The Book of Texas Bays

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In a dazzling tribute to the Texas coast, conservationist and lawyer Jim Blackburn has teamed with photographer Jim Olive to give us the most intimate and important portrait yet of Texas bays and of those who work for their wise use and preservation. While giving life and sustenance to plants, animals, and people, the bays and estuaries of Texas have other stories to tell—about freshwater inflows, deep port construction, disappearing oyster beds, beach resorts, industrial pollution, and more. At a certain point, each story brings opposing forces into the courtroom for vigorous debates on the future of some of our most valuable and irreplaceable resources.

The Book of Texas Bays is a personal account of legal battles won and lost, but it is also a fine work of natural history by someone who has a deep spiritual connection to the Texas coast and all it has to offer. Jim Olive’s stunning photographs present us with a dramatic perspective of our relationship with the Gulf and remind us of both the grandness and the fragility of our coastal treasures.

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Editorial Reviews

John & Gloria Tveten

“There is no other publication available that treats so thoroughly and concisely the environmental problems along the Texas coast and the battles that have been waged to conserve our coastal treasures . . . As an environmental lawyer, the author has been personally involved in many of the hearings and court battles that have taken place in an effort to preserve these resources. He has an excellent reputation among conservation and educational groups, and he knows the people involved at each step in the process, from the biologists and ecologists to the commercial fishermen and shrimpers who ply the coastal strand. No one is better suited to write these accounts. Blackburn brings a unique perspective to his work, discussing the legal machinations while, at the same time, reveling in the delights of recreation in this land of surf and sand and sun. The reader is treated to the joys of wade-fishing or kayaking in a quiet bay as well as the mysterious federal and state permitting processes that often take place behind closed doors.”--John and Gloria Tveten, Nature writers/Photographers
Texas Aggie
". . a masterpiece on Texas bays and those dedicated to preserving them."
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Product Details

Meet the Author

JIM BLACKBURN, an attorney specializing in environmental law at BlackburnCarter Law Firm in Houston, is adjunct professor and lecturer at Rice University where he teaches environmental law. In 2001 he received the National Wildlife Federation’s National Conservation Achievement Award, and in 1998 the Bob Eckhardt Lifetime Achievement Award from the General Land Office of the State of Texas
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The Book of Texas Bays

By Jim Blackburn, Jim Olive

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2004 James B. Blackburn, Jr.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-58544-339-0


Spirit Of The Mud

My place, the Texas coast, is a plain that gently emerges from the Gulf of Mexico, a mud platform ascending slowly from the ocean's grip. Rainwater joins with the mud and establishes the base of life on the coast. No rocks, no mountains—just mud and water.

Over the years, I have developed a spiritual connection with the coast and I act to protect it. Place is where you are, your anthropological, ecological, and geological center. If we understand place, we are more likely to care for it. Place may be the most important concept in environmental protection today. I am an environmental lawyer, and my sense of connection to this coast has proven a driving force in my career. The muddy coastal plain is not obviously a world-class habitat or scenic splendor; yet the more closely I have looked, the more convinced I am. My aim in this book is to share what I have seen.

The coastal plain was formed over the ages by the erosive action of rainfall working on the higher ground far to the west. The rivers that course through the plain—the Sabine, Neches, Trinity, and San Jacinto, the Brazos, San Bernard, Colorado, Lavaca, Guadalupe, Nueces, and the Rio Grande—have banks and beds that carry their normal flow. But these incised channels cannot contain the larger storms that overflow the banks and spread out into the secondary river channels, the floodplain. Over the centuries, these rivers have changed courses through the mud many times, leaving behind lakes and meander scars and depressions that dot the landscape, mute testament to the geological forces still shaping the coast.

Our legal system pretends that the essence of these waterways is limited to their beds and banks, but the pretense is altogether misleading. Instead, part of the natural cycle of these rivers, creeks, and bayous is to flow over the adjacent land, often for days or weeks, leaving behind the sediment that elevates the land surface and provides the base for floodplain forests offering visual relief within the flat coastal plain. These same floods provide the topsoil that supports lush farmlands as well as native grasslands.

