Draining the Swamp

A scorched-earth management philosophy is sucking the life out of our region's wetlands

Any Texas urbanite who wants to pave more wetlands should first take a swim in Buffalo Bayou. Houston's premier downtown waterway exceeds federal standards for fecal coliform bacteria, the stuff in poop. In fact, more than half of all freshwater in the Houston area is too dirty for swimming or fishing. A dip at a Galveston County beach would also be informative, especially during the summer, when the feces and yard fertilizer flow out of the bayous into Galveston Bay and spread dangerous bacteria and toxic algae blooms. It would be best to go when one of the beaches is closed because of such health concerns, which shouldn't be hard: Between 2001 and 2003, Galveston beaches were shut down 446 times.

If so many local wetlands hadn't been filled, they would have served as relatively cheap solutions to these problems. The shallow water in wetlands traps harmful bacteria and kills them by exposing them to ultraviolet light. Aquatic plants and beneficial bacteria absorb excess nutrients before they can cause algae blooms in streams. And toxic heavy metals and chemicals tend to bind to wetlands' clay soils, where they are slowly neutralized. "A sewage treatment plant is just a very, very simplified version of a lot of the same chemistry," Jacob says.

Thus it's no wonder many cities aren't just saving wetlands; they're spending big money to build new ones. Montgomery and Harris counties recently set aside more than 100 acres of parkland along Spring Creek, just west of Interstate 45, which will improve water quality, control floods and provide open space. The counties plan to acquire much more. And a massive project funded by the Tarrant Regional Water District, which supplies drinking water to Fort Worth, is creating 2,000 acres of wetlands along the Trinity River. The $22 million marsh will purify sewage-laced water flowing from Dallas before it enters the Richland-Chambers reservoir.

The roseate spoonbill is becoming a rarer sight as 
wetlands in the Houston area are filled and paved.
All Rights Reserved, copyright 2004 Wayne Nicholas
The roseate spoonbill is becoming a rarer sight as wetlands in the Houston area are filled and paved.
Casey Cutler, the controversial chief of compliance for 
the regulatory branch of the U.S. Army Corps of 
Engineers, is charged with protecting wetlands along 
the entire Texas coast.
Troy Fields
Casey Cutler, the controversial chief of compliance for the regulatory branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is charged with protecting wetlands along the entire Texas coast.

"This is the beginning of a very large movement in the area of water reuse throughout Texas," says B.L. Harris, associate director of the Texas Water Resources Institute. "It's like developing an entirely new water supply."

Toss in the benefit of wetlands for wildlife habitat, and they even start to look profitable. Duck hunting alone brings Texas $100 million in yearly revenue. And Ted Eubanks, president of the ecotourism company Fermata, says bird-watchers probably spend tens of millions annually in the Houston region alone. An international crowd flocks to High Island each spring to see migratory birds land after crossing the Gulf of Mexico.

"I think the ecotourism potential is phenomenal," he says. The seven-county Houston area has more recorded bird species than all but three states. "It's a phenomenally rich area regarding avifauna."

Yet Houston won't become a bird-watching mecca if those species disappear. Vanishing wetlands soon could cause the local eradication of graceful creatures such as the mottled duck and sandhill crane. "We as a world won't lose the sandhill crane," Jacob says, "but Houston will."

The Bush administration has shown concern about the impact of wetland losses on wildlife -- or at least on votes from hunters and fishermen. In 2003, Bush met with some 20 representatives from "hook and bullet" clubs -- groups such as the National Rifle Association and Ducks Unlimited. At issue were possible changes to the Clean Water Act. According to a document leaked to the Los Angeles Times, the administration had been considering eliminating protections for "ephemeral streams," potentially opening up development on millions of miles of riparian areas in the West.

Four days after the meeting, Bush killed plans to revise the act. The following April, he stood in a marsh in Kennebunkport, Maine, and reaffirmed his father's old pledge to maintain "no net loss" of wetlands.

But the words had a different meaning. Cutler wagers an interpretation: "I think what that means, after [the Supreme Court decision], is no net loss of jurisdictional wetlands."

The Bush administration's real plans for America's wetlands can seem as slippery as a homeless mud crab. Yet Houston may provide a glimpse into the future. The $1 billion Bayport container ship terminal has been more than a lightning rod for environmentalists; it has provided a glimpse into how Washington is gearing up for a fight.

A high-ranking corps source says the port's permit -- which allows it to destroy more than 100 acres of "isolated" wetlands without any mitigation -- was the subject of a battle in Washington that lasted for months. The Environmental Protection Agency wanted the corps to claim control over the wetlands because they were connected to Galveston Bay via "sheet flow" -- shallow, wide overflows atop levees. Corps officials in D.C. resisted. "It was such a hot issue that it bounced everywhere," the source says. "And in the end, we were told not to count sheet flow."

The national corps kept local regulators on a tight leash. Before the permit was issued, the Pentagon sent Brigadier General Alfred K. Flowers, who had no biology experience, to walk the site and uphold the final wetlands determination.

More important, the official adds, the district viewed the Bayport decision as evidence that national headquarters would shoot down any attempts to more comprehensively protect wetlands in the future.

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