The Matagorda Bay Foundation and Lavaca Bay Foundation are calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reassess environmental impacts of plans to widen and deepen the Matagorda Ship Channel.
In a 17-page letter sent to Col. Timothy R. Vail, commander of the Corps’ Galveston District, the foundations jointly expressed concerns with changes from original plans drafted in 2009 to plans that were finalized in 2019.
Both foundations believe the Corps’ plans will result in greater environmental impacts than those disclosed in the 2019 Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement and that the environmental mitigation proposed for the project is insufficient, according to the letter.
Environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, who serves as chair of the Matagorda Bay Foundation, wrote that the changes “generate an obligation on federal agencies to issue supplemental environmental impact statements.”
“The Corps should simply do the right thing — the legal thing — and prepare a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and send it out to the agencies and to the public for their review,” he wrote. “Those of us who use and love Matagorda and Lavaca bays deserve nothing less.”
The foundations are also asking the Corps to start an Interagency Coordination Team to address the concerns like one that convened for the Houston-Galveston ship channel expansion project in the 1990s.
“We feel that this involvement may save some of the stakes through local expertise,” Bunnell said. “It really just boils down to wanting to use some of the talent that is here locally to provide oversight and (address) our concerns specifically about how the dredge material is going to be dispersed.”
The foundations sent the letter April 15. As of Tuesday, the Corps had not responded to the letter and could not be reached for comment.
Funded by Max Midstream Texas, the widening and deepening project was federally authorized in 2020 and is in the pre-construction design and engineering phase. The Corps and Calhoun Port Authority are trying to complete the process by December so they can start the bidding process for construction.
The foundations’ concerns are primarily with the Corps’ plans to place dredge material in new deposit areas west of the channel and with their evaluation of impacts to oyster reefs, salinity and tidal lakes and bayous that are critical to ecologically and economically import wildlife species.
Dredge material placement
Dredge material from the ship channel has been placed in areas east of the channel for decades, which was part of the original 2009 recommendations for the widening and deepening project.
At a LBF meeting in March, the Corps said they recommend placing the majority of the 21 million cubic yards of dredge material from the project west of the channel because they have found that material placed east of the channel ends up eroding back into the channel. The remaining dredge material will be placed at Chester Island and southwest of the jetties on Matagorda Island for beneficial use.
As sediment erodes back into the channel, additional dredging is needed to maintain its depth and width. The proposed placement areas west of the channel would therefore reduce the amount of maintenance dredging needed, according to the Corps.
As the March meeting, Coraggio Maglio, chief of hydraulics and hydrology for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District, said the sediment should drift toward the western shoreline, circulate and nourish lakes but would not be enough to plug them.
Members of the foundations said they don’t think that will be the case.
The new placement areas identified west of the channel are a “dramatic departure” from the 2009 plans, they wrote. The foundations believe the same wind and wave energy that pushes sediment back into the channel from deposit sites east of it will push sediment from the proposed sites west of the channel toward habitats, tidal inlets and landscapes along the western shoreline of Lavaca and Matagorda bays.
The proposed placement locations and unconfined dredge disposal in open bay, “will cause permanent harm to important natural resources and landscapes within the project area,” the letter to the Corps reads.
In reviewing Crops records, Texas Parks and Wildlife oyster sampling data and Google Earth imagery of commercial oyster harvest, Matagorda Bay Foundation Executive Director Bill Balboa said he found that placement areas are also home to abundant oyster reef that would inevitably be impacted by dredging.
According to the 2019 report, “it is likely that oyster reefs affected by implementation of the recommended plan could adjust to new conditions over time.”
That claim is misleading, the foundations said.
“While it is true that some research suggests oyster reefs may relocate in response to natural or man-made changes, the rate of change occurs over many, many decades or hundreds of years, not in days months or years,” they wrote.
Oyster reefs and marshlands
To mitigate the project’s impact on oysters, the Corps. have proposed creating 130 acres of oyster reef habitat and a few acres of marsh, according to the 2019 report.
The locations for those mitigation projects have yet to be determined. Regardless of where they go, the foundations said 130 acres is not enough.
“Direct and cumulative impacts to oyster resources from construction, sediment transportation and increased salinity will result in significantly more oyster loss than the 130 acres,” they wrote.
The combined footprint of two placement areas alone covers between 516-744 acres of bay bottom that are located on or adjacent to two historic reefs, said Balboa, who spent 12 years as a Matagorda Bay biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The foundations are also confused as to why the total acres for oyster mitigation are less than those included in the 2009 plan, which did not include impacts of dredge placement in new areas west of the channel.
“We also question why salinity impacts to oysters were considered in the 2009 FEIS but not the 2019 FEIS,” they wrote.
The foundations are asking the Corps to reassess all oyster impacts and revise compensatory mitigation plans. They also asked the Corps to reassess potential project impacts to more than 6,000 acres of important habitat along the western shoreline of Matagorda and Lavaca bays.
The 2019 FEIS recommended 2 acres of mitigation for wetland impacts and suggests wetland and seagrass impacts will be offset by Corps projects elsewhere but that does not adequately compensate for local impacts, the foundations said.
“Substituting mitigation damages from this project for ‘expected’ successes and habitat conversions at other project sites is misleading and wrong,” they wrote.
‘Least cost alternative plan’
On behalf of the foundations, Balboa and Bunnell said they decided to send the letter to the Corps not because they are in total opposition to the project, but because they want to ensure it is done properly.
Both said they feel that the economic development benefits of the project have been prioritized over its potential impacts to the bay systems.
“Economic growth is going to happen but we feel like this least cost alternative plan is just too harmful to the bays,” said Balboa. “We have to come to the table and work things out.”
The dredge material placement areas are not finalized, in part because the Corps is still investigating the quality of the sediment. In late March, the Port’s board gave the Port permission to advertise for pre-dredge sampling and analysis.
The Corps will use the samples as the basis for geotechnical exploration that provides insight into the quality of the material, which dictates where the dredged material can be placed.
Given the project’s federal stamp of approval, secured funding and fast tracked deadlines, it seems unlikely plans will be significantly changed as a result of concerns that the foundations or others have raised.
After the foundations’ sent their requests to the Corps, local environmental activist Diane Wilson sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to revoke authorization for the project that said the Corps should, “at the bare minimum,” conduct a supplemental environmental impact study. That letter was signed by 81 fishing community, environmental and human rights organizations.
At the March Lavaca Bay Foundation meeting, Bunnell and Balboa said they were disappointed to hear the Corps say that while they want to work with community members to ensure material dredged is put to good use, they cannot re-design the project because they are working under tight deadlines and a re-design would require another supplemental environmental impact statement.
“That was kind of like having a door slammed in your face,” Bunnell said. “If we continue to talk and make our point, we hope that they’ll be willing to let us come on board or at least a group of people come on board who are knowledgeable and can give some advice on things like where to place the dredging material.”