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The Bend Magazine

Green Conversations

08/30/2020 10:00PM ● By Kirby Tello
Words By: Kirby Tello  Photography By: Rachel Benavids, Brynn Osborn, Lillian Reitz

Corpus Christi has long been part of a region where “going green” is a way of life. We are home to much wildlife, underwater ecosystems, and various other creatures all trying to keep their natural habitats in good health. Of course, that includes our human residents and many business industries that rely on the Nueces River Basin – a collection of three rivers that flow into the Corpus Christi Bay – to provide resources that stimulate the local economy and help grow the community in all areas.

From small businesses to large corporations to the Island University’s Harte Research Institute, conservation, restoration, and preservation are three essential components in moving the needle. Not everyone in our community will agree on the specifics, though. There are multiple sides to the subject of conservation and how the city plans to create sustainable water sources and help businesses stay operational, while maintaining optimal conditions for preserving the bay’s wildlife.

Can the issue of creating sustainable water through large (and consequently quite expensive) filtration plants coexist with the ongoing efforts of marine scientists to not only restore what oyster reefs are already on the ocean floor, but also create several new reefs to meet the demand of smaller players such as local restaurants and researchers?

While many people have taken a stance on either side of these issues, there are still quite a few questions left open-ended as City Council, desalination committee members, nonprofit organizations, and researchers and scientists grapple with the task of educating the public on which solutions may be the most impactful.  

It has been a year since The Bend took our last deep dive into conservation on the coast, so we decided to check in with some of the influential players affecting the current state of the environmental landscape.


Mothers of Pearl

Over at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies seeks to develop science-based solutions to issues that affect the Gulf and its vast ecosystem. Conservation is a top focus, especially in relation to oysters and their habitat. While many of us think of oysters as a delicious treat (and possibly an aphrodisiac), oysters are much more than a love potion of sorts. Their reefs are responsible for mitigating shoreline erosion from waves and storm surges – which is one reason why beach lovers are able to enjoy endless summers under the sun on our coast – and perhaps more importantly, they also protect the sea bottom and all the aquatic creatures that establish their habitats in those reefs.

Harte Research Institute Chair for Coastal Conservation and Restoration, Dr. Jennifer Pollack, co-manages the Coastal Conservation and Restoration lab, which studies the role restored oyster reefs can play in creating a more sustainable coastal environment.

“In 2009, we received our first funding to begin restoring oyster habitats,” explains Pollack. And from there, the project kicked off with launching an oyster shell recycling program. With the help of local restaurant Water Street Oyster Bar and owners Brad and Richard Lomax, Pollack’s team struck an agreement whereby they would have access to all the oyster shells that otherwise would have been discarded.

Each year, Pollack works on numerous smaller-scale projects as well as a handful of large-scale initiatives that span the course of a few years. The partnership with Water Street, for example, would be considered a smaller-scale program because it is an ongoing effort that is nurtured throughout the year.

Recycling the shells involves sun-bleaching the shells, putting them into mesh bags, and then placing them into the water. In about two to three weeks, oysters will come down and attach to the shells and begin to grow.

An example of a larger-scale project would be the efforts several Harte Research Institute departments have a hand in: storm recovery. After major storms like Hurricane Harvey, it is up to the marine scientists to first figure out what condition the reefs are in. Once that is assessed, the research teams can determine whether brand-new reef beds need to be made, or if there are still active habitats that can be mended.

The community is also a part of this effort. Every few months, Pollack and her colleagues invite volunteers, usually student-aged, to help place the mesh bags of recycled shells into the ocean water. “Since it only takes two to three weeks for the oysters to attach, it is great for the students to be able to come back and see the results of their endeavor,” says Pollack.

 

Oyster Aquaculture in Action

Texas bays and estuaries have been experiencing a heavy decline in oyster populations for many years, for reasons ranging from over-fishing to environmental disasters such as hurricanes. The research team headed by Dr. Joe Fox, Harte Research Institute Chair for Marine Resource Development and Principal Investigator on this project, has developed a small research site in Copano Bay where they study various approaches commonly used to grow oysters in natural waters.

The purpose of this project, explained Fox, is to assess whether oyster aquaculture is a viable economic driver. Many local restaurants and businesses depend on aquaculture for business. For example, Water Street Seafood Company and the Port of Corpus Christi are two early partners of Pollack’s initiative to restore oyster habitats.

