The 2018 Galveston Bay Report Card was released on August 15, 2018. For the fourth consecutive year, the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) and the Galveston Bay Foundation gathered scientific data related to each of the 22 indicators across six categories.
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, the Houston-Galveston region faced challenges new and old. Hurricane Harvey inundated the region with record-setting rainfall, but even 35+ inches of rain was only part of the story in 2017.
Blue crab populations continue to decline, this year receiving an F. Abandoned crab traps, low recruitment (the number of crabs that survive as juveniles and enter the fishery as adults), and habitat loss may all play a role in the decline of this ecologically and commercially valuable species.
The rivers and bayous maintained a grade of B for phosphorus, however several sub-watersheds of Galveston Bay saw a decline in their phosphorus grades (Barker Reservoir, Addicks Reservoir, Spring Creek, Buffalo Bayou, Cedar Bayou, West Fork Jan Jacinto), most likely due to non-point source pollution. One sub-watershed, Sims Bayou, improved their grade. Phosphorus is especially troublesome in fresh water systems and can lead to algae blooms, nuisance species and other water quality issues.
We continue to wait for updated data on vital habitats; wetlands, seagrass and oyster reefs (all earned the grade of a “I”). Wetlands provide important benefits by absorbing and slowing the release of flood waters and improving water quality. The latest federal information that we have on wetland coverage in the region is dated from 2010, this is particularly problematic after an event like Hurricane Harvey. The role that our freshwater wetlands play in floodwater infiltration and retention is very important and it is critical that we have updated data describing this important natural resource. Oysters of course support an important commercial fishery by providing us with seafood. Oyster reefs also provide important habitat for other fish and wildlife, as do seagrasses. We know that there are plans at the state level to update these datasets when funding and time allows, and we continue to support the efforts of NOAA, TCEQ and TPWD to complete these necessary assessments of essential habitats.
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; metals such as mercury and hydrocarbons such as 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. We do continue to see some incomplete grades because of the lack of data describing toxins in sediments throughout bay in areas apart from the Houston Ship Channel. However, data that do exist tell us that concentrations of toxins in sediment outside of the Houston Ship Channel are generally low.
On average, more than 230 oil spills are reported every year in Galveston Bay. Most spills are small—less than five gallons—while some are large. The total number of spills has declined since 2003 and was upgraded to a B this year. The low volume spilled in 2017 lead to an improved grade of A.
Waterway trash and litter continue to represent an issue that requires additional data. It is estimated trash in our region’s bayous and the 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 and targeted litter prevention and removal solutions. The good news is, a network of public and nonprofit organizations is now actively working on this issue. Both HARC and GBF are working towards a Houston-Galveston Trash Based Aquatic Action Plan: donttrashagoodthing.org.
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 maintain high grades, 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.
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.