This Sand is Your Sand

On the Texas coast, the only thing eroding faster than the sand is the state’s Open Beaches Act

"There was never a session that I was in the Senate that I didn't chair a committee of some kind about the beaches and the bays and the coastal environment that I didn't have to listen to John Arrington and a hundred people like him. And they would have always changed the law if they had been able to do it. There was never a time they would not have changed the law so that somebody who invests in a piece of property precludes forever any other human being who lives on the face of the planet from having any rights or access to that water in front of their house. They will lie to you in a minute about whether that's their intention or not. Their attack this very day would be to try to make this a property rights issue, as opposed to a public rights issue. John Arrington is as nice a man as you'd ever want to meet, but he does not know shit from sand."

Commissioner Dewhurst, Schwartz thinks, deserves a gold medal for squeezing a $15 million appropriation out of the Legislature, and neither Dewhurst nor Cornyn is practicing any evil greater than plain old politics. The real enemies of the Open Beaches Act, he says, are the beachfront property owners.

"I am enthusiastically for beach renourishment if the money is there. But we can't just replenish the beach in front of Sea Escape and the beach in front of Pirate's Beach because people live there and they have million-dollar homes. You've either got to replenish the whole beach or nothing...I don't understand the selfish idea that 'I'm entitled to it, the hell with everybody else.'"

Surfer Ellis Pickett, above, spends his time documenting violations of Texas' Open Beaches Act, a law he says the state is doing too little to enforce. As a young man, lower left, he and other surfers would gather at the Octagon, a misnamed six-sided building in Surfside. Time, wind, and water eventually placed the landmark on the public beach, until it was knocked down and set ablaze by order of the village.
Deron Neblett
Surfer Ellis Pickett, above, spends his time documenting violations of Texas' Open Beaches Act, a law he says the state is doing too little to enforce. As a young man, lower left, he and other surfers would gather at the Octagon, a misnamed six-sided building in Surfside. Time, wind, and water eventually placed the landmark on the public beach, until it was knocked down and set ablaze by order of the village.
Surfer Ellis Pickett spends his time documenting violations of Texas' Open Beaches Act, a law he says the state is doing too little to enforce.
Deron Neblett
Surfer Ellis Pickett spends his time documenting violations of Texas' Open Beaches Act, a law he says the state is doing too little to enforce.

Jim Gibeaut, a coastal geologist with UT's Bureau of Economic Geology, computes shoreline rate changes for the GLO, has searched for sand sources, and is referred to as an invaluable source by threatened homeowners and disgruntled surfers alike, though the two camps discriminatingly pick and choose their facts from his arsenal.

The root issue, for a majority of Texas' coastline, is erosion. Slowly, sea levels are rising. Barrier islands by their nature roll over themselves, shore side shrinking as bay side grows. Sand will naturally migrate away from one place, and the maintenance of healthy beaches requires a return migration of sand from elsewhere. Texas' major rivers were one such sand source, but as ancient deltas developed into bay systems, river sand dropped into the bays, not onto the beaches. More recently, in the past 100 years or so, the Sabine, the Trinity, the San Jacinto, the Colorado, the Brazos, and the Rio Grande have all been dammed, and sand piles up behind dams. Some say that changes wrought in the Mississippi River delta by the Army Corps of Engineers constitute Texas' biggest sand source suck of all: To minimize the need for dredging the Gulf Coast's largest port, the Corps built jetties to channel river sand and silt out into deep water, where it builds underwater mountains offshore instead of drifting south toward Texas.

Rock groins are designed to catch and accrete beach sand. Seawalls deflect amplified waves down and around their edges, scouring the unprotected beach. Any hard structure that can be built or dropped on the beach will, to one extent or another, protect that which it is built or dropped in front of, but it will do so at the expense of any surrounding beach not so armored. That, along with access impediment, is why hard structures on the beach are prohibited by the Open Beaches Act.

Dumped Christmas trees are good, though. They collect sand and help build dunes.

Breakwaters, Gibeaut says, very simply protect homes and destroy beaches. You cannot engineer a hard structure, he says, that works any other way.

Gibeaut is familiar with John Arrington's argument that there are plenty of sand sources to renourish Texas beaches, but says Arrington is just wrong.

"We've already picked the low-hanging fruit," he says. There is sand, but unless it happens to be close to where it's needed, transport becomes the money issue, and since beach nourishment needs to be repeated every five years to be effective, you have to justify the economics of a permanent, ongoing multimillion-dollar investment. And when the issue is a few hundred private beachfront houses, you can't.

If you want to save houses, Gibeaut says, build walls.

But if you want to save the public beach, he says, there's really only one thing for it: You have to enforce the Open Beaches Act.


Texas is last in the nation in the amount of public land per capita. We have a whole lot out in Big Bend, but that doesn't do the person in Houston much good. What you do in Houston, you drive an hour to get somewhere and you go to the beach, because it's the last refuge. It's sort of open space and it's relatively cool and there's sand and water. You want to be able to go there with your family and go to any part of it and enjoy it. And if they go down there and the beach is terrible and they've got to hop over septic tanks, they're just going to go somewhere else for their next vacation. Or they'll stay home.
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