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20 years in the making: How the nation’s largest coastal restoration project came to be

The tour group gathers on McFaddin Beach during a tour highlighting the successes and ongoing efforts to repair marshlands, coastal waterways and beaches in a 10-plus year Salt Bayou Marsh Restoration Plan in Jefferson County. The nearly $3 million project is a combined effort of multiple county, state, federal and private partnerships "to restore and maintain ecological functions and values to reverse the decline" occurring rapidly in the 139,000 acre Salt Bayou coastal marsh ecosystem, according to material provided by the project.

Posted on October 17, 2022

More than 20 years ago, local, state and federal leaders as well as conservation organizations saw the need to protect one of the county’s most vulnerable ecosystems, thus embarking on a multi-faceted $150 million-plus project to restore and rebuild the region’s coastline and ecosystem, resulting in the nation’s largest coastal restoration project.

Now, with significant headway made on coastal restoration and several projects completed in Jefferson County, the public and private partners that spearheaded the project are recognizing their feat.

As one of the most ecologically-diverse regions in the United States, it plays an important role in the lifecycles of numerous flora, fauna and wildlife.

The region also plays an important role in the nation’s economy, housing portions of Interstate 10, numerous U.S. and state highways, rail, deep-water ports and some of the largest refineries in North America.

But all of that diversity and economic movement is vulnerable to hurricanes and other harsh weather.

The toll exacted on the region from natural and man-made intervention is evidenced in the Salt Bayou coast marsh, located at the southern edge of the county.

Concentrated on the lower watershed south of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the Salt Bayou coastal marsh has seen its 139,000 acres rapidly deteriorate due to erosion caused by hurricanes and other tropical weather, shipping and offshore drilling.

“(Salt Bayou is) one of the most special and unique and unparalleled ecosystems, not only in Texas, not only in North America, but really, in all of the Western Hemisphere,” said Texas Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Carter Smith. “(It’s) our largest estuarine marsh, home to so many important natural communities and critically important to the human communities’ health and vitality, not only for recreation, but also protection from the inevitable storm surges that come in from the Gulf of Mexico.”

At a recognition event Tuesday, Smith said the public-private partnership that led the restoration was one of the most extraordinary he’s witnessed in his 15-year career in his role at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

“Representatives from all facets of government, private and public sectors and local communities, business leaders, community leaders, political leaders, coming together to do something that’s bigger than any one of us — it’s a great example of how government ought to work,” he said. “It’s a great example of how you make a successful public-private partnership. It’s not just about talk, it’s about doing.”

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said he was first presented the predecessor to what became the Salt Bayou Marsh Plan by the late Jefferson County Director of Engineering Don Rao, who showed him a working group study in 2007.

“I took it home that night and read it and having grown up in the marsh and having already been an enthusiast for it, I was really on fire because I didn’t up until that point recognize the precarious situation the marsh was in, the dangers we faces, the issues that weren’t addressed,” Branick said.

But the estimated cost of the plan — $150 million — was worrisome, Branick said.

“That was more than the entire county’s budget,” he said.

The next day, Rao came back to Branick’s office with the late Texas Parks and Wildlife Project Leader Jim Sutherlin.

“I never told this story because Jim always told me, ‘I don’t advocate for anything as a state employee,’ but it was some time around 2010 or 2011…I saw Jim walk into my office with a piece of paper,” Branick said. “When (they) walked out, the piece of paper was sitting on a chair and I yelled at him and said, ‘Hey, Jim, you forgot your paper,’ and he said, ‘That’s not my paper.’ I picked it up and it was a consent decree for a federal court action that had been brought back in 1995 where Bethlehem Shipyard paid $1 million to the Parks and Wildlife Foundation (after pleading guilty to federal charges of discharging pollutants from the company’s Port Arthur dry dock into the Sabine-Neches Waterway) to be used on a future environmental project.”

After speaking with executives at Texas Parks and Wildlife, Branick said the money was still there. That $1 million, along with money from Sempra and Golden Pass LNG helped pay for the Keith Lake baffle, one of many projects in the Salt Bayou marsh restoration plan.

The entire Salt Bayou marsh restoration plan consists of seven projects:

The creation of a baffle in the Keith Lake Fish Pass

Jefferson County along with the Texas General Land Office and Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation constructed an underwater baffle, which allows small boat sport fishing access while reducing extreme flows and tidal influences that otherwise would continue to erode the bayou entrance’s banks and harmful saltwater inundation, according to plan informational documents.

“The concept was to bring the volume of saltwater coming in from the ship channel down to where Keith Lake and Johnson Lake meet up, that we would keep that salinity to about 10 parts per 1,000 or less (at least) 50% of the time,” said Texas Parks and Wildlife Upper Coast Wetlands Ecosystem Project Leader Mike Rezsutek.