We get rain on the Texas coastal plain—bucketfuls of rain. The moisture often comes in from the Gulf, the water evaporated by the sun, the river flow recycled. These rains are sometimes generated by the counterclockwise rotation of low-pressure systems that we name and fear: Allison, Beulah, Carla, Frances, Alicia, Claudette, Brett. The storm clouds unleash torrents of rain that reestablish our region's water meadows and saturate the prairies and marshes and their water-loving plant life—lush, alive, literally teeming with primal energy.

The Texas coast is a green place, full of plants and the habitat provided by these plants, forming distinct ecological systems. On the upper to mid-Texas coast, salt and brackish marshes are found adjacent to the bays. These marshes are filled with plants growing from two to five feet high and are wet almost year-round. They are flanked by prairie systems that are flat and hold large amounts of water in wet times, classic seasonal wetlands. Today, large areas of these prairies are farmed for rice and soybeans. Along the rivers, forested wetlands and floodplain forests grow in the lush topsoil deposited by the receding floods.

The term wetland is a general term that includes several different systems. Marshes are tallgrass wetlands that are saturated year-round, and swamps are forested wetlands that are also saturated year-round. Additionally, there are numerous depressed areas all across the coastal plain, some adjacent to the rivers but most within the flat, poorly drained prairies. These depressions are sometimes called potholes, or flats, and they are usually flooded seasonally, as opposed to year-round. Together, all these areas are referred to as wetlands, and they are green and lush and productive.

As one moves farther south on the coast, the rainfall diminishes, dropping from nearly sixty inches per year near the Louisiana border to less than twenty-six inches along the Mexican border. The lower coast is geologically different from the upper and midcoast, less defined by rivers and flood flows. This is the country of sand dunes and thorn brush, of clear bays and seagrasses and large ranches.

The bays of the Texas coast represent ecological resources of the first order. Our coastal bays are water fingers, drowned river channels carved when the Gulf was several hundred feet lower in elevation. When the sea level rose over five thousand years ago, these river channels were filled with Gulf water, creating places where riverine inflow combined with salt water, creating areas of immense natural productivity called estuaries.

Estuaries are places of high energy, where natural forces combine to create conditions that nurture living things. Here one finds shrimp, crabs, oysters, juvenile and adult finfish, the predatory redfish, flounder, and speckled trout, and the microscopic plants and animals upon which the whole system depends—abundant, teeming life.

Since the settlement of Texas began, our bays and estuaries have been primarily considered in the context of commerce: places to float boats, to bring in trade, to debark immigrants, to refine and trade in oil and chemicals. Today we live on a coast that has abundant natural resources, yet our historic focus on commerce has prevented the full value of these natural resources from being appreciated and has led to their not being protected to any great extent by the Texas legal system.

My life as an environmental lawyer and activist has been dedicated to trying to understand the coast, its values, and its heritage. I have had the privilege of knowing some of the true heroes of the Texas coast as well as some of the villains.

Over the years, my relationship with the coast changed from student to partner. I now am a part of this place. I have a relationship with this place. I smile when I think of the beautiful birds and the lush greenery, and of paddling among them in my lime green kayak with one yellow hatch cover. For me, the coast in its natural state is like the metaphorical Garden of Eden, a place of abundance, of peace, of contentedness.

From the tallgrass marshes of the Sabine to the mangroves of South Bay, the Texas coast is a rich heritage, but it is being attacked. We could easily lose it to the greed and avarice of those who fail to take account of the value of these bays. It falls upon the people living on the coast to set the standard for stewardship and to insist that this standard be followed.

We need to be clear about where we have been and where we aim to go, what we have overcome and what is yet to be overcome. Many hogs are feeding at the trough of our natural resources. While a few snouts have been pushed aside, there is plenty of work to be done to fuse economic, environmental, and spiritual concerns. Welcome to my place.


Water and Sabine Lake

I remember when I recommitted myself to fighting for the Texas coast instead of just trying to protect it. I had been hired as a consultant regarding a proposed diversion of water from the Sabine Lake watershed to the Houston area.

The project was simple enough. The Sabine River Authority and Texas Water Development Board wanted to know if the citizens of the Sabine Lake watershed would object to selling water stored in Toledo Bend Reservoir to the City of Houston. Toledo Bend had been built on the Sabine River in the 1960s. The Sabine River Authority owned the water in Toledo Bend and was interested in getting money back on their investment. Few if any water buyers existed in the watershed, but there was substantial interest to the west.

