GALVESTON — At 5 a.m. on Thursday, Jesse Ojeda, the Park Board’s beach cleaning operations manager, thought he might be in for a long day.
The tide had peaked just 15 minutes before, and the day’s low tide was not going to happen for another 16 hours.
If another mat of seaweed had landed, it might be a while before Ojeda’s crews could pick it all up.
“It’s somewhat of a lull right now,” Ojeda said. “We’re going to go remove some of the seaweed in anticipation of any additional landings to give us some room.”
It’s a process that Ojeda and his team have been doing for the past several weeks. If they’re not picking up newly landed seaweed, they’re making room for the next batch.
Sense of scale
Seaweed is nothing new in Galveston, and most locals know some years bring more of the reddish sargassum than others. But 2014 been unprecedented. During April and May, the amount of the algae that washed up on island beaches would have covered football fields, and naturally rose in some places as high as 6 feet.
Robert Webster, a researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston who developed a seaweed detection tool called the Sargassum Early Advisory System, said deposits of seaweed have been heavy all along the Texas Coast, but the landings might be more pronounced here because of the limited space along the island’s narrow seawall beaches.
“Pain was felt from Boca Chica to the Sabine Pass,” Webster said. “The fact that we have a seawall puts a limit on what you can do with the sargassum as it lands on the beach.”
The large spring landings were a result of a weather system that held a Sargassum slick out in the Gulf for weeks on end, where it grew.
When the weather shifted, the seaweed came in with a vengeance.
“We were suffering too many massive hits, to the point we were running out of room,” Ojeda said. His crews, equipped with front-end loaders and smaller towed beach rakes, worked as many as 16 hours a day trying to clear the island’s most popular beaches. Sometimes, crews would finish a job, just to turn around and see more seaweed had landed, he said.
Judging from an analysis of news clippings dating back to the 1960s, this year’s seaweed influx is one of the largest in the island’s recent history, Webster said.
The cost of cleanup
At a Park Board of Trustees meeting last week, Executive Director Kelly de Schaun outlined ways seaweed maintenance had affected the department’s operations.
“This is an unprecedented situation that we’re seeing,” de Schaun said “We are doing nothing but working on beach cleaning.”
Beach maintenance employees have had their vacations canceled. Extra equipment has been rented. The board has had to hire turtle monitors to walk the beaches in the mornings looking for signs of turtles nesting in the seaweed, lest they be scooped up in the cleaning.
Although the summer tourism season is just beginning, the board is already pushing the limits of its beach cleaning budget.
Through May, the Park Board had paid an estimated $8,500 in overtime for beach maintenance personnel. The budget for the year is $25,000. During the same period in 2013, the board spent only $2,000 on beach cleaning overtime.
The Park Board had spent $15,000 of its $40,000 budget on equipment rentals through May (one front loader cost $4,500 a month to rent) and $44,000 of a $125,000 budget for fuel. Ojeda estimated the cleaning crews use 250 to 300 gallons of diesel daily, depending on the size of seaweed landings.
De Schaun said the Park Board likely would vote to use contingency funds — money set aside in the budget for unusual circumstances — to help offset shortfalls projected later in the year.
Can’t be moved
The board also has had to deal with business owners worried about the sight and smell of the large seaweed piles.
De Schaun told the board that one hotelier had asked whether the piles could be fumigated. The answer was a definitive no.
“Absolutely not,” she said.
“That’s an environmental issue. There’s marine life in there. There are piping plover on the beaches, there are turtles on the beaches. They would never in their wildest dreams all use a chemical compound on top of the seaweed.”
The reason seaweed isn’t just moved off the beach and dumped elsewhere is because of what’s in it, a land office official said.
“It’s organic material and organic material that helps enhance the beach profile,” Rajiv Vedamanikam, of the office’s Coastal Resources Division, said. “A lot of the Sargassum contains a lot of beach sand and a lot of critters, wildlife. So, throwing it in a waste dump is not beneficial in that sense. And it’s moving sand from the beach easement, which is prohibited.”
Generally, when cities move seaweed, they are required to keep it on the seaward side of dune lines. This year, some have take extra measures to deal with the algae, state officials said. Some have asked for permission to stack the seaweed farther landward, others have chosen not to touch it at all.
The park board has been transporting some of the seaweed from the piles along seawall beaches to East Beach, which hasn’t been done in past years.
Even that measure has consequences.
Disturbing a pile of composting seaweed early in the morning releases a pungent, lingering smell just as people are getting out and about.
An end in sight?
Webster said his projections indicate the largest seaweed slicks have likely already hit the coast. However, the island and the rest of the coast could still be hit with amounts seen in a normal year — which 2014 decidedly isn’t.
“The Sargassum is going to continue, but not to the levels we’ve had in the past four or five weeks,” Webster said. “We’ll have the typical Sargassum throughout all the beaches like a normal year.”
The sargassum season generally ends in July or August, but can go later.
On Thursday morning, it appeared the island had received a respite.
A few days earlier, another moderately sized bunch had arrived, but had stubbornly refused to come fully ashore. The result was a sloppy mix that slid back down onto the beach when the front loaders piled it onto existing stacks.
“It was like split pea soup,” Ojeda said.
On Thursday, what was once wet had dried out enough to be moved, thanks to channels Ojeda had ordered dug around the goop. The water had drained, and the weeds had started decomposing into black pellets.
Rey Soto, who drives a front loader, stopped his machine as turtle monitors walked through another section of beach. Soto, a Park Board employee of 17 years, was one of the people whose vacations were called off.
“I’d rather have the money,” Soto said.