A comprehensive study of the Galveston Bay watershed warns pollution, loss of habitat and the effects of climate change pose significant risks to the health of the waterway.
In its first Galveston Bay Report Card, the Houston Advanced Research Center and the Galveston Bay Foundation gave the bay a “C” grade, indicating it is “adequate for now” but conditions will deteriorate without further action.
Federal regulation and local efforts to restore and preserve the bay, along with its natural resilience, have hugely benefitted the watershed, the report said. But Texas has not followed the lead of some other states with programs to eliminate trash from waterways, one of the bay’s most serious problems.
And the state does not routinely monitor which toxins are in the bay’s sediment.
“We are not in crisis mode yet, but we will be if we don’t take better care of our beloved Galveston Bay,” Galveston Bay Foundation President Bob Stokes said.
The report highlights thriving areas of the bay, including its nutrient and oxygen levels — the lifeblood of ecosystems and marine life. But the report also pointed out the significant harm the bay faces from urbanization and pollution.
For decades, the bay suffered from industrial dumping and other toxins. But the 1972 Clean Water Act and a number of local efforts to restrict dumping of waste have helped to significantly improve water quality, the report said.
Litter, habitat loss and environmental risks are among the biggest current threats to the bay. And the bay was dealt a blow last year by a massive oil spill that occurred when a cargo ship and tank barge collided.
Trash is one of the most abundant pollutants in the bay, the report said. It affects water quality by blocking light and natural flow, which reduces oxygen levels, and releases chemicals into the environment, according to the report.
“Trash is an unsightly problem that plagues communities around the world, and has created islands of swirling plastics in our oceans,” the report said.
Urbanization, along with coastal subsidence, has also led to significant habitat loss, the report said. Freshwater and saltwater wetlands, which naturally filter polluted runoff and provide nutrients for wildlife, are disappearing at alarming rates.
For example, between 1996 and 2010, the Galveston Bay system lost 365 acres of saltwater wetlands and 13,538 acres of freshwater wetlands, about 13 percent of its wetlands, to development, the report said.
But the report noted that the habitats are “beginning to benefit from the successes of regulatory protection and restoration efforts.”
Of environmental challenges, sea level rise and coastal subsidence create some of the greatest threats to Galveston Bay. Wetlands naturally migrate inland when the sea level rises but in Galveston Bay there is nowhere inland for them to migrate, the report said.
“As a result, they become permanently flooded and the vegetation dies, effectively destroying the wetlands,” the report said.
Likewise extreme weather events, predicted to become more common due to climate change, jeopardize the bay. In 2008, 60 percent of the oyster reefs in Galveston Bay were covered with sediment after Hurricane Ike. And the drought cut freshwater inflows into the bay, devastating the oyster population, the report said.
Authors said the foundations intend to use the first report card as a baseline for future studies and annually update the report card.
“The overall grade of a C for Galveston Bay is not the end, but just the beginning,” HARC Vice President Lisa Gonzalez said in a news release.