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 the original channel have been rerouted, usually from open bays to landlocked canals. Over the years thousands of acres of private property have been confiscated by the Corps and its agent, the Texas Department of Transportation, to accommodate the Intracoastal. Nobody can estimate how many more acres of marshland have been covered by dredge material or eroded by wave action from passing barges. Frustrated property owners have sometimes taken matters into their own hands. After a feeder channel was dredged on the San Bernard River, ranchers and farmers took potshots at towboats whose barges came too close to their land. Floodgates and locks had to be constructed where two major rivers, the Brazos and the Colorado, poured into the Intracoastal, and these structures altered longshore currents, which had the unforeseen effect of eroding beaches miles away. The longshore currents—or “rivers of sand”—that run along our coast consistently choke attempts by the Corps to cut passes through barrier islands. And yet developers and special interest groups keep pushing new projects. Five times the Corps has attempted to dredge a pass from the Gulf to Laguna Madre through a washover called Yarborough Pass, and five times the river of sand has filled it in almost as soon as the dredges finished work. At present, a group of developers is trying to reopen Packery Channel on Padre Island to connect the Gulf of Mexico with the shallow north end of Laguna Madre, despite predictions that the channel will fill in again within a year.

From the time of Thomas Jefferson, politicians and business leaders had envisioned a vast network of waterways extending from the Great Lakes through the Mississippi Valley and along the Gulf coastline. But Texas was an inhospitable environment. In 1873 a Corps survey team reported that the fifty miles of coast between East Galveston Bay and Sabine Lake had an average elevation of two feet and was a marshy swampland infested with “clouds of mosquitoes” and covered with “a dense growth of sea-cane.” The coastline between West Galveston Bay and the Rio Grande was “almost impenetrable swamps,” which gradually gave way to “wide and shallow bays, along a wild and almost uninhabited coast.”

Cruising the Intracoastal, one can’t help but reflect that Texas history started and evolved along this coastline. La Salle first landed not far from where the dredge Leonard M. Fisher works on Matagorda Bay. Near a swing bridge at Sargent Beach, five thousand Confederate troops dug in in 1864 to await a Union invasion that never came. In 1905 Victoria banker Clarence S. E. Holland pulled together a group of prominent Texans and railroad officials and founded what came to be known as the Intracoastal Canal Association. Ninety-one years later, the association still influences what happens along the waterway. By 1910 Congress had appropriated money for a channel between Corpus Christi and Galveston, and by 1934 the Intracoastal extended to the Sabine, uniting Texas navigation with the Louisiana portion of the canal. The Laguna Madre segment of the waterway was approved in 1942 as a security measure to protect shipping from German submarines prowling the Gulf, though the actual dredging didn’t begin until December 1945, four months after World War II ended. Once completed, the Texas link of the Intracoastal Waterway consisted of 423 miles of main channel and 141 miles of tributary channel, all of it maintained by the Corps’ district headquarters in Galveston.

The commercial benefit of what the Corps has accomplished is enormous; the entire coastal economy is dependent on this inland waterway. The cost to the environment is less uplifting, however. When parts of the coast have been fouled or degraded, the Corps has either denied responsibility or pleaded that it was only doing what Congress told it to do—keeping the Intracoastal open to navigation. In 1975 the Corps conducted an environmental impact study of the Intracoastal. The subsequent report minimized the effects of open bay disposal, comparing them to “occasional rainstorms and normal wind.” Though this report was probably obsolete before it was published, the Corps has referred to it for more than two decades to validate Corps activities. When information to the contrary has been presented, the Corps has resolutely refused to acknowledge it. In the mid-eighties a group of scientists from various state and federal agencies did its own research and issued a white paper that concluded that open bay disposal caused serious harm to the lower Laguna Madre. A separate study by Chris Onuf, a scientist with the National Biological Service in Corpus Christi and the foremost authority on sea grass in Laguna Madre, reported that 87 square kilometers of sea grass had been destroyed by dredge dumping. The scientist also discovered that spoil disposal traveled up to three kilometers from the disposal site and remained suspended in the water for up to fifteen months, a condition particularly menacing to sea grass beds. The Corps basically ignored both the white paper and Onuf’s report but has begun another study of its own.

