Texas has a record $39 million to spend on the cleanup that could start this week
By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Feb. 8, 2009, 10:14PM
Underwater Ike debris Follow rebuilding efforts as Galveston recovers from Ike Hurricane Ike littered Galveston Bay with easy chairs, mattresses, refrigerators, motorcycles and sunken shrimp boats. They’re easy to miss from above, but the scope of the cleanup ahead is coming into focus.
The Texas General Land Office, which is responsible for protecting the coast, has pinpointed nearly 600 large pieces of underwater debris after surveying about one-fifth of the bay.
The sonar scans will continue through February, but the cleanup could begin as soon as this week, with the goal of finishing before the next hurricane season begins, on June 1.
Texas has set aside $39 million for the cleanup, the largest of its kind in the state’s history. Officials said they expect reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“On the plus side, the bay will be cleaner than before,” said Jim Suydam, spokesman for the General Land Office.
For years, hundreds of abandoned barges, shrimp boats and recreational vessels have cluttered the bayous, bays and shores of the Gulf of Mexico.
Ike’s surge deposited even more debris into the shallow waters of Galveston Bay, one of the nation’s largest and most productive estuaries.
The debris is a hazard to navigation and a potential problem for the environment. For example, the storm-tossed debris has helped destroy half of the bay’s oyster reefs, officials say.
Areas hit hardest
Surveys show that most of the debris is along the Texas City Dike and in the East Bay behind the Bolivar Peninsula, which took the brunt of the September storm.
“We’re finding a little bit of everything,” said Dan Rackard, marine operations manager for CrowderGulf, the Alabama company surveying the bay for the Texas land office.
The company is using a side-scan sonar to map the garbage in the water.
It’s methodical work, requiring specially equipped boats to trawl the bay in straight lines, as if mowing a 660-square-mile lawn.
Although the surveys will take a few more weeks to complete, there is enough information to start the cleanup, Suydam said.
Until recently, the Texas land office, which is responsible for draining sunken and abandoned vessels of their hazardous contents, had no authority to remove them from waterways.
The Legislature in 2005 passed a law enabling the state to help clean up the maritime trash and making it a misdemeanor to dump a boat in Texas waters. But the land office had only a couple hundred thousand dollars to start, enough to make a small dent in the problem.
The state loaned the land office the money for the Ike-related cleanup, expecting to be reimbursed by the federal government.
The intent is to clean the bay before hurricane season. Louisiana hadn’t cleaned up the marine debris from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 before Gustav added to the mess last year.
“Everyone is fighting June 1,” Rackard said. “We would like to get it all cleaned up before then, because we’ve had problems in Louisiana. We’re cleaning up Katrina, and now we’re cleaning up Gustav, too.”
Colliding with debris
Boaters and fishermen also want the underwater debris cleared before higher temperatures draw more people to the bay.
Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, said he has received reports of boats colliding with unseen debris from Ike. “I don’t think the bay is pockmarked,” he said, “but I think it’s enough to be a problem.”
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