Marshes just as vital as beaches
Area residents often think of coastal protection as one-dimensional — the beach that stands between them and the Gulf of Mexico. As the Salt Bayou project shows, it’s two-dimensional — the beach and the adjacent marsh.
Homes and businesses can begin where the sand ends, but usually there’s a strip of marshland that serves as a buffer. And sometimes it’s more than a strip, like the huge J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area just west of Port Arthur. About 1,500 acres of that coastal marsh have been rejuvenated recently, thanks to settlement funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Harvey relief, as our story on Monday reported.
That portion of marshland, once desolate but now teeming with plant and marine life, provides benefits for Southeast Texans year-round — hunting, fishing, birding, kayaking, etc. During hurricanes, however, the marsh can do even more. It can absorb much of the energy and tidal surge from a storm, reducing damage inland.
In Southeast Texas, the main danger to freshwater marshes is saltwater intrusion from the Gulf. It kills much of the vegetation in a marsh, which in turn drives out fish, crustaceans and other marine creatures. The area revitalized in the Salt Bayou Plan was a good example of how bad that process can be. But the $95 million spent on this project helped tremendously, erecting berms to keep out saltwater and allowing for the return of vegetation, sometimes in sediment dredged from the Sabine-Neches Ship Channel.
Ironically, another way to protect coastal marshes is with something decidedly unnatural — a highway. State officials recently announced plans to raise the height of Texas 87 from Rollover Pass to High Island. The road will be raised to 7½ feet, keeping the highway more reliable during bad weather or for evacuation during hurricanes. The elevation will also help keep saltwater from the Gulf from getting into the adjacent marshes. If this project is supplemented with beach buildup from sand dredged offshore — another ongoing coastal need — the highway should be in good shape for years to come.
State and county officials have been doing more to help marshes in Southeast Texas and the Bolivar Peninsula in recent years, sometimes in significant ways like the Salt Bayou Plan. That shift from indifference to awareness is welcome, but this is an ongoing battle. Marshes are fragile ecosystems, easily damaged and often needing years to recover.
The preservation of coastal marshlands is not just some vaguely good idea that helps a few people here. It’s vital to the economic and social vitality of this region, and it’s something we must never take for granted.