Cypress-tupelo swamps such as this one have been preserved and transferred to the Big Thicket National Preserve as part of the natural Resource Trustee Program.
Photo courtesy of Stan Williams/TxDOT.
When oil or hazardous substances are discharged into the environment, fish, wildlife, plants, and other natural resources can be injured.
When this happens in Texas, one program that often steps in to ensure the restoration of lost natural resources is the Natural Resource Trustee Program (NRTP).
In this program, the trustees are designated federal or state natural resource management agencies authorized by law to seek compensation to the public for the loss of natural resources, says Richard Seiler, who has headed the program at the TCEQ since 1995. In addition to the TCEQ, the other designated agencies that participate as part of the trustee team in Texas are the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas General Land Office, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Working Cooperatively for Success
“We have perfected the art of working cooperatively with responsible parties to come up with cost-effective restoration projects that compensate for an injury associated with the release of hazardous materials,” says Seiler.
Take what happened at Lavaca Bay, for example.
In 1994, an area along the eastern shore of Lavaca Bay was designated as a Superfund site by the EPA. The site included portions of an industrial facility at Point Comfort, as well as a dredge spoil island and nearby areas of the bay.
Working cooperatively, the Texas NRTP trustees, the EPA, and the responsible party agreed on a variety of restoration projects to compensate for natural resource losses resulting from the site’s contamination, as well as for services lost.
Richard Seiler inspects marsh breakwater at the Lavaca Bay restoration project.
Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept.
Restoration projects included the creation of 70 acres of intertidal salt marsh within the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and 11 acres of new oyster reef habitat in Lavaca Bay. In addition, 729 acres of land will be preserved by transferring it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the refuge. To offset recreational fishing losses, new fishing piers at Six Mile Park, Point Comfort Park, and the bay-front peninsula in Port Lavaca were constructed. An existing auxiliary boat ramp was replaced, docks were built, and an existing jetty was modified to improve access to and enhance recreational fishing opportunities in the bay.
“What we did from a practical standpoint with the Lavaca Bay restoration project is a model for the rest of the nation,” says Seiler.
The Cadillac of Marsh Construction
Innovative ideas are often employed in restoration projects, like the one Seiler calls “the Cadillac of marsh construction,” at Swan Lake, near Texas City.
The Swan Lake ecosystem, which is part of the greater Galveston Bay ecosystem, is a major habitat for numerous shellfish species—including the white shrimp, brown shrimp, eastern oyster, and blue crab—that are important to both recreational and commercial fishing. These waters are also critical habitat for various species designated by the state as threatened or endangered, including the white-faced ibis and the reddish egret.
During World War II, Swan Lake was home to the largest tin smelter in the world. The smelter operated under government contract from 1941 until 1956, when operations passed to private control. Using data developed by a remedial study, trustees were able to identify the types of habitats that had the greatest potential to have been injured by historical and ongoing releases of metals from the smelter.
Studies determined that the Galveston Bay ecosystem would benefit from a created marsh. Also critical to this project was the construction of a 5,200-foot rock breakwater to replace the natural breakwater that had subsided and eroded over time. The marsh itself was constructed using clean dredge material moved from a containment area adjacent to the restoration site.
“Scientists determined that the maximum area of productivity for shrimp and crabs exists in marsh grass that lies within the first 30 feet from the water,” says Seiler. “We were able to engineer the project to magnify the amount of interface between water and marsh grass. We designed the entire marsh to be as close as possible to within 30 feet from a water source.”
Partnering for Increased Benefits
Seventy acres of intertidal salt marsh were created in Lavaca Bay to compensate for an injury associated with the release of hazardous materials. As part of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, this new marsh adds to the foraging area of endangered whooping cranes.
Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept.
The NRTP trustees often partner with non-profit organizations and local government entities to obtain matching or in-kind funding.
The TCEQ initiated a partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to secure Water Resources Development Act Section 204 funds for a wetlands restoration project in the Bessie Heights Marsh, located along the lower Neches River between Port Neches and Bridge City. The trustees then worked with the Jefferson County Navigation District to have it serve as the local project sponsor.
“The lower Neches River delta has experienced the most significant, contiguous loss of coastal marsh of any location in Texas,” says Seiler. “We were able to almost quadruple the amount of funds for marsh restoration, which allowed us to construct about 75 acres of intertidal marsh in Bessie Heights.”
The trustees also partner with land trusts to place land into conservation easements.
Using funds received from four different settlements, trustees worked with the National Park Service and the Conservation Fund to acquire and preserve 645 acres of valuable bottomland hardwood forests along the lower Neches River corridor in Jefferson, Hardin, Jasper, and Orange counties. Ownership of the land was then transferred to the National Park Service as part of the Big Thicket National Preserve.
At a former Superfund site adjacent to Clear Creek, the last unchannelized bayou in the Houston area, trustees placed 145 acres of land into preservation in a conservation easement. A borrow pit that had been used to get the clay needed to stabilize the site was reconfigured and turned into a natural wetlands area.