When and if the Corps did get around to acknowledging a crisis, its solution was usually another engineering project—another canal, more concrete, a lock, or a floodgate. Nowhere is this more evident than at Sargent Beach, twenty miles southwest of Freeport. A few hundred feet past a swing bridge spanning the Intracoastal, Texas Highway 457 suddenly crumbles into the Gulf of Mexico. An incoming tide washes over a hunk of shell-crusted two-lane blacktop. With no barrier island to protect it, Sargent Beach has been eroding in some areas at a rate of up to 65 feet a year. “We’ve lost five or six streets of cottages and more than one thousand acres,” Matagorda County commissioner George Deshotels told me. “Just written them off the tax roll.” Ed Price, the bridge tender since 1987—his father was the bridge tender before him—said that when he was a kid in the mid-sixties the bridge was a mile from the water. Today you can hit the ocean with a rock.

Nobody is sure why this isolated beach has eroded at such an accelerated rate, but Deshotels and others think it started in the twenties, when the Corps diverted the Brazos River channel to accommodate the Intracoastal traffic as it crossed Matagorda Bay. Today there is a race against time to build an eight-mile-long revetment that will prevent the Gulf from breaching the Intracoastal. “One major storm could put the Gulf into the canal,” said Jack W. Seward of Marble Falls, the construction manager of this $80 million project. The revetment, which should be completed by January 1998, is a sort of underground seawall paralleling the canal. It is being constructed of limestone shipped down the waterway from Missouri, capped by pink granite trucked in from Marble Falls. In three to five years the Gulf will have reached and exposed the revetment, but that’s as far as it will go. In the meantime, though, two hurricane seasons remain.

ONE OF THE BIGGEST CONTROVERSIES ALONG THE CANAL is erosion caused by barges. One day on a visit to San Antonio Bay, north of Corpus Christi, I was standing just beyond a six-foot-high spoil bank and could see the wheelhouse of a tugboat pushing a bargeload of gravel. Rancher John Welder Cliburn shook his head as the wash from the tug’s wake rushed up his boat canal and carried off chunks of his inheritance. The Cliburn Ranch has been in his family since 1908, when his great-grandfather, Victoria banker John J. Welder, bought it from Thomas O’Connor. In the thirties the Corps took a wide strip of the ranch to dredge this leg of the Intracoastal Waterway. Constant erosion caused by passing barges has been taking pieces of it ever since. “The problem is, there’s no accountability,” Cliburn told me. “The barge companies don’t want to address shoreline erosion. The Corps has its own agenda.” We were standing on a part of Cliburn’s ranch known as Welder Flats, at a point on the bay where the Victoria Barge Canal intersects the waterway. This is a busy and dangerous intersection. Two years ago biologists from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge across the bay rescued the crew of a burning tug that was pushing a bargeload of naphtha.

The 48-year-old fourth-generation rancher has preserved the ranch in much the same condition as it was hundreds of years ago. Rather than the “almost impenetrable swamp” described in the Corps’ 1873 survey, this is incredibly rich marshland and coastal prairie, full of oyster beds and native grasses, where white-tailed deer, turkeys, bobwhites, javelinas, coyotes, alligators, and dozens of other species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians thrive. It’s also a crossroads and a nesting ground for a variety of migratory waterfowl. As we talk, a formation of five roseate spoonbills soars overhead, their brilliant pink plumage iridescent against the gray winter sky. A dozen or so whooping cranes usually winter on the Cliburn Ranch, rather than with the majority of the cranes on the marshes of the wildlife refuge across the bay.

Because of the whoopers, Cliburn was caught in a battle between environmentalists and federal and state bureaucrats over how to prevent additional erosion to the shoreline of the wildlife ref-uge. Under pressure from the National Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Endangered Species Act, the Corps had decided to install an armoring of concrete mats around the perimeter of the refuge. To John Cli-burn’s dismay, the shoreline of the Cliburn Ranch was included in the work order. Because he had not experienced the same rate of erosion, Cliburn wanted the Corps to construct a breakwater, a solution also favored by the Texas General Land Office. A breakwater would absorb most of the energy from the wakes of passing vessels while allowing water to move in and out, depositing sediment and creating a marsh of several varieties of cord grass. In time, this part of the shoreline could look as it did before the Intracoastal Waterway intruded. This may yet happen. Since my visit, the work order has been changed, and Welder Flats has been spared the Corps’ meddling for now.