A self-proclaimed “oyster farmer,” Fox works in several public- and private-sector groups in developing oyster aquaculture for restoration, economic development, and commercial usage. As such, Fox knows the importance of restoring oyster habitats while also minimizing water pollutants in order to stabilize shorelines and make a viable breeding ground to enhance the economic benefit of commercial fishing. That is a lot to consider. Keeping the health of oyster habitats front of mind is key, and with constant vulnerabilities to our water sources, the Marine Development team has its work cut out for it. 

Partnering with Texas A&M Agri-Life Research, HRI will manage the Oyster Resource and Recovery Center in Palacios, Texas, to address the environmental health and sustainability of the aquaculture industry as a whole. 

 

To Desal or Not Desal

Desalination is the process that removes the excess salt and other minerals from water in order to obtain fresh water suitable for animal consumption or irrigation.

As valuable a resource as water is to the Coastal Bend, it is imperative that we ensure we have enough of it to go around. Water is the lifeblood for so many coastal industries and entities. For our region, water can quite literally make or break the economy.

Since the early 1990s, local government officials have begun laying the groundwork for creating partnerships with key players in the water production process. Although it could seem counterintuitive that we would need to “create” water even though water is supplied to us through the Nueces, Frio, and Atascosa rivers, due to the sun being the largest single recipient of that water, we have to produce more in order to meet the needs of the community.

And when we say the community, we are talking more than just the human residents and companies that occupy the land and do business here. The consumer base that relies on the local water supply includes humans, of course, but the Bend is also home to a plethora of wildlife: fish, sea turtles, shrimp, oysters, and a variety of bird species, to name a few. As the demand for water continues to rise, other water sources, such as desalination, are being explored.

Corpus Christi experienced major drought conditions from 2010 through 2013, and desalination was first added to the overall conversation by major industrial water users. Being the regional water supplier for the entire Third Coast area, the City of Corpus Christi Water System began to consider desalination as a new source for water supply.

Freese and Nichols, Inc. are the “Owner’s Representative” on the Corpus Christi Seawater Desalination Project. Established in 1894 and headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, Frees and Nichols, Inc. specializes in planning, designing, and management of public infrastructure projects throughout the nation. In many of its projects, the firm is responsible for the entire project’s lifecycle: planning, designing, program management, funding procurement, compliance regulation, construction management, and operations and maintenance.

Thus, Frees and Nichols, Inc. was awarded “ownership” (i.e. leadership) of Corpus Christi’s Seawater Desalination Project. A 2019 blog article by Frees and Nichols, Inc.’s Associate and Water Resources Planning Practice Leader, Jason Afinowicz, Professional Engineer (PE) makes the case for desalination as an affordable water supply solution. “After intensive evaluation by a multidisciplinary stakeholder group, the City of Corpus Christi has determined that seawater desalination is a feasible solution to the region’s water needs,” Afinowicz writes. However, he goes on to say that cost is one of the biggest hurdles in implementing the desalination project, and energy is the biggest driver of cost.   

 

In an effort to actualize these efforts, the City of Corpus Christi Water Department and Frees and Nichols, Inc. gathered their teams of engineers to find techniques to reduce the amount of energy in desalination projects. The energy optimization solutions ranged from design adjustments to operational changes, and their changes were successful. In July of this year, Corpus Christi Seawater Desalination Project team members announced that the City Council received funding for $222 million in loans from the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT), a loan program to support building the city’s first seawater desalination plant. 

It was met with community outcry from several nonprofit organizations like Save Corpus Christi Bay, Texas Campaign For The Environment (TCE), The Clean Economy Coalition, and Surfrider Foundation, to name a few.

One swirling concern among taxpayers is the assumption that the city will pay back the loan by hiking up taxes. According to Save Corpus Christi Bay, the area’s anti-desalination task force, the hit to taxpayers' wallets is significant, and it won’t allow for enough funding to provide basic public water services such as clean drinking water. “Desal could put our drinking water at risk if added to our water supply,” says Dr. Isabel Araiza, Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. These desal plants would pour seawater into our freshwater bays, polluting them with salty chemicals, heavy metals, and concentrated radioactivity," Araiza fears.

Furthermore, she believes that the millions of tax dollars needed to build the plants will only result in higher water bills for residents. Beyond community concern around city spending, people are worried that plant operators will take and keep the good water, and then pour more salt back into the public water. 