“We basically took a big hole in the ground, cut a channel to the adjacent creek, reconfigured it, and planted it with a diversity of native vegetation,” Seiler says. “We put up about three or four wooden duck boxes. The ducks moved in almost immediately and successfully nested.”
The trustees have also formed successful project partnerships with the Nature Conservancy, the Texas Land Conservancy, the City of La Marque, the City of Baytown, Scenic Galveston, the Galveston Bay Foundation, and other organizations.
“What we do in Texas is recognized nationally,” says Seiler. “And partnering is one of the most important components of the Natural Resource Trustee Program.”
The Texas Natural Resource Trustee Program has become a national model for its use of cooperative, restoration-based assessments. It uses a “habitat equivalency analysis,” which matches the level of lost natural resource services to the level of services provided by an appropriate habitat-restoration project.
Piers were constructed as part of the restoration project at Lavaca Bay, to offset recreational fishing losses.
Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept.
Richard Seiler emphasizes that services provided must be equivalent to services lost.
“They can’t build a prairie for an injury that was in an intertidal wetland,” says Seiler. “There also has to be a general geographic nexus. We try to stay as close to the location of the release as possible.”
Seiler further states that the program is compensatory rather than punitive in nature as might be the case with other programs. “The Natural Resource Trustee Program was specifically designed to replace natural resources and services as opposed to offsetting a regulatory penalty or fine,” he says.
Since the inception of the program, natural resource restoration projects valued at an estimated $34.5 million have been implemented across the state on behalf of the public as a result of settlements for the restoration of injured natural resources.
Following are a few of the successful restoration projects in which the TCEQ has been involved:
- Lavaca Bay, Point Comfort, Calhoun County. Constructed 11 acres of oyster reefs; constructed three 300-foot lighted piers and two new docks; refurbished three boat ramps; made other improvements designed to benefit recreational fishing in the bay.
- Pasadena, Harris County. Constructed a 35-acre fresh and saltwater marsh along the Houston Ship Channel.
- Shamrock Island, Corpus Christi Bay, Nueces County. Acquired and preserved a sensitive 110-acre bird rookery.
- Baytown Nature Center, Baytown, Harris County. Constructed a 60-acre nature park with tidal wetlands, fresh and brackish water pools, and forested islands.
- Lower Neches River Wildlife Management Area, Jefferson County. Restored subsided wetlands at the Nelda Stark Unit; constructed 85 acres of estuarine marsh and 30 acres of wet prairie at the Old River South Unit.
- Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Chambers County. Constructed a water-control structure to protect and restore marshes.
- J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area, Jefferson County. Constructed water-control structures to enhance nearly 1,600 acres of coastal wet prairie.
- San Jacinto Monument State Park, Harris County. Rebuilt 31 acres of the Santa Ana Bayou marsh complex to bring the habitat back to the way it was at the time of the Battle of San Jacinto, when Texas won its independence from Mexico.
- Galveston Island State Park, Galveston, Galveston County. Rebuilt 115 acres of lost estuarine marsh; installed several large breakwaters to protect the greater marsh complex from erosion and further loss; created a suitable environment for the re-establishment of sea grasses at the park.
- Swan Lake, Galveston Bay, Galveston County. Restored to its original state 72 acres of intertidal marsh that had been lost to subsidence and erosion.
- Big Thicket National Preserve, several counties (Jefferson, Hardin, Jasper, and Orange) along the lower Neches River corridor. Acquired, preserved, and transferred to the National Park Service 645 acres of valuable bottomland hardwood forests.
- Sheldon Reservoir State Park, Harris County. Added a 100-acre tract of bottomlands hardwood forest along Carpenter,Äôs Bayou to Sheldon Reservoir State Park.
- Maddin Prairie Preserve, Mitchell County. Restored 350 acres of native prairie.
- Clymer Meadows Prairie Preserve, Hunt County. Restored 15 and preserved 100 acres of imperiled tallgrass prairie; created 11 acres of freshwater wetlands.
- Colorado City, Mitchell County. Restored and protected 80 acres of riparian habitats along the Colorado River.
- Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Calhoun County. Constructed 70 acres of intertidal salt marsh within and adjacent to the refuge; 729 acres of wetlands, coastal prairie, and shrub lands will be preserved.
- Harris County. Restored scarce freshwater wetlands in urban bayous.
- TPWD Alazan Bayou Wildlife Management Area, Angelina County. Added 486 acres of bottomlands hardwood habitat.
- San Patricio County. Preserved 360 acres of wetland and riparian habitat adjacent to the Nueces River.
Restoration Projects Completed or Planned
||Acres Preserved and
Protected in Perpetuity
|Tidal and Freshwater Wetlands
|Riparian and Bottomland Forests
|Native Prairie Habitat
To learn more, visit the Natural Resource Trustee Program.
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