which shifted 30,000 years ago and left a thriving wetland.
"It's irreplaceable," Jacob says of the old riverbed. "It's a geologic legacy, a gift."
Yet several days, three hydraulic shovels and a few gallons of diesel were all it took to plow the riverbed bare. The bullfrogs and dragonflies have disappeared, and the meager remains have become a last supper: Flocks of herons and pink-feathered roseate spoonbills spear dead mosquito fish and crawdads, leaving thousands of footprints atop the bulldozer tracks. "They're refugees," Jacob says. "This is their home, their habitat, and it has been zapped."
The presence of such birds once meant the federal government would preserve this land. And for good reason: Wetlands are Houston's most important environmental resource; they control its floods, purify its polluted water and support the globally crucial migratory waterfowl flyway through its backyards.
And yet biologists say wetlands are now vanishing from the Houston region faster than from any other urban area in the nation. A new study found that 13 percent of inland, freshwater wetlands in Harris County were filled or drained over the past decade and the vast majority were lost since 2000. If the development continues, most of the region's freshwater marshlands could disappear in 20 years.
Responsibility for wetlands in Houston, and along the entire Texas coast, rests on the shoulders of Casey Cutler, the controversial chief of compliance for the regulatory branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District.
Some environmentalists call Cutler's district the worst in the nation. "Their wetlands calls cannot withstand the light of day," says Andy Sipocz, a biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in Clear Lake. "There is really no logic to it."
Criticisms from reputable scientists haven't changed the district. In fact, environmental protections have grown much weaker. And thanks to federal courts, the Bush administration and congressmen such as Representative Tom DeLay, the district's drain-fill-and-pave approach to wetlands management could soon become standard practice nationwide.
Any local knows this city was built on a sweaty, pestilent, mosquito-infested swamp. Mud-clogged streets and yellow fever epidemics were played down in the early days, when advertisements for Houston looked like postcards from Vermont and land speculators said the site enjoyed "a healthy, cool sea breeze."
In more recent years, Houston's variegated feculence has oozed into the national consciousness. The journalist Hunter S. Thompson in 2004 described the city as "a cruel and crazy town on a filthy river in East Texas with no zoning laws and a culture of sex, money and violence." The New York Times travel section last month simply called it the "city on the swamp."
Real denizens of the Houston muck, however, know the city isn't so much built on a swamp -- in the archetypal Okefenokee sense -- as on a wide expanse of wetlands scientifically known as prairie potholes. The potholes are like glorified puddles; they fill up when it rains and spill into bayous, ditches and sometimes people's yards.
Nobody was complaining about this in Houston's younger years; downtown was a hard-won island atop the goop. Yet thanks to a modern army of Bubbas on Caterpillar tractors, that goop is now much more malleable, and is being sculpted into a landscape that looks parklike, kid-friendly and deceptively benign.
Jacob and Sipocz, the local biologists, climb into a van and drive down Texas Highway 96, hooking through the gates of a subdivision called South Shore Harbour. A snaking path leads to jogging trails, freshly stamped houses and young lawns. Scattered cattle egrets -- the waterfowl equivalent of pigeons -- wade the banks of ornamental ponds, snatching bugs from the thin grass.
A reedy, soft-spoken scientist with curly black hair and a young face, Sipocz could be the typical suburban soccer dad. But when he visits South Shore Harbour he tries to contain his rage. In 2000, when the subdivision was under construction, he tipped off the corps to the presence of prairie slough wetlands on the land. Development halted, and he thought he had won.
But a few months later, wetlands rules suddenly changed. A key regulatory tool had allowed the U.S. government to protect wetlands if they could be used by migratory waterfowl. When the U.S. Supreme Court shot down this "bird rule" in early 2001, the corps immediately closed the books on South Shore Harbour. A worker told Sipocz that the wetlands were beyond the agency's control.
The decision perplexed Sipocz. Lacking the bird rule, the corps can still protect most marshes under the U.S. Clean Water Act. They're protected if they contain wetland plants and soils and are connected to navigable water bodies. Sipocz saw no reason why the South Shore Harbour wetlands wouldn't qualify. "Those are the exact same conditions those wetlands exist under," he says.