ALTHOUGH I HAD BEEN WARNED ABOUT the abominable man-made islands of Laguna Madre, seeing them up close was a jolt. It was mid-January and I was traveling the Corpus Christi—to—Port Isabel stretch of the inland Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the final piece of the remarkable and controversial 1,300-mile aquatic superhighway that parallels the Gulf of Mexico coast from St. Marks, Florida, to Brownsville, connecting major ports with the Mississippi River and the vast inland waterway system of the United States. This was also the last leg of my journey along the Texas portion of the Intracoastal Waterway. By now I’d seen numerous examples of how the waterway has changed the dynamics of the Texas coast—such drastic erosion at Sargent Beach that the Gulf is one storm away from breaching the waterway, shrimping grounds destroyed in Matagorda Bay, whooping crane habitat lost at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. But nothing in my previous travels was more dramatic or otherworldly than the islands.
The islands are heaps of bottom sediments known as spoil, created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which dredged this final segment of the 125-foot-wide, 12-foot-deep waterway in the late forties. There are a few islands on the upper coast, but they tend to be obscured by the flurry of traffic and commerce. Between Port Arthur and Corpus Christi the Intracoastal weaves a stealthy path, crossing unseen in deeper bays and inland lakes, firmly defined only when it cuts through private property. Not so down here. The Intracoastal runs through the primal heart of Laguna Madre for nearly 150 miles, and the islands, ranging in size from five acres to more than fifty, line both sides of the canal, protruding from the shallow, watery moonscape like a string of gigantic reddish-brown boils.
For years the only people who have paid attention to the islands are a cult of a few hundred squatters, who built cabins that they use as fishing camps. (In this remote part of Texas, the best fishing areas are miles from the nearest road or boat ramp.) The islands are the result of a congressional mandate requiring that the Corps dispose of dredge material in the least costly manner. The Corps has always contended that the cheapest and easiest way is to dump the spoil to one side as the dredge moves along, a technique called open bay disposal. Tides and currents are constantly carrying sand back into the bed of the canal. To keep it navigable, the dredge needs to rework a given section about every eighteen months. Open bay dumping never ends.
Over the past decade scientists have discovered that the maintenance dredging is destroying sea grass, the basis of all life in Laguna Madre. Years ago there was sea grass up and down the coast, but today about 80 percent of it grows here. The grass is the reason that Laguna Madre is the breadbasket for sea creatures along the Texas coast. It’s also the reason that Laguna Madre has become the epicenter of a legal and political battle, matching on one side environmentalists, landowners, and biologists from state and federal agencies and on the other side the Corps, barge companies, chemical plants, and port authorities. In the upper part of Laguna Madre there are almost one thousand acres of dry ground that used to be water—and sea grass. It’s all from dredge disposal.
IN STARTLING CONTRAST TO LAGUNA MADRE, the nearly three hundred miles of the Intracoastal Waterway that follows the upper Texas coast is busy, noisy, and unforgiving. It is a passageway of big shoulders and vested interests, largely hidden from public view by the bays and lakes that it transverses. Nearly half of the nation’s refineries and petrochemical plants have located on this part of the Gulf Coast, specifically to take advantage of the waterway. Shipping lanes, harbor channels, and barge and feeder canals crisscross like tracks of a railroad switching yard. Mountains of dredge material and slag and bauxite from industrial plants loom on the shoreline. Tankers and freighters inch across the horizon. Endless streams of barges, crew boats, and fishing and recreational vessels flit along the various shallow-draft canals. Everywhere, monster-size dredges work around the clock, digging new canals or cleaning silt from existing ones. This part of the Intracoastal never sleeps.
The upper part of the waterway is so heavily trafficked that it accounts for 68 percent of all barge traffic between the Rio Grande and the Atlantic Ocean. Roughly 35,000 barges move about 77 million tons of bulky, often hazardous cargo over the Texas link of the waterway each year—more safely and cheaply than any other avenue of transportation. To transport that same amount of cargo by highway or rail would require more than 2 million semitrailer trucks or 535,000 railroad cars. Of the more than four thousand spills of hazardous materials in Texas between 1976 and 1984, only six involved transportation by water. Not everyone is convinced that the Intracoastal Waterway is such a sweet deal, however, particularly in the Laguna Madre portion. Mary Kelly, the executive director for the Texas Center for Policy Study, has written that the only reason barge transportation is cheaper is that the federal government is subsidizing barge transportation by paying for the cost of operation and maintenance of the waterway. The Laguna Madre link costs taxpayers about $2.5 million a year—a drop in the federal bucket. For that matter, highways are subsidized too, and the railroads got their land for free a century ago.
The Intracoastal is one of those grandiose public works that the Corps of Engineers executed so ably during the first half of the twentieth century, when engineers were universally admired as problem solvers and words like “ecology” were not in the public discourse. Back then, marshes and tidal flats were dismissed as wasteland. Though the islands of Laguna Madre are the most jarring reminder of how a project can have unintended consequences, there are hundreds of other reminders up and down the waterway. Large sections of