Recreation, Restoration, and Collaboration on the Texas Coast

For many residents living along the Gulf Coast, salt marshes and wetlands are as entrenched in their identity as college football and church on Sundays. Memories of boating, fishing, hunting, and feasting on the bounty from our southern coast are a cornerstone of life for many folks who call this region home.

Jefferson County, TX Judge, Jeff Branick, is one of these people. Growing up in the Salt Bayou of Texas, Judge Branick was just a young boy when the coastal marsh took hold of him. It started with a 14-foot aluminum boat and 10 horsepower engine that allowed him and his grandfather to access their favorite flounder spots and brought them home bushels of crabs.

Salt Bayou, TX
Salt Bayou. Credit: USFWS

In addition to miles of recreation opportunities, the Salt Bayou, the largest wetland complex on the Texas Gulf Coast, is also home to the Nation’s busiest military port and 60% of the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve offloads here. Nearby, in Motiva is the country’s largest oil refinery. All these industries co-exist with a productive natural environment that operates to the benefit of everyone – and it’s not an accident.

In partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Branick and other conservation-minded organizations, private landowners, and local businesses developed a watershed wide restoration plan designed to preserve the marsh and enhance the economic prosperity of the Bayou. The group, aptly named the Salt Bayou Working Group, has put 15 years of data, monitoring, and collaboration to work in designing the plan.

Protecting and restoring landscapes for multiple uses is a cornerstone of the USFWS Coastal Program’s mission. In the instance of the Salt Bayou, the marsh was not only home to wildlife, recreation, and industry, it also sees its share of hurricanes and flood events. With such diverse economic and environmental interests, collaboration was the only obvious route to creating a comprehensive plan to protect this important landscape.

Diverse interests also lead to diverse projects. The restoration plan began with restoring Keith Lake fish pass to its historic width and depth, reducing the amount of saltwater coming into the Bayou. These modifications will ultimately lead to the re-establishment of native vegetation and restoration of freshwater flow and sediment to the marsh.

usfws staff at McFaddin NWR
Working Group members at McFaddin NWR. Credit: USFWS

Additionally, the Service was also able to restore the historic beach and dunes at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge that help protect Gulf residents, businesses, and infrastructure from storm floods.

Judge Branick recalls Hurricane Ike, which made landfall in 2008. “The only thing that stood between the destruction of our refining capacity and Hurricane Ike was that marsh. It saved the county” he said. It’s estimated that for each 2.7 miles of marsh present, one foot of storm surge can be reduced.

Thanks to the Coastal Program, Nature’s Good Neighbors like the Salt Bayou Working Group will continue to reap the vast benefits of the marsh and can rest a bit easier in the face of future storm events. It doesn’t hurt that the fishing, hunting, and harvesting got better too.

A version of this story originally appeared on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website in June 2018. Restore America’s Estuaries is proud to partner with USFWS to promote the Coastal Program and its benefits. Are you interested in becoming Nature’s Good Neighbor? Join the Habitat Network!

By Rob Shane, Communications Manager – Restore America’s Estuaries