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has lost 10 percent of its 1,100 acres of marsh since the Intracoastal began operation and continues to lose it at a rate of three feet a year. There is some loss to natural wave action on San Antonio Bay, but J. Brent Giezentanner, the refuge’s manager, believes that most of the erosion is caused by the wake and wave action from boats and tugs. “When a barge goes by,” he said, “you can see the scouring action as the wa ter is sucked up from the channel, then rushes back.” Whooping cranes feed less than a hundred feet from passing barges. “The cranes are literally living fifteen seconds from disaster,” Giezentanner continued. “The question is not if but when a barge loaded with hazardous chemicals is going to wreck and spill.” Barges carrying hazardous cargo are required by law to be double-hulled, but a chemical spill remains the worst nightmare of the biologists at Aransas.

On this one section of the waterway at least, the Corps appears to be cleaning up its image—not that it has a choice as long as the Endangered Species Act remains in force. Instead of allowing contractors to build levees from dredge material and then fill them to overflowing, as was done in the past, the Corps has started a “beneficial uses” program. If it works as planned, the engineers will learn to transform spoil into new habitat for the whoopers. After all, this stuff is not nuclear waste, it’s topsoil—or used to be. Ideally, dredged material could be hauled upriver to the farms and ranches from which it came or dumped in deep water. The problem is the huge cost of transporting the spoil. Port Lavaca dredging magnate King Fisher, who has been in the business for 58 years, said, “Them damn environmentalists who don’t pay one cent are making it so we have to pump this stuff farther and farther away, sometimes three miles or more from the dredge.” Rather than costing 50 cents a yard as it once did, Fisher says, dredging will soon cost up to $4. “There will be a time it’ll cost so much they’ll have to shut down the Houston Ship Channel,” he predicted darkly. One solution is upland disposal sites, which would require that the government buy land near dredging operations or persuade owners to donate it. A few ranchers on the upper coast have permitted some disposal on their property, but these experiments have produced mixed results and there have been no follow-ups. Neither of the two giant ranches that line the mainland side of Laguna Madre—the King Ranch and the Kenedy Ranch—has offered to sell land, much less donate it.

Another solution is to use the dredged material to create new marsh, as Mitchell Energy did recently as a trade-off for being allowed to cut a channel through Bludworth Island. The arrangement produced 22 acres of new marsh, but only time will tell if the whooping cranes will use it.

For the past twenty years the Corps has predicted that new islands would emerge from dredge maintenance material, and these could be shaped into levees to contain future maintenance material. But this hasn’t happened. Instead, the muck has become thinner and thinner, gradually losing its solidity until it is something resembling chocolate pudding. Lloyd Mullins, a biologist with the General Land Office, demonstrated this point during our trip down Laguna Madre. Leaning over the bow of the boat, Mullins pulled up a handful of thin black muck. Hydrogen sulfide bubbled to the surface, along with a rotten-egg stench. We had stopped on the banks of an island that was the site of a mitigation project with Fina Petroleum, which had destroyed a sea grass meadow and pledged to replace it. The problem was, the channel where the sea grass was to be planted was full of muck. “The first thing they’ll have to do is replace this loose stuff with sand,” Mullins said. “Sea grass won’t colonize in this. The wind will just blow it away.”

The Corps labels such muck “maintenance material” to distinguish it from the clay and sand on the crowns of the islands, which was dredged many decades ago. On the Corps’ drawing board at the moment is a plan to create 4,200 acres of wetlands in Galveston Bay, using both old and new material. What benefits Galveston Bay, however, does not necessarily benefit Laguna Madre, where high salinity prevents the growth of marsh grasses. That’s why Laguna Madre has tidal flats instead of marshes and why solutions that work on the upper coast don’t work on the lower coast.

THE ONLY WAY TO TRULY APPRECIATE Laguna Madre is to travel it in the company of biologists like Mullins and Bill Grimes, who is also with the General Land Office. “Laguna Madre is as unique in its own way as the Grand Canyon,” Grimes tells me as we begin the journey. “It’s not an ecosystem that most people are familiar with, but its biomass is as rich and subtle as an old-growth forest.” The lagoon is one of only a few hypersaline bays in the world, which partly explains why it is also one of the most productive. Sheltered from the Gulf of Mexico by Padre Island and bounded on the mainland side by the Kenedy and the King ranches, Laguna Madre gets no significant inflow of fresh water and little rainfall. Water here can be two or three times more salty than in the Gulf.