The first two discharge permits for the plants in Corpus Christi proper are approved, and if successful, there are another 25 different locations the committee is researching to propose for city funding. According to the most recent information on the permit applications, four proposed plant sites have gone through the application process: two by the City and two by The Port. The highly saline discharge of all 4 plants is 283.9 million gallons per day (Texas Campaign For The Environment, 2020).


Environmental Protectors

Local advocacy groups with long histories of fighting for the conservation of our coastlines are continuing to make strides in protecting our beaches, most of which belong to the larger environmental sustainability group, Coastal Alliance to Protect Our Environment (CAPE). 

CAPE’s mission is to protect the environment against various challenges. South Texas being slated as a top market for energy, oil, and gas industries, CAPE uses grassroots campaigns to advocate for the health and well-being of residents, particularly the elderly and children. CAPE educates the public on how big industries potentially emit thousands of tons of volatile organic compounds, small particulate matter, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid mist, benzene, and other toxic, cancer-causing compounds; resulting in adverse effects on the health of South Texans. Here are a few organizations who are at the forefront of the fight for clean air and water:

For The Greater Good

A subset of Save the Bay Corpus Christi, For The Greater Good is a local, grassroots organization that provides a voice for public concerns. Most recently, this group organized a petition drive to gather signatures in hopes of having the opportunity to vote down the approval of additional desalination permits. According to their website, 4,227 signatures were collected and sent in. They are the force behind the online campaign #saveCCbay and continuously advocate for the greater good of our community and all the living creatures within it.

Clean Economy Coalition 

The Clean Economy Coalition embraces the use of clean technology throughout the region. Advocating for solutions like wind and solar power generation as opposed to the technology currently in use that emits pollutants into the environment, this organization focuses on the pollutants’ negative impact on our air, water, and health of the general population.
Most recently, the Clean Economy Coalition has reported via their Facebook page on the City’s proposed 2021 Annual Operating and Capital Budgets – responsible for addressing City projects such as public safety, streets, and the latest topic of concern: stormwater fees.

Surfrider Foundation

Equipped with a team of scientists, environmentalists, and legal experts, the Surfrider Foundation has year-round campaigns to reduce plastic pollution, protect the ocean and its ecosystem, ensure fair access to beaches, preserve our shorelines, and protect the health and sustainability of our water sources.
Currently, the Texas Coastal Bend Surfrider Foundation has been working with Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales to find a solution to beach closures due to the pandemic. 

Also, in an ongoing effort to prevent plastic pollution, the Skip the Plastic Project of the Coastal Bend Chapter is spreading the word that the use of reusable shopping bags is safe during COVID-19. They remind the community that washing and disinfecting the bags, along with everything else that touches them, is the best practice for staying safe and healthy while saving our oceans.

 

Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter Coastal Bend Group

The Sierra Club is one of the most influential grassroots organizations in the country surrounding environmental issues. The Coastal Bend chapter is hard at work supporting a multitude of local issues and concerns, the biggest of which revolves around the building of petrochemical plants and the byproducts and activities that follow. 

According to its website, this includes: “fracking, pipelining, the desalination plants being planned to support the petrochemical plants, the release of plastics into the coastal waters, the release of harmful chemicals into the air and water, and last, but not least, the destruction of the unique, natural beauty of the Texas Gulf Coast in Corpus Christi and surrounding areas.”

CAPE Group and Organization Members: 
Clean Economy Coalition
Earthworks
For the Greater Good
Green Team
Port Aransas Conservancy
Portland Citizens United
San Antonio Bay 
Estuarine Waterkeeper
Sierra Club
Surfrider Foundation – 
Texas Coastal Bend Chapter
Texas Campaign for 
the Environment                                   
Texas Drought Project
Texas Environmental 
Justice Advocacy Services
Our Revolution Coastal Bend      

Change to Come

By the time we wrapped this story, the environmental landscape has already experienced notable changes. In a city council meeting on Aug. 18, 2020, council members will have voted on approving the loan for plant construction. (Update since print: The Corpus Christi City Council voted 6-3 to accept the first $11.4 million of a $222 million loan from the Texas Water Development Board to build a desalination plant.) The Harte Research Institute is studying the effects Hurricane Hanna had on our beaches and assessing how much the massive storm surge affected oyster bed reefs. The environment has always been fickle; the industry is fickle, too. At the end of the day, what we can count on is change. It is important to remember, however, that in a water-reliant community like the Coastal Bend everyone is affected by decisions involving Mother Nature. So, when environmental conversations surge our way, remember we are all in this together.