Galveston: Hope for an Island, Hope for a Planet
Maria O'Meara recalls the energy of volunteers working to save the estuaries of Texas.
Galveston, oh Galveston, I am so afraid of dying
Before I dry the tears she's crying
Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun
- Jimmy Webb
As our flat-bottomed boat slammed through the chop and cold November rain trickled down the neck of the black garbage bag I was wearing, I began to regret that I had not stayed on the tour bus. Ours was among a fleet of small boats bouncing across West Galveston Bay toward a series of dun-colored mounds. Our mission: to plant marsh grass on these barren islands.
The restoration project was the kick-off event for the 2010 Restore America’s Estuaries conference I was attending with my sister Katie O’Meara, a landscape architect who had been invited to present a poster. The theme of the conference was climate change, making Galveston a particularly apt site for the meeting.
Just two years earlier, Hurricane Ike had hit the island with a 15-foot storm surge that damaged or destroyed 8,000 homes. Since 1909, the sea level has risen 2.3 feet in the Gulf of Mexico, a factor that contributed to Ike’s destructive powers. Researchers at Texas A&M predict climate change will cause sea levels to rise four feet in the gulf over the next hundred years, which could submerge most of the island. Estuaries and coastal wetlands such as Galveston are our main line of defense against rising sea levels, but they are threatened by rising waters, development, pollution, and invasive species.
Huge pelicans soared above the bay like prehistoric creatures. To the north, vast oil refineries lined the Houston Ship Channel; to the south, oil tankers made their way from the Gulf into the channel.
Our boat puttered to a stop. We waded to the mounds where buckets bristling with seedlings of a spiky marsh grass called spartina awaited us. If the spartina takes root, the grass naturalizes, creating a powerful defense that absorbs storm surges and protects against erosion. Around us we could see some areas where the spartina had thrived, and others patches were the tiny plants had washed away.
We were shown how to plant the seedlings 24 inches apart. First you twist a hole into the wet sand using a dibble stick. Then you wriggle the roots into the narrow hole. Because newly dredged sand is highly unstable, even a small twist would suddenly cause the sand to have the consistency of pudding, and so we found ourselves abruptly sinking to our knees or hips in quicksand. Luckily Mark Ray, an ecologist with extensive field experience and a great sense of humor, was on our team. Should we become trapped in quicksand, Mark instructed us to lie flat to distribute our weight and then wiggle our way to firmer ground.
That week, we met an amazing group of presenters and participants at the conference: community organizers, researchers from universities, engineers from government agencies and the private sector, educators and government officials. We learned about developing master plans, reseeding oyster beds, reconnecting dying salt marshes to ocean tides, and educating young people about the urgent need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. In the keynote address, Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes highlighted President Barack Obama’s groundbreaking executive order that represents our nation’s first attempt to create a plan to protect ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources. Instead of feeling defeated by climate change, I was inspired by the energy and hard work of so many committed people.
All week, the memory of that first cold morning stayed with me. We had been planting spartina for two hours. My jeans were heavy with seawater, my fingers numb. Mark Ray called out. Flying across the gray sky flashed a bright pink flock of roseate spoonbills. Thirteen of them settled on an island next to us where the spartina had naturalized and was now supporting a rich variety of life. From time to time, we looked up to watch the tall, elegant birds as they sauntered in front of dark, wet grasses and dipped their spoonbills into the shallows to feed on small shrimp.
And then, as suddenly as they had appeared, they were gone.
- Maria O'Meara
Editor’s note: This special edition of Green Talk marks the beginning of Brookline Climate Week, which starts with a kick-off event this afternoon. Find all Climate Week events on the Brookline Patch events calendar.