Until the Corps finished dredging in 1949, Laguna Madre was actually two bays: The upper Laguna and the lower Laguna were separated by a 24-mile mud flat, apparently created by a hurricane in 1919. Wind-driven currents swept Gulf water up the lower Laguna until it piled up on the flats and eventually evaporated. At one time the lower Laguna was so salty that fish went blind. When the Corps dredged the so-called land cut, water was able to circulate from the lower to the upper part of the bay, which decreased the bay’s overall salinity.

Most biologists regard the land cut as a happy accident. While the change in structure and chemistry has come at the expense of some species that had adapted to the hypersalinity, the effect was to make the lagoon even more productive. The combination of the clear, shallow water (which permits maximum sunlight), the high salinity, and a predominate wind that blows strong and steady from southeast to northwest has produced vast sea grass prairies comparable with the tall grasslands of the Great Plains. Because of these meadows, Laguna Madre is an extraordinarily fertile nursery for juvenile shrimp, crab, and a number of sport and commercial fish such as sea trout and red drum. Eighty percent of all fish caught along the Texas coast come from Laguna Madre. Hundreds of microscopic organisms grow on the grasses’ soft, feathery blades. Sea turtles and most of North America’s population of redhead ducks feed on the shoal grass. More than three hundred species of birds live at least part of the year here, including the threatened piping plovers and peregrine falcons.

Grimes, who is a biologist with the coastal division of the General Land Office’s headquarters in Austin, and Mullins, who runs the field office in Aransas Pass and oversees the lower Texas coast, travel Laguna Madre several times a year to inspect sea grass beds and generally look out for the interest of the state. Texas owns Laguna Madre and everything in it, including the Intracoastal, but federal agencies are able to usurp the state’s authority through the use of catchall federal rules like “navigational servitude,” which the Corps interprets to mean its absolute right to do whatever necessary to keep the waterway open to traffic.

One of Mullins’ jobs is to keep watch over the islands and the squatters’ cabins. The islands have been a fact of life for nearly half a century, but the state Legislature didn’t get around to regulating the squatters until 1973. Since that time no permits for new construction have been allowed. Some of the cabins have been modernized or upgraded, however, and are fairly elaborate, with such creature comforts as satellite dishes, large generators, and hot tubs. The state issues five-year permits for the cabins on a first-come basis. “Originally the squatters were mostly commercial fishermen,” Mullins says. “Most of the lease holders now are clubs or groups. The culture has changed.” In the seventies evangelist Lester Roloff leased five cabins as homes for wayward boys. “They supported themselves by fishing at night,” Mullins says. “If they didn’t catch three hundred to four hundred pounds, they’d think they had a bad night.”

Moving along the Intracoastal, I get a sense of Laguna Madre’s splendid isolation and understated dawn-of-creation beauty. Colors are muted in winter. The only sound is the wind. A blue norther recently roared through, literally pushing most of the bay water into the Gulf: Except for the dredging, it would be impossible to navigate under such low-water conditions. There are few signs of vegetation, save the shimmering meadows of sea grass waving in the shallow water just outside the red and green buoys that mark the path of the Intracoastal. A white ibis doodles for bugs on the mud flats; a coyote prowls the mainland shoreline. Colonial water birds no longer nest on Bird Island, I learn, but have relocated to one of the spoil banks. “Some people want Laguna Madre like it used to be,” Mullins says softly, as though talking to himself. “Like when? In the time of the Karankawas?”

Laguna Madre narrows as we approach Baffin Bay. Near a unique geological formation called Point of Rocks, we see another expression of the squatters’ cult: floating cabins, anchored at the edges of the Intracoastal. A new generation of squatters has circumvented the law by constructing these flimsy pontoon-mounted hovels and registering them with the Coast Guard as navigational vessels. “As it stands now,” says Grimes, “we don’t have the authority to do anything about the floaters. They move a few feet every twenty-one days—or they’re supposed to—to support their claims as navigation vessels.” Most of the floaters look as though they haven’t moved for years. Many have partially sunk. The Texas Parks and Wildlife department dredged a canal connecting a shallow area called Graveyard Hole to the Intracoastal so that fish could escape in freezing weather to deeper, warmer water, but for years now the channel has been blocked by a two-story floater that collapsed and sank. The sunken cabin is now the problem of the General Land Office. “This is a circulation channel, not a navigational channel, so the Corps won’t help,” Mullins says.

