Wetlands Aren’t Just for the Birds—Texans Need Natural Infrastructure Along the Mid-Coast


It’s easy to overlook the quiet web of bays and barrier islands nestled between the clanking sprawl of Houston and the mushrooming condos of Corpus Christi. It only takes a few minutes out on the marshes, however, to realize the Texas Mid-Coast is an ecological treasure and a much-needed refuge from the incessant buzz of Texas.

A broad sweep of rivers meet their end here, spilling into a labyrinth of estuaries to form a unique sweet-to-saline transition zone teeming with plants, crustaceans, fish, reptiles, and birds.

The birds often get the most attention from conservationists. The last wild migratory flock of the tallest bird in North America, the regal and endangered whooping crane, makes its only natural winter home here. A broad range of other colorful migratory waterfowl are similarly tied to the marshes of the Mid-Coast.

Yet this maze of wetlands protects more than birds, more than the sum total of wildlife that depends on it. People have lived behind, and occasionally amongst, the barrier marshes for millennia. The Mid-Coast wetlands have long served as a vast, resilient, flexible, absorbent, life-giving storm barrier for communities such as Rockport, Aransas Pass, Port Lavaca, and Port O’Connor. They dissipate and absorb storm surge and are woven into the fabric of the coastal culture and economy.

That storm surge, however, is set to grow significantly in the coming decades.

Global climate change is driving a web of accelerating regional phenomena. Sea level rise, for example, will increase high tide flooding in the area from seven flood days at present to 60-160 per year by mid-century. According to lower-end conservative projections, the number of frost days in the vicinity of Rockport will decrease by at least 50% by the end of the century while days above 95°F are set to increase from 34 per year in 2010 to a staggering 71 in 2099.

Climate change is also driving increased coastal erosion, intensifying hurricanes, and widening swings between prolonged drought and intense rainfall. Local anthropogenic factors such as oil, gas, and groundwater extraction and production are compounding these changes, leading to an even higher level of sea-level rise and inundation here than elsewhere in the Gulf.   

Zooming in on specific impacts of climate-related changes         

Given the unique and under-appreciated significance of the Texas Mid-Coast, we decided here at the National Wildlife Federation to zoom-in and examine in detail what specific impact these changes will have on the region over the next century. One surprise? The region’s vulnerability to climate change extends well beyond ecosystems and wildlife—people are vulnerable, too, and a significant percentage of Mid-Coast residents are set to bear the brunt of a warming climate.

Much of the Mid-Coast has elevated levels of social vulnerability—a concept that defines a community’s susceptibility to natural hazards that takes into account factors such as race, ethnicity, and income levels. All six Mid-Coast counties have moderate to high social vulnerability with Aransas, Matagorda, and Refugio having the highest. Higher levels of social vulnerability mean the impact of climate change on Mid-Coast residents will be both significant and uneven.


To understand what this means in practice, let’s take the example of a hurricane barreling towards the Mid-Coast—a scenario we can, unfortunately, expect any day now.

More than 12% of Mid-Coast families live below the poverty line with over 6% in “deep poverty,” over 13% live in mobile homes, and more than 17% do not have health insurance. If a hurricane hit the Mid-Coast this summer, these residents would face an increased likelihood of long-term adversity such as a total loss of their homes. Things would not get much better in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, if those hardest hit could even find temporary shelter. A recent study looking at a broader swath of the Texas coast concluded more than 160,000 residents of Harris, Brazoria, and Matagorda counties could be left without a space in an evacuation shelter in the event of a hurricane in the area.

Even after a hurricane has passed, social vulnerability would continue to shape the recovery of Mid-Coast communities in that access to financial aid and resources has been shown to correlate to race and ethnicity. For example, a survey conducted with Hurricane Harvey survivors revealed the non-White and Hispanic population (nearly 60% of Mid-Coast residents) were more likely to be without everyday needs such as adequate drinking water, electricity, food, transportation, money for living expenses, and clean piped water.

As storms hit the Mid-Coast harder and more frequently, the impacts will reach well beyond damage to whooping crane and sea turtle refuges; human communities—particularly Black, Hispanic, and/or low-income—will suffer tremendously as well.

Building community resilience

Fortunately, we believe there are still viable ways to mitigate the risk communities face in the region. The solution lies in the landscape of the Mid-Coast itself. Its wetlands and barrier islands provide natural storm infrastructure of the highest order. Features such as living shorelines have been shown to be highly-effective as protective strategies.

In addition, the wetlands’ recreational value means they are a tremendous boost to the local economy. In 2017, for example, the wetlands in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge provided economic opportunities to the local communities of Aransas, Calhoun, and Refugio counties, generating $783,000 in employment income, $244,000 in total tax revenue, and $3.0 million in economic output.

Given their ability to both protect communities from storm surge and address the economic vulnerability of the region, we need to invest in not only conserving existing wetlands, but also restoring and expanding natural infrastructure in the area.

How can Mid-Coast counties pay for this? There are, fortunately, a growing array of potential funding sources for local leaders to tap into. We’ve identified no less than ten major federal and state funding opportunities Mid-Coast communities could draw on for nature-based projects. Some of the highlights from these opportunities include Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) and the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant program. Several of these funding sources have set aside money to support disadvantaged communities in particular.

Finally, county and state leaders need to center resilience planning in their coastal development strategy. This means incorporating climate change projections in both natural disaster and development planning. Specifically, leaders need to understand the disproportionate nature of climate impacts in the area in order to better serve the groups that are most vulnerable yet underrepresented in decision-making.

This season’s hurricane planning is a good place to begin. The socially-vulnerable census tracts identified in our assessment should help to provide a focus for local leaders' engagement with the most vulnerable communities in the area.

The natural landscape of the Mid-Coast protects and sustains more than just world-famous wildlife. Many Texans have found a refuge here as well. It is time to work together to conserve and restore this quiet treasure of Texas.


For more on the impact of climate change on the Texas Mid-Coast, see:          

Pathak, A., & Fuller, A. (2021). Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change: An Assessment for the Texas Mid-Coast. Austin, TX: National Wildlife Federation.

For more on the role of natural infrastructure in disaster mitigation, see:                

Glick, P., E. Powell, S. Schlesinger, J. Ritter, B.A. Stein, and A. Fuller. (2020). The Protective Value of Nature: A Review of the Effectiveness of Natural Infrastructure for Hazard Risk Reduction. Washington, DC: National Wildlife Federation.    


Arsum Pathak is the adaptation and coastal resilience specialist for the National Wildlife Federation’s Texas Coast and Water Program. Arsum received her Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Policy at the University of South Florida where her research focused on climate impacts and adaptation decision-making in small islands using a systems approach.

Jonathan Seefeldt is the communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Texas Coast and Water Program. He holds an M.A. in Environmental History from the University of Texas at Austin where he is currently completing his Ph.D. on the social and ecological impact of early modern megadams.

 

Photos courtesy of Kaila Drayton, National Wildlife Federation  

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