The project, completed in spring of 2015, was originally an Army Corps of Engineers project.

But Rezsutek said the Corps wanted to study the area more before they put more money into it. So, the team asked if they could use the Corps’ plans, which they agreed to.

They were able to build the baffle for less than half of what the project would have originally cost.

“(The baffle) was doing a really great job, then we had Harvey (that) flooded everything out and now there’s a washout on the south side…basically we’re losing the functionality until we get the washout fixed,” Rezsutek said. “But we are in the process of funding that.”

The project cost $2.825 million with funding coming from the land office’s Coastal Erosion Planning and Response Act, county contributions from Sempra and Golden Pass LNG mitigation and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.

The construction of a clay berm at the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge

After decimation of the McFaddin Beach sand dunes from several storms but particularly Hurricane Ike in 2008, the marsh was no longer protected from high tides and saltwater that flowed directly into the marsh and killed and damaged its vegetation.

The county, along with the U.S. Department of the Interior/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the land office and non-profit conservation organization Ducks Unlimited constructed a clay berm, or raised barrier, to reduce and stop and saltwater entry into the marsh at high tides.

The $9.05 million project was funded by Hurricane Ike Disaster Recovery fund from the land office in addition to the land office’s coastal erosion act funding, Ducks Unlimited under the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the county.

Strategic water control structures

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Ducks Unlimited and the land office provided “strategic water control structures” both along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and within the Salt Bayou marsh ecosystem to manage water, marsh condition and plant health at a cost of $4.5 million, according to the informational documents.

Restoration of soils and elevations of the marsh through beneficial use of dredge materials

Texas Parks and Wildlife partnered with the county and private industries Golden Pass LNG and Sempra along the Sabine-Neches ship channel to use dredge materials to rebuild injured or stripped areas of the marsh that had been impacted by saltwater intrusion and tides.

During a Tuesday tour of one of the sites, Compartment 15 of the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area, Texas Parks and Wildlife Upper Coast Wetlands Ecosystem Project Leader Mike Rezsutek said that in 2010, he and his colleagues noticed that the area was “literally falling apart.”

“The marsh was stressed, the plants were dying off, turning into shallow, open water,” he said. “It was right after (Hurricane) Rita (in 2005) that we decided we needed to do something. After (Hurricane) Ike (in 2008) hit, we figured we really needed to do something. We worked to get some Ike recovery money for fisheries — it was like $1 million-plus. But then Golden Pass (LNG) came to us and said, ‘Hey look, we’ve got to mitigate for so many hundreds of acres for our project and we want to do beneficial use because we don’t want to spend all of our money in storage fees for this material. Can you guys use this?’ (It allowed us to) leverage one grant that was only going to give us 20 acres or so into something that gave us 1,500.”

With the dredge material from the Golden Pass facility, the department was able to spread the material across the levee-protected area, gaining on average an elevation of about 80 inches, Rezsutek said.

“It was enough to bring it back where the plants wouldn’t be stressed, or at least wouldn’t be constantly inundated anymore,” he said. “This area here supports a lot of our waterfowl hunting and a lot of the ducks that come in, if we get a good year for submerged aquatics, will gang up in this area here.”

Rezsutek said that he and his colleagues faced some challenges when the project began.

“There were some ‘Oh crap!’ moments that we had after everything got poured in there,” he said. “We were new to this. We were like, ‘Well, let’s go big or go home. We either make our careers or break our careers.'”

The mud was initially pumped at the height of the 2010 drought, which resulted in all the materials coming out of the ship channel to be extremely salty, Rezsutek said.

“After the mud was placed and the water decanted and the mud was exposed to the drying air, it brought all those salt crystals up and the only way to get rid of them was to have it rain on it or have the tides come in and flush it out,” he said.

Even with the complications, Rezsutek said it took about two growing seasons to see some results.

“The species composition changed over time,” he said. “As the soil got a little less salty, different species would come in…it’s freshened up quite a bit.”

Installation of breakwaters on the edge of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway

The J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area and the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge worked with Ducks Unlimited and other contractors to install rock breakwaters along both edges of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in areas of concern in order to reduce wave action and bank erosion to protect the marsh habitat.

Ducks Unlimited worked with the Gulf Coast Joint Venture and scientists to develop the Breakwater Prioritization Model, which identifies weak areas that could endanger the marsh’s freshwater and brackish habitats by saltwater intrusion.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Stephanie Goehring said that when the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway — which cuts through the McFaddin refuge — was dug in the 1930s, it was slated to be 9 feet deep and 100-feet wide. Later, it was widened to 150 feet and deepened to 16 feet.

However, at certain areas, due to bank erosion, the waterway is 500 feet wide.

