Your 2017 Galveston Bay Report Card is here!

The 2017 Galveston Bay Report Card was released on August 9, 2017. To create this third annual update of the report card, HARC again gathered scientific data related to each of the six categories and determined the grades associated with each category.

The Galveston Bay Report Card is a prime example of how scientific information can be used to provide information to the public about the health of this important resource. The Report Card delivers information about the Bay and surrounding watershed’s ability to provide ongoing benefits to the people who use it, including recreation, food, and protection from storms. Additionally, this information can be used to inform decisions and our everyday activities so that we can build a sustainable future for our Bay.

This year’s grade of a C denotes that Galveston Bay continues to do pretty well for now, but there are issues, and there are actions we can take to ensure the bay’s future prosperity.

When issuing the Report Card grades, we collect public input, gather the available data, and determine the grades based on that combination of information. Researchers at HARC analyze and grade 19 indicators across the six categories. We present the information in a straightforward report card format which is presented on the Galveston Bay Report Card website

The most significant challenges to the Bay continue to be declines in the acreage of natural habitats such as freshwater wetlands and oyster reefs (Habitat around the bay earned the grade of a “D”). Wetlands provide important benefits by absorbing and slowing the release of flood waters and improving water quality. Oysters of course support an important commercial fishery by providing us with seafood and oyster reefs provide important habitat for other fish and wildlife. Also, of concern is that while we know these habitats are in decline. The extent of the decline is unknown as updated data are not available. Therefore, you will some “incomplete” grades in these categories.

Another key issue is that of invasive species, species of plants, animals and microorganisms that are introduced to the Galveston Bay watershed from other parts of the world by human activity. They typically have negative impacts on our bayou watersheds. Rivers and Bayous flowing into Galveston Bay are highly impacted, as there are more than 100 species of invasive plants and animals established in the bayou watersheds flowing into Galveston Bay.

The good news is that the grade for Pollution Events & Sources has continued to show incremental improvement. Again, legacy pollutants such as PCBs, dioxins, and DDT and metals such as mercury and pyrene associated with ongoing human activities can be found in the sediments around the Houston Ship Channel. These pollutants can find their way into the Bay food web and even some of the seafood that we eat from these areas.

On average, 175 oil spills are reported every year in Galveston Bay. Most spills are small—less than five gallons—while some are large, such as a September 2016 shipping vessel incident that released 88,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the Houston Ship Channel. The total number of spills has remained consistent since 2001 and maintains a grade of C. The September 2016 incident led to a decline in the grade for volume spilled, receiving an F. We do continue to see some incomplete grades because of the lack of data describing toxins in bay sediments in areas apart from the Houston Ship Channel.

Waterway trash and litter continue to represent an issue that requires additional data. We know trash in our bayous and bay is a $21 million per year problem, but we lack the information about types of trash, sources and how trash moves through our waterways. We need this information to determine effective litter prevention and removal solutions. The good news is, a network of public and nonprofit is now actively working on this issue.

Coastal change continues to be an issue that bears watching well into the future. With more and more people moving to the Houston-Galveston region each year from outside the region, issues such as sea level rise not only affect the bay ecosystem, but public safety and property. Relative sea level rise (a combination of subsidence and global sea level rise) continues at a rate of about 2 feet every 100 years and there is increasing frequency of nuisance coastal flooding.

As we continue to analyze existing data and address any new areas of concern, we hope that collective actions and progress will inspire the public to support Galveston Bay conservation and management initiatives.

While we have focused on some of the threats, we assure you that there are plenty of areas that indicate that the Bay is headed in the right direction.

The Water Quality category continues to show incremental improvement, which is promising for the Bay and the rivers and bayous that flow into it. We are also continuing to see improvements in the Human Health Risk indicator of bacteria concentrations in area bayous – an issue on which numerous regional partners have been working for nearly two decades.

A habitat success is reflected by increased stands of underwater grasses. Two decades ago, seagrass beds could only be seen in Christmas Bay. Now they are making a comeback in West Bay due to restoration efforts and improved water quality conditions. Galveston Bay seagrass coverage is still nowhere near what it once was, but this indicator is moving in the right direction.

Fish and bird populations across the bay appear to be maintaining their populations. From time to time, we see periodic decreases in species such as flounder and speckled trout in certain subbays, but these populations tend to be resilient over time. We will continue to watch to make sure that is the case. Brown pelican populations, a Bay success story, continue to increase in number.

As we move towards the future, we look forward to continuing our research efforts to make Galveston Bay and the surrounding watershed one of the best places to live, work, and play.

We thank Houston Endowment and the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program for their support, our research and outreach teams, and the thousands of citizens that have provided input into the Galveston Bay Report Card.

See the coverage:

Lisa Gonzalez of HARC and T’Noya Thompson of Galveston Bay Foundation on Houston Matters

Bob Stokes of Galveston Bay Foundation on Fox 26

Lisa Gonzalez of HARC at the press conference August 9, 2017