Despite an agreement that guarantees beach cleaning in the event of seaweed inundation, residents of some West End communities still worry their beaches won’t be clean enough this summer.
After a move last year that disallowed private contractors from operating under its beach cleaning permit, the Galveston Park Board of Trustees last month agreed to clean West End beaches of seaweed under specific conditions.
According to the agreement, the park board will clean the beaches of neighborhood associations who sign up when seaweed builds up to 2 1/2 feet high and 10 feet wide or covers 50 percent of a property.
But that would not be frequent enough for some residents, said Bob Dolgin, president of the Sandhill Shores Property Owners Association.
“Why is it that Florida beaches, even on the Gulf Coast, can go ahead and clean their beaches on a daily basis?” Dolgin said.
Beaches that look dirty can deter tourists, he said. Members of his neighborhood would rather hire a contractor to clean beaches as often as they want, he said.
The park board cleans beaches under a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit, which involved a costly, lengthy process to obtain, park board officials said.
Although it previously allowed private companies to operate under its permit, the board revoked that privilege last year amid claims a company had violated terms of the permit.
The permit is required for using heavy equipment that might cause environmental harm and requires the permit holder to take steps to prevent that harm.
Sargassum, a type of seaweed, does provide some ecological benefits to Galveston beaches, but the positives might not outweigh the economic losses associated with decreased tourism, said Rusty Feagin, a professor at Texas A&M University.
He studies coastal ecology and published a 2007 article about potential costs and benefits of sargassum on beaches and conducted new research last year, he said.
“It doesn’t really affect the beach elevation over time in a significant way,” Feagin said.
In the short term, seaweed build-up protects the shore against erosion from the waves, but he’s not sure that effect lasts years over years, he said.
Sargassum does provide ecological benefits, but pushing it off the beach, closer to the dunes, could have benefits for tourism that are more significant than any environmental costs, he said.
“I don’t think it’s the end of the world,” Faegin said.
But sargassum in Galveston is an essential part of the ecology, said Joanie Steinhaus, program manager with Turtle Island Restoration Network.
The nonprofit promotes sea turtle and beach health.
“These homeowners think that seaweed is a health hazard and it’s not a health hazard,” Steinhaus said. “There’s no need to clean daily.”
No matter what people want, the beach cleaning has to stay within the bounds of the park board’s permit, said Peggy Zahler, vice president of the West Galveston Island Property Owners Association.
“I understand if you’re in for the investment, you want a pristine beach,” Zahler said. “I understand that seaweed does serve a very productive purpose on the beach.”
Some states have much more pristine beaches than Texas does, but those states have different rules, she said.
The Sandhill Shores association will likely sign the park board permit because otherwise, no one will be able to clean the area beach at all, Dolgin said.
The Army Corps of Engineers is working on a cheaper permit that homeowners associations or companies could obtain to clean beaches, but that permit likely won’t be ready for several years, park board officials said.