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From the Brownsville Herald Copyright 2005

Bahia Grande becomes research lab

The Brownsville Herald

BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS - September 20, 2021 — The University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College’s newest laboratory is not full of test tubes and chemicals or tucked away in a science building.

Instead, it’s the recently re-flooded Bahia Grande.

Although the Brownsville Navigation District and its partners showed off a temporary channel to the dry bay from the Brownsville Ship Channel in May, more than 80 supporters met Monday to dedicate the Carl “Joe” Gayman Bahia Grande Restoration Channel and discuss the progress made on the largest wetlands restoration project in the United States.

Gayman is a Brownsville Navigation District commissioner and longtime re-flooding advocate.

For decades, Laguna Madre-area residents had complained of billowing dust from the once-pristine, shallow bay. Since the 1930s, the bay has been dry, cut off from tidal flows with the dredging of the Brownsville Ship Channel and construction of Texas Highway 48.

Federal officials lauded the project as an example for others to follow.

David P. Smith, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, spoke of the importance of restoration.

“This can be a real centerpiece. This can be a real crowning achievement for what is a burgeoning area in the state of Texas and the U.S.,” he said, describing the emptiness of the area he remembered as a child when driving to South Padre Island, drawing a contrast with the now-rejuvenated bay.

School children and college students now have “a real-life lab in their backyard, just down the road,” he added.

Timothy Keeney, assistant secretary for oceans with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the re-flooding provided a large return for a small investment.

“I think this is very much a model for the country,” he said.

Scientists, four of whom were from either UTB-TSC or the University of Texas-Pan American, described their research on the 10,000-acre Bahia Grande, much of which included re-establishing native plants and sea life and putting together baseline estimates to determine, eventually, how successful the restoration has been.

David Hicks, an assistant professor of biology at UTB-TSC, described how the pilot channel was “acting as a conduit” to bring marine life into the meter-deep bay, which he called “encouraging” for the early stage of the restoration.

“The success of this whole project is basically going to depend on having adequate (tidal) flow into this system,” he said, echoing other researchers’ comments.

Elizabeth Heise, an assistant professor of geology and oceanography at UTB-TSC, described efforts to establish how things were through fossil records and re-plant native mangrove, oxeye daisies and other vegetation.

“There are no commercial groves of these plants,” she said.