We’ll cover about one hundred miles today and encounter one tow moving a barge of gravel, another pulling a load of dredge pipe, one motorized sailboat, and one deep-sea fishing boat. This link of the Intracoastal averages less than one tow a day, a good argument for suspending the maintenance dredging that has caused so much damage and shutting it down to barge traffic.

ALL THE PLAYERS ON THE INTRACOASTAL have a vested interest and all of them play the spin. Barge operators, who argue that commercial fishing boats and pleasure craft cause the most shoreline erosion, commissioned a study by Texas A&M that concluded that closing the Laguna Madre link would have a disastrous effect on business in the Rio Grande Valley. Environmentalists countered with a study showing just the opposite—that the bulk of cargo moving through Laguna Madre is fuel, which could be transported as cheaply by pipeline, truck, or deep-draft vessel, with far less damage to such vital sectors of the local economy as fishing, recreation, and tourism.

Blight is in the eyes of the beholder. The Corps sees the spoil islands as bird sanctuaries. Canal dredger King Fisher once described them as beaches, claiming to have “created more beaches south of Corpus than God ever dreamed of.” None of the players wants to accept blame or surrender turf. Two years ago the Texas Department of Transportation attempted to purchase land from the King Ranch for upland disposal sites. No sale. Suddenly the ranch sided with environmentalists, published its own white paper, and portrayed itself as another besieged landowner victimized by powerful bureaucracy. When the Audubon Society and a coalition of environmental groups sued the Corps over open bay disposal, the Texas Department of Transportation sided with the Corps and Parks and Wildlife sided with the environmentalists. The General Land Office, which is obligated to protect oil and gas operations in Laguna Madre that benefit public schools, has waged war with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which shut down a seismographic operation because of a possible sighting of one piping plover near the site.

The Corps has the ultimate special interest. It’s a hidebound bureaucracy whose ultimate fallback is, We’re just doing what Congress says. “The problem is,” says Walt Kittelberger, a Port Mansfield fishing guide and the founder of the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation, “they go before Congress and argue against the public interest. They argue for those who benefit from the Intracoastal—the barge industry, the port authorities, the petrochemical industry.”

In an interview with three Corps executives, I asked why the Corps had continued to ignore the scientific evidence that its dredging practices were destroying Laguna Madre. Neil McLellan, the Corps’ representative to the Intracoastal Waterway advisory committee, rolled his eyes as if the question were too simpleminded to answer. He informed me that the Corps believed that the scientific studies “exaggerated” the problems and cited a study that concluded that shrimp boats cause “thirteen to one hundred and fifty times” more turbidity than dredging.

There are some hopeful signs that the Corps is coming to terms with the problems of Laguna Madre. As old-line engineers retire, each generation is a little more aware of environmental problems. After more than ten years of stalling and rationalizing—and in response to the Audubon Society’s lawsuit—the Corps finally agreed in February to conduct a new environmental-impact study.

In the meantime, another specter menaces Laguna Madre and the Texas coast—a 260-mile extension of the waterway into Mexico. Until recently, politicians in our country believed that plans for a Mexican Canal Intracostera were wildly unrealistic, another economic and environmental disaster like the ill-fated Mexquital Port, south of Matamoros, which cost millions, never operated, and sits today like a rusting graveyard. Despite delays, it appears that dredging is imminent. The Mexican intracoastal could increase traffic through Laguna Madre five to ten times, exacerbating an already serious problem.

The troubled history of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway says as much about the futility of man’s battle with the ocean as it does about our blind trust in technology. Viewed one section at a time, the Texas coast is remarkably resilient. Yet, in less than a century, the Intracoastal has wrought tremendous changes and posed problems nobody anticipated. Each piece of the coast is protected at the cost of another piece. But a daily parade of Mexican barges loaded with Pemex fuel may be more than the Laguna Madre can bear. The Corps’ answer will be what it has always been—a bigger, grander engineering project. There is almost no chance that the Laguna Madre segment will be shut down. “The bottom line,” said land commissioner Garry Mauro, “is we’ve made this big investment in the Intracoastal and a large segment of the lower coast economy depends on it. What are we going to do, fill it in?”