Hold the Salt

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

Boarding a Boston Whaler docked in Galveston Bay, Sammy Ray, 87, refuses an offer to be lifted in. Instead, he awkwardly sits down on the wooden pier and slides into the fore. The declaration of autonomy, albeit small, is to be expected of Ray, Galveston Bay's best-known and most fiercely independent oyster scientist. For 60 years, he has advocated for oysters while lambasting environmental notions that their health is threatened by oil wells and chemicals. "People would have you believe that Galveston Bay is a polluted cesspool," Ray has said, "but that's a lot of nonsense."

Ray's environmental views haven't changed, yet his fractious relationship with local environmentalists has. As the Whaler kicks up spray on the open water, the people gripping the rails include Norman Johns, a scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, and Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation. They've joined Ray to survey the nation's most productive oyster reefs and talk about a threat to oysters that they might all agree on.

Far out on the water, the Whaler skids to a stop amid a passel of flat-roofed pontoon boats that are chugging in circles and hauling up bottom creatures. A cage dumps the teeming loads into piles; Latin American sorters throw everything back overboard except the occasional legal-sized oyster. Ray pulls out an instrument that looks like a small telescope and struggles to unscrew its lid. "You want to open that for me?" he says. "I've lost the strength in my hands." Someone else has reached overboard to fill an empty Ozarka water bottle. Ray measures its temperature, then loads a few drops into the scope. He peers inside to read the water's salinity.


Galveston Bay oysters

"Twenty-eight" parts per thousand, Ray says. "Which is high."

Normally, the amount of salt in this part of the bay would be half that, but 2006 has been unusually dry. Unless new rains bring a pulse of fresh water, the higher salinity will provide the perfect environment this summer for dermo, a salt-loving oyster parasite that can decimate the reef. "Bays in Peril," a recent National Wildlife Federation report, predicts future development will tremendously magnify the problem.

For once, Ray sees a threat to take seriously. "Most people think it's pollution and overfishing," he says, "but the biggest threat to oysters is salt water."

The idea that Houston could ever hog rainwater from the bay's creatures might strike the average Houstonian as ridiculous. The city of swamps, tree ferns, mosquito attacks and floating cars usually does everything it can to get rid of it. Indeed, we get more rain each year than Seattle and Portland, sometimes in the span of a few days. But more than any other urban area our size, we also live next door to a thriving fishery that depends on a reliable deluge.

Heavy rains won't much help oysters if wetlands, paved or grassed over with lawns, don't retain some of the water and slowly release it. Even then, sprinkler systems, Laundromats and dishwashers will suck down much of the water that remains. Our urban thirst is growing; by 2050, demographers predict, the population of Dallas and Houston combined will double. Even people charged with diverting more water for Houstonians concede that the demands on the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers could eventually strain Galveston Bay. "We do believe that there is a potential for problems" 30 years down the road, says Houston Public Utilities director Jeff Taylor. "So we are active participants with the environmental community to plan for the future."

For their part, environmental groups see a problem now. Texas handed out water permits for years without addressing environmental concerns. Many of the permits haven't been used. Even if the state didn't issue any new permits, fully "cashing in" the old ones would leave little environmental wiggle room for Galveston Bay ecosystems. "We can't just sit back and let all of these checks be cashed," says Johns, a co-author of "Bays in Peril." "I think we should be concerned with what's out there."

Published in late 2004, "Bays in Peril" predicts that higher water use over the next 50 years will plunge the bay below drought tolerance levels for five extended periods.

Possibly winnowing the trickle, it says, are permit applications to "reuse" half the wastewater that will be discharged into the Trinity River from factories and municipal sewer systems.

"I think there is enough information to be pretty certain that this is going to be a problem," Johns says.

But just how much of a problem is a debate as slippery as the oysters. Scientists know that these canaries of the bay quickly start to croak when summer salinity levels top 15 parts per thousand, yet the reefs sometimes bounce back from hard times remarkably fast. In 1979, when Hurricane Claudette dumped 44 inches of rain on Alvin, Ray says, the water transformed a salty and mostly oysterless Galveston Bay inlet, West Bay, into a reef that four years later produced 40 percent of the oysters in Texas.

The big-money question for oystermen is how sparse the trickle entering the bay in a given period can be without reducing the next year's harvest. State scientists have set month-by-month water flow levels that the bay needs in order to "avoid reproductive failure and loss of biodiversity." The "Bays in Peril" report assumes that dropping below these levels for more than six months would hurt production.

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.

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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