CORPUS CHRISTI — More than 600 acres of Coastal Bend wildlife habitat was added to the list of Texas benefits from criminal settlements stemming from the BP oil spill, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced.
Awards totaling more than $2.8 million for Coastal Bend projects follow a previously announced acquisition of the 17,000-acre Powderhorn Ranch in Calhoun County, destined to become a Texas state park and wildlife management area. Most of the purchase price, $34.5 million, came from the foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, which was derived from plea agreements involving BP and Transocean after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
These projects, announced Monday, were developed by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas General Land Office, with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Artist Boat, Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, Galveston Bay Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, and Scenic Galveston. Each is designed to remedy or reduce harm to natural resources affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to a news release from the fish and wildlife foundation.
In all, plea agreements in the court settlement awarded $2.544 billion to the foundation to distribute over five years. This is the second round of awards. The first included eight Texas projects valued at $8.8 million, but none were in the Coastal Bend.
Monday’s announcement included $1.5 million for marsh restoration in Egery Flats, a 600-acre wetland near Bayside on the west side of Copano Bay not far from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The second is for $1.1 million to enlarge and protect three bird rookery islands in the back of Nueces Bay.
The Egery Flats project has ties to the endangered flock of wild whooping cranes that spend winter in and around nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, according to Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator at the refuge. The flock of about 300 birds faces many threats, including drought and limited freshwater from the over-tapped Guadalupe River, which reduces habitat and food for the birds. Possibly as a result of these threats, cranes in recent years have begun expanding their winter territory into nonprotected areas of the coast.
A recent article by Felipe Chavez-Ramirez, director of conservation programs for the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, reports more than half the whooping crane’s winter habitat is on private land. Chavez-Ramirez predicts suitable, high quality, protected habitat for cranes within the Aransas, San Antonio and Matagorda bay systems will shrink to 26 percent of the crane’s territory, according to a study conducted by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies and the International Crane Foundation.
“Yes, this project has the potential to provide habitat for an expanding whooping crane population,” Harrell wrote in an email. “There is not regular winter use of that area by whooping cranes yet, however it is an area we survey during our winter whooping crane surveys.”
This project came to the attention of the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Much of project property is owned by the Texas General Land Office. Essentially the bays and estuaries program will use the money to channel bay water through culverts to inundate what is called emergent wetlands to improve or return about 600 acres of habitat to a semblance of what was there before two roads blocked the natural flow.
This type of estuarine habitat is essential to the health of myriad marine creatures and as feeding grounds for waterfowl, wading birds and shore birds. The project is expected to enhance the overall health of the Aransas Bay complex, which recently received another boost when a gulf pass named Cedar Bayou was opened between San Jose and Matagorda islands.
The Nueces Bay rookery project is the continuation of another bays and estuaries program to expand nesting islands that have eroded or degraded by human disturbances and predators such as fire ants. Historically Nueces Bay has supported thousands of colonial water birds such as great blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills, reddish egrets, Caspian terns, and black skimmers. Most or all of these species are in decline, according to David Newstead, an avian biologist with the bays and estuaries program.
Since the 1960s, nearly 12 acres of 40 nesting islands in the bay have been lost or rendered uninhabitable. Officials at the bays and estuaries program say the $1.1 million will be spent to restore 40 percent of what was lost, while protecting further erosion and placing 6,200 cubic yards of new material to enlarge the three islands.
A 2013 BP project along the middle and upper Texas coast will enhance the health of migrating waterfowl that spend winter or pass through the Coastal Bend, according to Ducks Unlimited officials. More than $1.2 million went to a project called the Gulf Coast Migratory Waterfowl Habitat Enhancement.
This money will be used to establish at least 3,000 acres of permanent wetlands and could fund the enrollment of another 20,000 acres of agriculture property in a 20-year initiative called the Texas Prairie Wetlands Program. The farmland would be flooded seasonally to support migratory waterfowl, shore birds and water birds in the Texas Chenier Plain and Mid-Coast region, roughly from Galveston Bay to Beaumont.
Ducks Unlimited officials say this would help to offset the loss of wetlands, partially from drought, and a declining rice crop that once provided food and habitat to millions of migrating waterfowl that pass through Texas each winter.
The Texas wetlands program provides technical assistance and incentives to private landowners to create wetlands along migratory routes. The program will leverage the oil spill award to gain grants from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, officials said.
BP SETTLEMENT PROJECTS
TEXAS 2014 PROJECTS
Anahuac N.W.R. Coastal Marsh Acquisition — $4,363,200
Coastal Heritage Preserve Initiative: Bayside Acquisition and Easement — $2,632,500
Virginia Point Shoreline Protection and Estuarine Restoration — $2,000,000
Oyster Lake Shoreline Protection and Restoration — $1,200,000
Greens Lake Protection and Marsh Restoration: Engineering & Design — $125,000
Dollar Bay-Moses Lake Shoreline Enhancement and Restoration — $130,300
Egery Flats Marsh Restoration — $1,587,000
Nueces Bay Rookery Islands Restoration — $1,145,000
Powderhorn Ranch Land Acquisition (2014) $34.5 million
TEXAS 2013 PROJECTS
Sea Rim State Park Coastal Dune Restoration
Galveston Island State Park Marsh Restoration & Protection
West Galveston Bay Conservation Corridor Habitat Preservation
Oyster Reef Restoration in East Bay
Gulf Coast Migratory Waterfowl Habitat Enhancement
Learn about the process of identifying restoration projects for funding through the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund in Texas, and suggest projects for consideration online at www.restorethetexascoast.org.