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Galveston's $140,000 Seaweed Project Could Protect Against Storm Damage

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Galveston beachgoers are familiar with the smelly, unsightly seaweed plaguing many of the coast's shorelines and interrupting a pleasant day at the beach. We've all seen kids shriek and throw it at each other, and have walked around the uncomfortable stuff as it dried on the shore.

Rather than get rid of this product of Mother Nature, Galveston Park Board officials plan to put the seaweed to work inside sand dunes along Galveston's East Beach to protect against damage from storm surges and even hurricanes.

According to Galveston Park Board Executive Director Kelly de Schaun, the dense, heavy material that is characteristic of seaweed would reinforce a dune and protect it from erosion.

"In the case of a massive storm or a high surge, you're going to lose your dunes, but it just means more energy has been broken up in tearing those dunes down," de Schaun said. "That's energy that if the dune wasn't there would have been spent tearing down buildings or damaging property."

Seaweed, more formally known as sargassum, has been a component of Galveston beaches for years, with workers coming out early in the morning to clear the beaches with front-end loaders and moving the brown plant out of the way. This pilot project focuses instead on using the natural resource to sustain the beach in more ways than one.

"I think that as a society, as we go farther along, we discover we have to live in harmony with our environment," de Schaun said. "So as we began to look at [the seaweed] from a different, integrated, more holistic approach to sustainability, we realized that it's not only a material that is a byproduct of the ocean process, it's a product that we can begin to incorporate and utilize in another life cycle."

The issue encountered with seaweed is that the algae are hard to move without taking sand with them. This is a bigger problem than simply moving a stinky plant, because sand is actually a scarce resource along the Texas coast, with Texas A&M reporting that 64 percent of the coastline in Texas is eroding at an average rate of six feet per year.

"We're just trying to leave the sand where it is and incorporate the seaweed into the dune, and also cover it so it's physically out of sight but still provides a benefit," Project Manager Jens Figlus of Texas A&M at Galveston said. "In general, after two, three years, [the seaweed] is practically gone, but we hope to generate the vegetation and spur the growth of these dunes over time. It's kind of a short-term and long-term resolution to something that has plagued Galveston for a long time now." Over the course of several years, researchers at Texas A&M have developed a satellite-based program called SEAS that alerts beach officials to when seaweed will wash up on Galveston shores in both large and small loads. According to de Schaun, the SEAS program has helped officials manage the seaweed deposits and determine what to do when the plant arrives.

"The first iteration was sort of understanding when we were going to be hit and being able to manage those situations as opposed to just being balls to the wall -- everyone run like a mad man trying to figure it out -- to looking for more appropriate technologies for the different types of landings we had, to this, which is now being able to utilize the material," de Schaun said.

Figlus said for most beaches, dunes are an integral part of a beach-going experience that protects against hurricanes and storm surges and fulfills a natural habitat role, but that in Galveston the case is the opposite, as most of the beach is flat from dunes that are either small enough to drive your car over or nonexistent.

"That makes the island very susceptible to surge and wave action damage, and that's what we want to prevent from happening in the future," Figlus said.

The Sargassum project is budgeted to cost approximately $140,000. The park board is contributing $60,000 of their budget while also applying for a grant from the General Land Office for the remaining $80,000. The results on the grant will be available in October, but Figlus said even if the grant were denied, the project would happen.

"We will do the project, the park board has already provided the funds; it's just a matter of whether we can get some additional funds from the state to do the initially intended form and shape and size or if we have to scale it down a bit in terms of cost into a smaller pilot project just with the park board funding that's available," Figlus said. "So we will do something, but the question is just to the extent of the actual project."

If the funds become available, Figlus said, the project could begin in January.

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