BY STEFANIE HERWECK
The Bahia Grande or “Big Bay” between Brownsville and Port Isabel, Texas was once the center of a vast coastal wetland and prairie habitat. Its waters were an important nursery for aquatic life, and its islands supported flocks of breeding shorebirds. Birds of prey used the skies above to hunt songbirds flitting through the grasslands.
When the Brownsville ship channel was carved into the shoreline beginning in the 1930s, the bay was cut off from Gulf waters and dried up. Any fish that were able to survive there during wet years were subject to mass die-offs when the unreplenished waters evaporated. Dust from the dry bay bottom was picked up by winds and sandblasted the vegetation off the surrounding prairie, which meant fewer birds. The same dust caused terrible sandstorms in nearby Port Isabel that affected people’s health.
A restoration project for the Bahia finally began in 2005. A channel was dug from the Brownsville ship channel that allowed the Bahia to flood. Some tidal flow was restored in 2007 when the Bahia was connected to smaller basins–the Laguna Larga and the Little Laguna Madre. At 22,000 acres, the restoration project is the largest in North America, and was undertaken by a partnership of more than 65 groups.
The restoration is ongoing. There is still not enough tidal flow through the basins and the salinity is unnaturally high, so more and larger flow channels are in the works. In 2013, encroaching brush was removed from the prairie to make better habitat for bird species, in particular the endangered Northern aplomado falcon and its prey.
The aplomado is the centerpiece species of the Bahia Grande, and it’s at the center of yet another restoration story. Aplomado falcon numbers plummeted in the early part of the 20th century due mainly to habitat loss, and 1952 saw the last breeding pair in the United States. The species was federally listed as endangered in 1986. Recovery efforts through the 1990s and 2000s included a captive breeding program that released more than 1,500 birds, and currently more than 30 breeding pairs have been documented in South Texas.
The coming of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals to the Bahia Grande neighborhood could bring an abrupt end to these stories of restoration, however. The Brownsville Navigation District has leased a site on the East boundary of the Bahia Grande Unit to Texas LNG, LLC, between the refuge and the City of Port Isabel. A second site has been leased across Highway 48 from the refuge by Next Decade LNG between the highway and the ship channel, and a third, that of Annova LNG, is located across the ship channel from the Bahia. A fourth company has leased land further to the west. (See a map.)
These LNG companies intend to pipe large quantities of fracked gas across the Valley to these sites where it will be refined and cooled down to -260 degrees F in order to liquefy and condense it to 1/600th of its original volume. The liquefied gas will then be piped onto enormous tankers in the ship channel and exported to Europe and in China where gas prices are higher and the companies can make higher profits.
The plants they propose to build adjacent to the Bahia Grande would pump out massive quantities of pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and greenhouse gases. Large quantities of earth would have to be dredged to create turning basins for the ships and to fill in wetlands, and this could create runoff that interferes with the fragile flow of the Bahia Grande Unit’s basins. Bright lights from the plants will flood the area at night disrupting sensitive wildlife. Furthermore, each LNG facility will flare gas from a 200- to 500-foot tower, creating more pollution in the form of soot and unburned material, as well as posing an extreme hazard for birds.
The bottom line is that these heavy industrial complexes are fundamentally incompatible with the sensitive habitat and wildlife of the Bahia Grande. If we are proud of the tremendous work that has gone into restoring the bay and into bringing the Northern aplomado falcon back from the brink, we need to oppose the LNG export terminals with all our might.