My job was to listen to "stakeholders" in the Sabine watershed to determine what they thought about the idea of selling water to Houston. As an environmental lawyer who represented environmental interests, I was truly interested in what these people thought. And I got an earful.

At that point in my career, I was going through a phase of believing that many of our environmental problems could be resolved through negotiation. I had negotiated the end to several serious environmental conflicts and was enamored with alternative dispute resolution concepts. I was fond of describing the legal process as being similar to a medieval jousting contest—mediation, I thought, was preferable to donning armor and trying to knock the other side off its horse. And while I still think there is a role for dispute resolution through mediation and arbitration, my experience at Sabine Lake and other venues caused me to dedicate myself to fighting by whatever means for the Texas coast, because without the fight, there is no incentive to negotiate.

Sabine Lake sits in far East Texas astride the border with Louisiana. Unlike much of Texas, the Sabine Lake watershed is wet, really wet. The Sabine River rises in North Texas and forms the Texas-Louisiana border for much of its length, flowing into Sabine Lake from the north. The Angelina River merges with the Neches River to create the inflow into the northwestern portion of Sabine Lake, coming out of the marvelous hardwood forest of the Big Thicket and through Beaumont, the town that the original Texas oil boom built.

Sabine Lake is shared by Louisiana and Texas and is surrounded by lush wetland systems. On the northern portions of the lake, cypress and tupelo gum swamps extend into its tidal edge, forming a maze of bayous and backwaters. To the east is a marsh system that connects Sabine Lake with Calcasieu Lake south of Lake Charles—a continuous stretch of canals and wetland grasses. To the west, the Texas marshes surround Keith Lake and extend northward up to Taylor Bayou and westward to East Bay in the Galveston Bay system. No area of Texas has the water and wetland wealth of the Sabine Lake watershed.

Sabine Lake is the smallest of the Texas bays, just over 60,000 acres in size. Neighboring Galveston Bay comes in at 350,000 acres and Matagorda, the next one south, at about 270,000 acres. San Antonio Bay and the Aransas–Copano and Nueces–Corpus Christi bay systems are the midsized systems of the Texas coast (fig. 1).

But don't be misled by size. The water wealth and wetlands of the Sabine Lake watershed are the envy of the remainder of the state. Houston had its eye on Sabine water, as did Dallas, San Antonio, and perhaps even Corpus Christi. That was why I was paid to talk with the Sabine watershed stakeholders. All of the discussions were noteworthy, but some left lasting impressions. I will never forget a gentleman from South Louisiana. We were talking at a public meeting about the role of fresh water from the Sabine River in giving life to the marshes of South Louisiana. Due to the construction of a deepwater navigation channel to Lake Charles, there is a substantial infusion of salt water into the Louisiana portion of the Sabine marsh. The man explained that the Sabine River's inflow into Sabine Lake was keeping the marsh alive by sending fresh water into it from the west down canals that had been dug for oil and gas exploration.

He explained further that this fabulous marsh system is a fresh to brackish system rather than a salt marsh. Over the years, salt water had become a greater and greater threat to the vegetation, which needs fresh water to live. As salt water entered the marsh system, the grass was killed. Clumps of soil and dead grass fell into the water, and areas that had been covered by grasses became open water instead. Marsh bottoms previously lined with plants that ducks covet were no longer vegetated. In this fresh to brackish system, salt water was the enemy.

He was polite but firm. If fresh water were diverted away from the Sabine River system, he was concerned that the marsh he loved would be killed. And he made it very clear that he would do everything in his power to keep that from happening.

I recall County Judge Richard LeBlanc of Jefferson County, Texas. Judge LeBlanc also was very clear. In his mind, there was nothing positive about diverting water of the Sabine River to points west in Texas. LeBlanc believed that development should come to the water, not the other way around. If the citizens of the Sabine watershed could manage to hold onto their water, their economic future would be guaranteed, he thought. The development might not come in his lifetime, but it would come.

I also heard from representatives of the State of Louisiana about their position on the potential westward transfer of water from the Sabine. That discussion revealed that Texas and Lousiana did not talk much about water policy, that Texas had not spoken to officials of the neighboring state about the diversion, and that the State of Louisiana was concerned about the impact of any diversion on the surrounding wetlands. I discovered that the government of Louisiana had much more official understanding about the value and role of wetlands than did the government of Texas.

