Galveston Bay—the largest estuary in Texas—is a diverse ecosystem along the Gulf of Mexico brimming with prairies, seagrass meadows, marshes, and oyster reefs. Home to an array of aquatic species, the area is a hub for commercial fishing and recreational activities. But Galveston Bay’s vibrant biodiversity and the activities that depend on it are at risk. Thousands of acres of critical wetland habitat have already disappeared and many more are vulnerable to climate impacts.
Over the last 120 years, the sea level in the Galveston area has risen by more than 27 inches—three times greater than the global average—driven by a combination of land subsidence and rising ocean levels. This has resulted in the loss of over 35,000 acres of intertidal marsh habitat since the 1950s. Subsidence in Galveston Bay is the result of industrial activities, namely oil, gas, and groundwater extraction, which is causing the land to sink. At the same time, climate change is causing ocean levels to rise due to melting ice sheets and glaciers as well as thermal expansion.
To help ecosystems and communities adapt to these impacts, the Galveston Bay Foundation has worked in the region since 1987 to restore and protect critical wetland habitats. The foundation is a nationally accredited land trust and has conserved more than 13,000 acres of coastal habitat through property acquisitions and conservation easements.
“We’ve been restoring wetland habitat around Galveston Bay for over 30 years for the benefits it provides to fish and birds and water quality. But we are acutely aware in a time of climate change how important these wetlands can be in providing additional buffer and storm surge protection for people and communities,” noted Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation.
The grant was one of the first provided through the National Coastal Resilience Fund, which was established in 2018 to protect coastal communities and ecosystems by restoring and strengthening nature-based infrastructure. The National Coastal Resilience Fund is backed by a mixture of private and public funding, with contributions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, AT&T, TransRe (a reinsurance company), Shell Oil Company, and more.In 2018, the Galveston Bay Foundation received a $1 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) National Coastal Resilience Fund. The grant, combined with $1 million in matching funds raised by the foundation, was awarded to restore valuable wetland habitat in the Dollar Bay and Moses Lake region of Galveston Bay.
An additional $2.3 million was awarded to the Galveston Bay Foundation in 2019 from the NFWF Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, which was established after the catastrophic 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to restore ecosystems in the Gulf Coast. The combined funds resulted in the restoration of 72 acres of wetland habitat and increased the resilience of communities and ecosystems in the face of climate change impacts like sea level rise, coastal erosion, and more intense storm surges.
These grants allowed the Galveston Bay Foundation to construct nearly 4,000 feet of protective breakwaters and 47 marsh terraces. Breakwaters and marsh terraces are coastal restoration techniques that help reduce wave energy to protect shorelines. Marsh terraces have the added benefit of increasing marsh area and providing habitat. The 47 marsh terraces installed in the Dollar Bay and Moses Lake region created nearly five miles of marsh-edge habitat that is vital to many wildlife species in the area, such as birds and oysters.
The local community has begun to notice the benefits of the Galveston Bay Foundation’s restoration work, and is joining in the effort. For example, nearby landowners, having witnessed the environmental benefits of the Dollar Bay restoration project—including an increase in wildlife biodiversity—were inspired to preserve their 106-acre coastal prairie plot for conservation instead of building houses on it, as had been planned.
In December 2020, the Galveston Bay Foundation acquired the land and marked it for conservation. Funding for the land acquisition came from a Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act grant provided through NOAA and administered by the Texas Coastal Management Program. After the acquisition, the foundation transferred the property to Texas City, Texas, and placed a conservation easement on the tract, but maintains a land stewardship role.
The Galveston Bay Foundation’s federally-supported coastal restoration work and the subsequent conservation efforts on adjacent private land demonstrate one way that federal investments can be most impactful—when private landowners and communities see a project’s benefits and find creative ways to build on its success.
While this project and the resulting successes were made possible by funding from multiple sources brought together by the foundation, the requirements often tied to federal dollars can be barriers to replicating success elsewhere. As Cathleen Berthelot, senior policy manager for coastal resilience at the Environmental Defense Fund, explained during an EESI briefing, “Many of the communities that are in dire need of federal funding opportunities are not able to come up with the local match.” In many cases, waiving those matches for underserved communities, ensuring broader equity considerations are in place when distributing federal funding, and enhancing federal coordination on adaptation and resilience funding would help to advance overall national adaptation and resilience priorities.
To learn more about federal programs that support climate change adaptation, check out EESI’s recent briefing, Climate Adaptation Programs Across Agencies.
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