Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
Hurricane Emily Prompts Opening of Channel to Restore the Bahia Grande
Southwest Region, July 16, 2005
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Hurricane Emily prompted an early kickoff of the first phase of restoring 10,000 acres of tidal wetlands on the Bahia Grande Unit of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. With South Texas appearing to be in bull's-eye of Hurricane Emily, Brownsville Navigation District (BND) officials feared the hurricane would damage their recently constructed ?pilot channel?, which connected the dry Bahia Grande basin to the Brownsville Ship Channel. With only a dirt plug in the 15-foot wide channel preventing tidal waters from flowing north into the Bahia Grande, BND officials decided to open the pilot channel 12 days earlier than a scheduled dedication event. With the hurricane hurtling toward South Texas and northern Mexico, an impromptu event was held at midday on Saturday, July 16, 2005, to celebrate the opening of the pilot channel and to name it after Carl ?Joe? Gayman, a BND Commissioner. In April 1983, Mr. Gayman had dug a small channel, in the same location, in an effort to flood the Bahia Grande with the hope of adding nursery habitat for shrimp. Two weeks after opening his channel, a court order forced Mr. Gayman to close the channel. The owners of the Bahia Grande feared losing their mineral rights if the flooded Bahia Grande basin was declared state navigable waters.

After short speeches by BND Chairman Peter M. Zavaletta and Cameron County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa, the pilot channel was opened at 1:37 p.m. to the cheers and clapping of about 250 spectators. As the waters of the ship channel rushed north along the 2,300-foot pilot channel, many spectators raced the water on foot and in their vehicles to see the tidal waters enter the Bahia Grande through three large culverts under State Highway 48. Refuge Manager John Wallace, U.S./Mexico Coordinator Steve Labuda, Outreach Specialist Patty Alexander, and Supervisory Refuge Officer Tony McGallicher were there to witness the brown, swirling waters flow out of the culverts and north past refuge posts emblazoned with ?Blue Goose? boundary signs. As the tidal waters flooded north, spectators could see clouds of dust on the horizon billowing up from the dry bed of the 6,500-acre Bahia Grande basin. The first phase of restoring the Bahia Grande wetland complex had been completed.

Two days after the opening event, Refuge Manager Wallace mapped the extent of flooding in the shallow Bahia Grande basin. About 900 acres was inundated from a combination of lunar tides and wind tides. This rate of flooding (about 450 acres per day) was similar to what had occurred when Mr. Gayman opened his channel in 1983. Anecdotal reports indicated that it took about two weeks to flood the entire Bahia Grande basin. These reports could not be tested since the passage of Hurricane Emily about 80 miles south of the Bahia Grande Unit on July 20, 2005 resulted in about 2.5 inches of rainfall and abnormally high tides, which facilitated the flooding of about 90 percent of the basin in one day.

Refuge staff, BND officials, and many other public and private partners are now working on second phase projects for restoring the Bahia Grande wetland complex. These projects include the construction of a main channel, which will replace the pilot channel, and two interior channels on refuge property. The main BND channel will be ten times larger (150-foot bottom width and 9-foot below mean sea level depth) than the pilot channel. The two interior refuge channels (60-foot bottom width and 2-foot below MSL depth) will connect the Bahia Grande basin to the 1,700-acre Laguna Larga and 1,300-acre Little Laguna Madre basins. In addition, the Texas Department of Transportation is expanding State Highway 48, and it will replace the three small culverts at the pilot channel location with a 256-foot long bridge in order to accommodate the main BND channel.

Contact Info: Martin Valdez, 505-248-6599, martin_valdez@fws.gov
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