It became clear that the science regarding the impact of water diversion from Sabine Lake had not been collected, if it in fact existed. As part of our work, we decided to hold a conference regarding Sabine Lake in an attempt to pull together what was known about the watershed and about how Sabine Lake might be affected by diverting its water. We assembled a planning team from both Texas and Louisiana, and we attempted to get the best people we could to make presentations on their areas of expertise.

The Sabine Lake Conference was a great success from my viewpoint. This conference convinced me that there was a large amount of information about certain specific issues but that there was no overall grasp of how a diversion would affect this important resource. Perhaps more significant, I concluded that there was no entity that had a full understanding of this estuarine ecosystem and how it functioned. I listened to a presentation about how the white shrimp production in Sabine Lake had crashed at about the same time that the two big reservoirs—Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn—were constructed. Was the crash due to declining inflows? Was the crash due to altered release patterns associated with power production? No one seemed to know.

I learned how the circulation pattern of Sabine Lake had been changed by the navigation canals that ringed it. The Sabine-Neches waterway is a deepwater channel that comes in through Sabine Pass, the outlet to the Gulf of Mexico, and comes north through Port Arthur and Beaumont, today ending at Orange, Texas, on the Sabine River. In the past, that same channel had extended eastward past Orange to Lake Charles before that community got its own deepwater channel up through Calcasieu Lake. That old navigation channel is now part of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) that connects the Sabine-Neches waterway to points west and east. I learned that there were higher salinity readings on the north end of Sabine Lake than in the middle, a total transformation of the natural pattern of gradation from fresh water to salt water going from north to south.

And I learned about the wonderful resources of the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, the 124,000-acre refuge spanning an area between Sabine Lake and Calcasieu Lake in Louisiana. Ducks of all kinds flock to this wildlife refuge—widgeon, mallards, gray ducks, mottled ducks, green- and blue-winged teal, ruddy ducks, and bluebills: ducks that travel thousands of miles from prairies in Canada and the northern United States to winter in abundance, ducks that delight hunters as they fly in formation with eyes watching for anything amiss, ducks that delight birdwatchers as they tip to feed, heads below the water, tails pointing skyward.

As I listened to what the experts were saying about the extent of our knowledge of water diversion and the health of Sabine Lake and the adjacent marshes, I realized that we did not know enough to make a serious decision about the proposed diversion. However, what struck me most was that the financial resources of those wishing to protect the ecosystem were totally overwhelmed by the financial resources of those wishing to divert.

The experience of talking to people about moving this water, of reviewing the data and assembling the Sabine Lake Conference, galvanized my commitment to fight for the Texas coast. That moment of clarity occurred in my office the week after the conference. I saw that I was an environmental lawyer for a reason, and that I was uniquely trained to attempt to prevent the Texas coast from being destroyed. This coast should not be lost because of unequal financial resources. I realized that it was not enough to talk about protecting the coast, only to watch as the money interests staked out their position. If the coast were to be protected, then people like me had to fight to make it happen.

The Sabine Lake Conference was about habitat, ecology, and stewardship. Some organizers thought it might convince the residents that enough was known to allow the diversion. Instead, it focused me. I realized that there were many people willing to mediate a solution but very few who were willing to fight for a solution. In Texas, if you are willing to fight, you will suffer financially. Yet without a fight, the coast would be lost. It was that clear. It was that simple. Luckily, the City of Houston decided not to go after the Sabine River water as of early 2003. But they or someone else will be back later in the twenty-first century.

I came by my concern about Sabine Lake honestly—the lake and the adjacent marshes are part of my heritage. When I was a boy, my father and I hunted with Uncle Bun (Bill Graves) in the marshes of southeast Texas, walking for miles into the saturated prairies, carrying duck decoys and shotguns. We would come to the edge of a marsh pond and throw out the decoys and make a blind out of the marsh hay that was lying about. I remember a late morning flight of pintails coming over in formation, the drakes sleek with their dark brown heads, white bodies, and black pointed tails. I can still see the flight turning and coming back toward us, wings set, feet down—a wonderful boyhood memory—my daddy and Uncle Bun and me together in the marsh.


Excerpted from The Book of Texas Bays by Jim Blackburn, Jim Olive. Copyright © 2004 James B. Blackburn, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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