Roughly 40 miles south of Houston, the Galveston Bay area bustles with activity; ships come and go at some of the busiest ports in the world, fishermen prepare their nets and tourists stroll through the scenic streets of Galveston. And in Texas City, situated on the southwest shoreline of Galveston Bay, The Nature Conservancy is working diligently to improve the health of the Gulf of Mexico, protect freshwater and preserve coastal habitat.
Coastal prairies once spanned more than 65 million acres from southern Texas up along the Gulf of Mexico and into Louisiana; today, less than 1 percent remains. This loss of habitat, largely due to development, has devastated many wildlife populations that once thrived in the region.
In 1995, the Conservancy established the 2,303-acre Texas City Prairie Preserve with a $2.2 million land donation from the Mobil Oil Company (now ExxonMobil) in order to restore and revitalize the coastal habitat and preserve the species that depend on it for survival. This includes developing living shoreline projects with stakeholders like U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas General Land Office and the Galveston Bay Estuaries Program in addition to land management efforts such as cattle grazing and prescribed fire.
These preservation efforts safeguard important habitat for migratory and year-round populations of waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds (brown pelicans, white ibis, peregrine falcons, white-tailed hawk, Forster's terns, seaside sparrows). They also help native plants thrive-big and little bluestem, yellow indiangrass, switchgrass, eastern gammagrass, gulf cordgrass and the rare coastal gayfeather can all be found at Texas City Prairie Preserve. Woody plants that invade the prairie and non-native species such as Chinese tallow trees and deep-rooted sedge pose a serious threat to coastal prairies and are being eliminated.
In addition to managing habitat at Texas City Prairie, the Conservancy works to enhance coastal resilience and improve water quality filtration and carbon capture. Prairies and marshlands act as natural buffers against storms and hurricanes, absorbing and dispersing water from storm surges and floods. The land's sponge-like qualities also help filter the freshwater that flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
Recent science underscores the benefits of restoring healthy coastal habitats as a cost-effective solution to protecting coastal communities from the impacts of extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey. A 2018 study found that large-scale oyster and wetland restoration projects could help avert more than 45 percent of the climate risk over a two-year period in the Gulf, saving over $50 billion in flood damages. Sitting between areas of encroaching development, Texas City Prairie Preserve is the perfect living laboratory in which to test these and other coastal restoration techniques in a real-world setting.
Over the years, Texas City Prairie Preserve has become a region-wide model for native prairie restoration, native seed-growing and the benefits of natural infrastructure. Preserve staff are providing design, seed material and equipment for establishing native coastal prairie as part of efforts to restore Memorial Park and in 2018 we began working with Rice University on seed and habitat restoration techniques for the development of a one-acre "pocket prairie" on campus. These efforts will aid in storm water mitigation, water quality filtration, wildlife habitat support and education in the greater Houston area.
The Texas City Prairie Preserve maintains a robust volunteer program and coordinates a number of outreach efforts designed to encourage people to connect to nature in new and exciting ways. For more information or to learn about volunteer opportunities, contact the Texas City Prairie Preserve office: 4702 Highway 146 North, Texas City, TX 77590. Phone: (409) 941-9114.