Cedar Bayou dredging ahead of schedule

Aug. 7, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.
Updated Aug. 7, 2014 at 11:36 p.m.

The contractor in charge of the nearly $10 million dredging of Cedar Bayou north of Rockport announced last week the job is about 75 percent complete.

The channel could be flowing by early to mid-September, a month or more earlier than the government-imposed deadline.

Biologists say an open pass would benefit the fishery, whooping cranes, the ecosystem in general and the economies that rely on them.

Along with improved water quality, countless marine organisms could more easily access the Gulf of Mexico to spawn or enter the bays where they mature.

The bureaucratic and political effort to reopen the historic pass that separated Matagorda and San Jose islands began nearly 20 years ago. But the actual digging didn't start until April 15, when Randy Boyd and his Port Lavaca company, RLB Contracting, began working 12-hour days to beat an Oct. 15 deadline set by the Army Corps of Engineers, which permitted the project in August 2011.

The dredging deadline roughly coincides with the anticipated arrival of the first whooping cranes that winter in the region.

Boyd suggested completion of the long-awaited environmental restoration project would be delayed only if a tropical storm hits the immediate area or if whooping cranes arrive early.

A biologist is stationed at the site during working hours to survey, record and report protected species, such as water birds and sea turtles.

If a nesting bird is found, operations within 400 feet of the nest must be halted. Work may resume after the eggs hatch and the young birds are safely out of harm's way.

Or, as was the case with one nest, a raccoon invades the nest and eats the eggs.

The job involves 30 to 40 workers and requires about 3,000 gallons of fuel each day.

Contractors are creating two cuts from Mesquite Bay, each at least 6 feet deep and 100 feet wide. These would merge into a single channel and continue to the Gulf of Mexico at a southeast angle.

The opened pass would create the only Gulf access between Pass Cavallo at Port O'Connor and Aransas Pass at Port Aransas, about a 70-mile stretch. This is not a navigable channel for boats. It is a fish pass.

When complete, the total length of Cedar Bayou will be 8,500 feet, or 1.6 miles.

Vinson Slough will measure 7,700 feet, or 1.5 miles.

As of last week, the contractor had completed 4,000 feet of Cedar Bayou and 5,600 feet of Vinson Slough. Contractors had removed 380,000 cubic yards of sand as of last week. Dredge material is being piped to the beach and surf south of Cedar Bayou on San Jose Island.

The state provided $3 million, which required matching funds or in-kind contributions from Aransas County. The Coastal Conservation Association-Texas provided $1.6 million. To date, Aransas County has garnered $3.8 million for the project, much of it from grants administered by the Texas General Land Office.

Engineers at Coast and Harbor Engineering, which designed the channel, estimated the cost of keeping Cedar Bayou flowing could run between $2 million and $2.5 million every five to nine years.

Aransas County has pledged to contribute $250,000 annually to a perpetual maintenance fund while a foundation is working to garner private donations to grow this dedicated account.

Donations are welcomed.

Matt Campbell, of Coast and Harbor, said keeping the pass open will somewhat depend on nature. Factors such as rainfall in the Guadalupe River watershed and storms could have positive or negative effects on the channel.

Lots of rain from a tropical storm or hurricane that hits north of Cedar Bayou could help scour the channel while a storm to the south could put silt in the mouth of Cedar Bayou, he said.

"It's hard to tell what will happen," Campbell said. "This design nudges the flow the way it was naturally."

The pass has not been dredged since 1995 and has been mostly closed since then. The 1995 reopening was done by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, which spent about $500,000 to cut a meandering path through silt that had mostly clogged the Gulf end of the pass. The project was funded mostly by Wallop-Breaux money, an excise tax on fishing equipment and motorboat fuel. The remainder came from fees anglers pay for licenses and stamps.

Speculation is that two things went wrong with the 1995 effort. Spoils from that dredging were deposited directly or indirectly in the path of Vinson Slough. The slough historically had aided in the flow of Cedar Bayou to keep it scoured.

And the channel was designed at its Gulf mouth to be a perpendicular cut. A prevailing southeast wind quickly pushed sand into the mouth and clogged the flow. Oddly, the channel design was similar to a failed reopening attempt in 1986, which was hastily completed to avoid autumn's high tides and the possible interference of northers. Boyd's grandfather was the contractor for the 1986 project but his company, King Fisher Marine Services, did not design the channel.

Boyd said that, compared with the previous channel design, he's got much more faith in the current configuration of the pass, which takes advantage of prevailing currents to keep the channel scoured, while adding hydrological punch from Vinson Slough.

But the terrain is harsh, remote and unforgiving, Boyd said. Salt and sand destroy equipment and vehicles. Most of the vehicles, especially the pickups, will be auctioned off in the end, Boyd said. Reliable equipment becomes more essential when a single busted part can halt operations for a day until it can be replaced, he said.

To make the job more efficient, workers spend many consecutive nights in a live-aboard barge. Boyd also flies over the site at least once every two weeks to check on progress.

The 54-year-old businessman has done this kind of work since he was 16, and this is far from the largest operation he's completed. RLB has done jobs worth as much as $15 million.

"It's not the biggest, but this one is as logistically challenging as any we've done," Boyd said. "But all in all, things have gone about as smoothly as we could expect, due to the circumstances. I just pray no storms come this way."



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