A Talk on the Wild Side.
A beach renourishment project at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, which rebuilt a three-mile stretch of dunes, withstood the pounding of Tropical Storm Cindy about a month after it was finished in May and then the howling force of Hurricane Harvey in late August.
Now, the Texas Trustee Implementation Group, which is responsible for a fund established to restore natural resources injured during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, has allocated $15.8 million for the restoration of an additional 17 miles of beach and dunes at the McFaddin Refuge, part of the Salt Bayou watershed. This covers approximately one-third of the estimated cost of the McFaddin Beach and Dune Restoration Project.
And last month, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) released its Multi-year Implementation Plan for another Deepwater Horizon-related fund that included an additional $10 million to help fund the project.
Beaches and dunes provide needed protection along coastal areas, keeping seawater out of the local salt marshes during all but the heaviest tides. Salt marshes in turn serve as buffers against storms – soaking up waves, taking the pounding and diminishing it, and more – but it starts with beaches and dunes.
Behind the dunes and marshes of McFaddin sit the city of Beaumont and more than 30 refineries (including Motiva, the largest refinery in the United States and second largest in the world), the busiest section of the Intracoastal Waterway (by tonnage), and the Port of Beaumont, the world’s busiest military port, as well as neighboring communities and other infrastructure.
In addition to the infrastructure they protect, the marshes are extremely important for commercial and recreational fisheries and wintering and migratory birds.
Dozers work on the restoration. Photo by USFWS
“You have the best mix of environmental and economic co-benefits of any place in the Gulf of Mexico, I think,” project consultant Tim Richardson told The Examiner of Southeast Texas. “If you stack up these co-benefits, a dollar spent in Jefferson County brings you more, multiple benefits than a dollar spent anywhere else in the Gulf.”
Adds Toby Baker of TCEQ: “As a Beaumont native, I realize the importance of the Salt Bayou watershed’s role in safeguarding people and industry as well as a world class wildlife habitat area.”
The beaches and dunes naturally erode, but the sediment that has historically allowed them to rebuild no longer flows down rivers to the Gulf of Mexico – it is blocked by dams and other structures.
McFaddin Beach before. Photo by USFWS
That means seawater is able to flow into the marshes, killing off plants that are not adapted to salty water. The loss of vegetation leads to more erosion because plants are no longer there to trap sand and dirt, and the former marsh eventually just becomes part of the Gulf, providing no protection whatsoever from storms. Fewer plants also mean fewer birds and fishes.
Jefferson County Judge Jeff R. Branick, a leading proponent of the renourishment project, admits in a column in the Beaumont Enterprise, that until he became a county judge, he didn’t realize how important the beach and dunes are.
He soon found out, and he writes, “This ribbon of beach and marsh grasses has existed for millennia but now it is under threat.”
So the Service and partners, including Jefferson County, the Texas General Land Office, Texas Parks and Wildlife and Ducks Unlimited, began work to restore the beach to where it was 100 years ago and protect the marshes.
From left: Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, Principal Deputy Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service Greg Sheehan, McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge Manager Doug Head and Texas Chenier Plain National Wildlife Refuge Complex leader Tim Cooper. Photo by USFWS
The pilot project included dredging sand from about one mile out into the Gulf and creating an eight-foot dune system over three miles of coastline, a section considered the most vulnerable and subject to the most saltwater intrusion.
Hurricane Harvey showed that the pilot project worked.
Deepwater Horizon-related restoration and the TCEQ funds will enable the start of the last phase of the project, which will, as Judge Branick says in his column, “ensure all the benefits of this critical marsh to future generations.”