“As they dredge out the Intracoastal to make it deeper, they put this material into these spoil impoundments but because the bank has been eroded away (in some areas), it’s just going to spill back out into the Intracoastal and it’s also eroding our access to get to the refuge,” Goehring said.

In the four years she’s worked with refuge, Goehring said there are areas of the bank that have eroded all the way to the roads used to access the refuge.

The breakwaters began being placed in 2008 and Goehring said there is about 11 miles left of breakwater to be installed, coming out to about $1 million per mile.

Where they are already installed, the rocks are providing homes to oysters, fish and other crustaceans. Some have grown vegetation on their own and some vegetation has been planted to foster regrowth.

At a cost of $16.1 million, the breakwaters are funded by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hurricane Harvey supplemental funds, the land office, Jefferson County, Golden Pass and through several other conservation and assistance acts and programs.

Construction of freshwater siphons under the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway

The county and Drainage District 6 in partnership with the state parks and wildlife department, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Department of the Interior with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service constructed two sets of freshwater siphons, which pull rainwater sheet flow from flooding on the north side of the area through the siphons underneath the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in order to restore some of the favorable hydrology to the south side of the waterway and provide additional freshwater runoff into the marsh, according to the informational documents.

The siphon is designed to transport about 30 cubic yards of water per second across the channel, Douglas Head of U.S. Fish and Wildlife said.

“As that water moves out, the baffle is in place, hopefully we’ll start seeing salinities go down all the way through that Salt Bayou area,” he said. “The dip and vat ponds (in the marsh) is a pretty popular area with us, (they) were pretty much annihilated for quite a few years after Hurricane Ike. It still hasn’t (fully) recovered but with the extreme freshwater we’ve had the last few years, that marsh is starting to come back pretty good so hopefully this can boost that.”

A third siphon is funded and in design planning.

The siphons cost just over $15 million and were funded by the Gulf Environmental Benefits Fund, two grants under the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, Jefferson County, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation with the third siphon being funded by U.S. Fish and Wildlife resiliency funding and Hurricane Maria supplemental funds.

Restoration of the McFaddin dune and beach

The largest component of the Salt Bayou marsh plan is the 20-mile restoration of beach and dunes at the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge.

Some portions of unrestored beach have little to no sand and are mostly or totally clay, providing very little to no protection for the marsh.

“Two most important reasons why this project is important is for beach erosion and saltwater intrusion,” said McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge Manager Ernie Crenwelge. “We know that clay, when the waves are hitting it, the sediments are so fine (that) once they break up, they just leave the area. There’s sections of beach that we’ve experienced hundreds of feet of erosion every year.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Project Leader Tim Cooper said the region loses about 40 football fields of shoreline to erosion each year.

In a pilot program in 2017, the Texas General Land Office, Jefferson County and the refuge partnered to restore three miles of the beach as a test phase, dredging sands offshore out of the Gulf of Mexico from an ancient riverbed from the Pleistocene.

The project aides in the repair and restoration of habitat conditions for dune nesting birds while also protecting the marsh from seasonal high tide overflows, not just during large storms.

“What they’ll do is, they’ll build up the beach and then they’ll also have a 10-foot sand dune on the backside,” Crenwelge said. “We don’t even have to have a storm, we can just have one of those days where wind blows for three days straight at 20-30 miles per hour (and there’s) high tidal waves and it’s already pushing (saltwater) into the marsh.”

Cooper said the project’s restoration value isn’t just the the beach, it’s everything that lies behind in the marsh.

Crenwelge said that the resiliency of the pilot portion of the beach has already been tested in storms and the results have been impressive.

“The only real erosion we saw was around the edges of the sand dunes, and we kind of expected that,” he said. “The other thing was, over time, that sand moves up and down the beach, but it was all just kind of hanging out in that general area.”

Work continues on the remaining 17 miles.

“Once we get done, the shoreline will actually move out in some areas as much as 300 feet out into the Gulf of Mexico,” Crenwelge said.

The pilot program and the larger project cost $106 million with funding coming from some of the land office’s numerous coastal funds, the county and the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act, signed into law after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, among others.

The restoration projects not only help to protect an ecological necessity for wildlife, but drive the local, state and national economy as well, said Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Executive Director and Gov. Greg Abbott’s appointee to the RESTORE Council Toby Baker said.

“It’s a really important piece of what I call green infrastructure that provides a buffer (for) what drives the economy down here, the petrochemical industry, the Intracoastal Waterway, all of that is sort of protected by this marsh and that beach,” he said.

Baker said the projects will also protect the area from storm surges during hurricanes.

“If you just think about putting more space between you and the storm surge — the beach nourishment project, rebuilding the sand, rebuilding the dune system is really important,” he said.

Barring any major storms, the restoration should hold up for the next 30 years, Cooper said.

The McFaddin Beach restoration is expected to be completed by 2023, Branick said.
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