Collaborative restoration project brings life back to Magnolia-Indianola wetlands

April 20, 2018

By Alex Hood

For the better part of two decades, the stretch of wetland between Magnolia Beach and Indianola was slowly dying, a blemish on the otherwise pristine and beautiful stretch of beach in Calhoun County. Today, thanks to a collaboration of state and federal agencies, higher education, industry and private citizens, a large portion of the salt marsh has been improved and is now a functional, thriving ecosystem where local residents fish and birdwatch, and one of coastal Texas’ noteworthy wetland restoration successes.

The shallow water marsh is home to a sizeable population of fish, crabs and birds attracting anglers and kayakers. Man-made structures had changed the hydrology, or circulation of water into and out of the wetlands. The quality and productivity of the marsh was continually deteriorating, and the water that remained sometimes became stagnant and smelled of the dead fish that collected there.

“Part of the value of that habitat is that it’s a blue crab and shrimp nursery,” said Keith Schmidt, a Magnolia Beach property owner who had been trying to get something done about the declining marsh complex for years. “People call the bridge nearby the ‘Crabbing Bridge,’ but most people don’t know why it was a good place to go crabbing — it’s because of the 700 acres of marsh connected to the inlet channel that the Crabbing Bridge crosses over.”

That the Magnolia-Indianola salt marsh was in poor condition was well known in the local community. “It really was a grassroots project,” said Rhonda Cummins, Texas Sea Grant/Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Coastal and Marine Resources Agent for Calhoun County. “The locals knew about it and wanted something done so they kept pushing.” She said that the area was brought to her attention almost immediately upon stepping into her role in 2008.

“In my first six months here, I heard about that issue from a lot of places,” she said. “Folks would come up to me and tell me how it used to be, how they used to catch really big redfish back there, but that the fish just weren’t there anymore.”

Just prior to her arrival in Calhoun County, the marsh had had a large fish kill — an event in which a massive amount of fish in a population all die at once — that stoked the concerns of local residents, including Schmidt.

“Keith was hugely involved, and I learned more about the project from talking to him than anyone else,” Cummins said. “He understood a lot about marshes and could explain the problems the area was having.”

With input from Schmidt and other private landowners, Cummins began searching for a solution and speaking about the problem to anyone who would listen, but with little success. She said the turning point came in 2010 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Restoration Center funded a community-based restoration partnership program led by the four Sea Grant College Programs in the Gulf of Mexico. The program focused on identifying and funding Gulf of Mexico hydrological restoration projects throughout the region. For decades, the natural hydrology and tidal flows of the Gulf Coast have been altered by development, including construction of roads and causeways or dredging. The resulting changes in water flow have impaired coastal ecosystems needed by commercially important marine species. The program’s Gulf of Mexico Hydrological Restoration Projects Inventory focused on relatively small projects, such as removing barriers to tidal flow or freshwater exchange, that could impact large areas and restore coastal and marine fisheries habitat.

Immediately recognizing the opportunity the inventory presented, Cummins enlisted the help of the two Texas Sea Grant Research Assistants, Karla Dunlap and Karen Bishop, who were tasked with identifying and listing Texas sites for the inventory, to include the Magnolia Inlet project on the list.

Meanwhile, as local concern about the vanishing wetland grew, the area had also come to the attention of Dr. Rusty Feagin, a Professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management and Ocean Engineering at Texas A&M University and a Texas A&M AgriLife Research coastal scientist in the Coastal Ecology and Management Lab. Feagin, who became the restoration project’s organizer and leader, helped secure funding from various sources, including the Texas Ornithological Society, the Texas General Land Office and Calhoun County; additional funding also came from the NOAA Restoration Center, making the Magnolia Inlet the first Texas project in the Gulf of Mexico Hydrological Restoration Projects Inventory to be funded through that program. Feagin also performed the research necessary to bring the project to fruition.

“We did a lot of research to be able to say what the exact problem was,” he said. “We know things are dying, but exactly what is the real cause here, and how much of it has been dying?”

Feagin said his investigations showed that the marsh was blocked up on two sides, allowing salt water to enter the marsh complex but not leave it. Much of the water would then evaporate, leaving what remained at such a high level of salinity that very little life could survive in it. The first and most severe blockage was at the north end of Magnolia Inlet, where oyster shells and other debris built up over decades before eventually blocking all water flow between Matagorda Bay and Old Towne Lake, which fed the wetlands. The second blockage was a shell-hash road that stretched across the marsh surface farther down at Fish Pass.

According to Feagin, his group was able to open up the blockage at Fish Pass fairly quickly. “We basically, in the span of about a day, just got a backhoe and opened it up. We waited maybe six months to a year, and it got better — but only like 10 percent better — so we took it upon ourselves to open Magnolia Inlet.”

Opening the more severe blockage proved to be a far more extensive task, Feagin said, but once it was done, the improvement was drastic and immediate. Water flow to the marsh was restored. Fish returned within weeks. The area was recreationally rejuvenated, with kayakers and crabbers again enjoying the lazy water. Tidal activity expanded the wetland area for new vegetation to grow. In the end, more than 700 acres of marsh habitat were restored.

“You can see something scientifically, and you can measure it, but it’s not until you hear how much better it is from the average fisherman at the bait shop that it becomes real,” Feagin said.

Schmidt described some of the changes he has seen in the area. “I have kids, and they like to come down with pole nets and wade in the inlet channel to catch the blue crabs. At the end of the day we throw them all back in the water, and it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “And now there are a lot more crabs and shrimp coming out of that marsh area and hopefully the collaborative work will continue to make additional improvements in the future.”

The results of the project have also been noticed outside of Calhoun County. In 2016, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality gave the effort the Texas Environmental Excellence Award in the civic/community category. The award is considered the highest environmental honor in the state.

“It’s exciting,” Cummins said. “And it also gives me hope that the local community can be successful in future efforts to address other identified needs.”

Feagin stressed that the achievement took a massive amount of collaboration between countless individuals and organizations to accomplish, including Texas A&M University Ecosystem and Science Management doctoral student Thomas Huff; consulting firm Freese and Nichols, Inc.; Carla Kartman in the Texas General Land Office; Jaime Schubert of the NOAA Restoration Center; the National Marine Fisheries Service; the four Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Programs, including Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant, which led the partnership program; Texas Sea Grant; Calhoun County; and private landowners like Schmidt.

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Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.