Hold the Salt

Too much of a good thing threatens the oysters in Galveston Bay

Not everyone is so sure. Taylor describes the report as "pretty sophomoric and simplistic for the nature of the problem we are talking about." He is waiting for additional research on the subject before supporting any concrete environmental measures in Houston's 50-year water plan, which may be up for state approval this month.

Houston's water plan is already more eco-friendly than most; it's the only one in the state to set voluntary targets for environmental water flows. "The Galveston Bay and lower Trinity and lower Brazos River are valuable parts of our world," Taylor explains. Nevertheless, John Bartos, the only environmental representative on the panel that created the Houston plan, isn't satisfied. "I think the concerns in 'Bays in Peril' are real," says Bartos, a member of the Galveston Bay Foundation, "and I don't think the plan solves those things." He wants water permits to guarantee a supply for the bay just as they ensure it for agriculture, industry and homeowners.

Battles over the issue are being waged on divided fronts. A Travis County district court recently found that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must consider an application by environmental groups to set aside water from the Trinity and other rivers for "environmental flows." And Governor Rick Perry last month appointed an Environmental Flows Advisory Committee to determine if new water permits should include more restrictions. The nine-person group includes water developers, river authority officials and no members of regulation-oriented environmental groups.

Scientist Sammy Ray measures Galveston Bay salinity, which at high levels can harm oysters.
Josh Harkinson
Scientist Sammy Ray measures Galveston Bay salinity, which at high levels can harm oysters.

Environmentalists say the marginal role they've been afforded in water planning should raise red flags with anyone who enjoys Galveston Bay seafood. "There is a lot of pressure from all of the populations, from the developers, to use every bit of water before it gets to the bay," Bartos says. "And that's the danger."

Ray and the environmentalists climb out of the Boston Whaler and crunch across the oyster-shell-paved lot of Misho's Oyster Company, Galveston Bay's largest shucking operation. Ray leads the way into a warehouse, past swishing pipes and men in rubber boots, to the office of Misho's manager, Barbara Knight. She greets him warmly and eyes the environmentalists a bit more skeptically. Awkward introductions quickly lead to the question on everyone's minds: What does she think about their projection for river flows?

She pauses. "I would be worried about it because it is going to affect a lot of things," she says. The balance of brackish water in the bay "has to be just right for things to grow."

Despite past animosities, Misho's and other wholesalers are clearly the environmentalists' most logical and best-funded allies. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, bay oysters generate roughly $40 million in revenue each year and employ hundreds of people. Yet these workers aren't exactly the types who will show up in droves at public meetings; most are seasonal migrant laborers. "They may not be thinking 20 years down the road," says Stokes. "That's what we're doing."

That thinking is increasingly factoring in other issues as well, such as the impact of global warming. Scientists project ocean temperatures in the next century will rise between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees. Ray says warmer water would magnify the effects of dermo disease.

From Knight's office, Ray leads a course through a room of industrious shuckers, who sit in rows snatching oysters from a long metal trough. He walks outside and down the block to the TopWater Grill, a seafood restaurant. It's an unsettlingly mild afternoon, warm enough to sit outside and savor a plate of oysters on the half shell. Their tender flesh is unusually salty; the flavor depends in large part on the salinity of the water, Ray explains. In wet years, some people complain that oysters taste "too fresh."

Ray isn't one of them. These days, the self-described "crusader for fresh water" says the bay needs everything it can get. "I'm praying for rain all the time," he says, "even if it will cause a flood."

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