Bahia Grande Unit of Laguna Atascosa handed $5.6 million restoration grant

A view of the many wetlands at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge Bahia Grande Unit Wednesday. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

HARLINGEN — Federal and state officials have announced a major windfall of $5.6 million for restoration of wetlands and protection of bird nesting sites at the Bahia Grande Unit of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

The funds, part of the settlement from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, will help restore normal tidal flows in and around the 6,500-acre Bahia Grande. These tidal surges were cut off by construction projects in the 1930s.

The money also will restore bird rookery islands for waterbirds, including the largest gull-billed tern nesting colony in the United States.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced around $20 million in new funds for Texas from the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. It is the last tranche of monies from the $1 billion settlement of the Deepwater Horizon spill. To date, more than $203 million has now gone to environmental projects in Texas.

“Here in Texas, we’ve used GEBF dollars to leverage additional private and nonprofit funds to restore and preserve thousands of acres of coastal habitats and wetlands, while at the same time working with communities and private landowners to voluntarily participate in conservation efforts,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. “Not only have we been able to restore oyster, fish and bird habitats for both commercial and recreational enjoyment, we’ve bolstered resiliency efforts by enhancing the marshes, bays, dunes and barrier islands along the Gulf Coast to help protect our communities from the next storm.”

The GEBF was formed to distribute funds set aside for environmental projects from the settlement with oil company BP and Transocean, which operated the oil rig that caused the massive oil spill.

“The GEBF represents an historic opportunity that arose from an unprecedented tragedy,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and chief executive officer of NFWF. “Working closely with our partners in Texas, we have made strategic investments that will help to remedy the harm done by the spill and will forge a lasting legacy of conservation that will sustain fish, wildlife and their natural habitats. These once-in-a-lifetime, landscape-level projects will also boost the resilience and productivity of the Texas coast for generations to come.”

The Bahia Grande Unit of Laguna Atascosa is located along the coastal plain between Port Isabel and Brownsville.

The new funds will enable the refuge to begin Phase II of the restoration of Bahia Grande, specifically to complete the design and construction of breakwaters to protect three bird nesting islands, totaling 17 acres.

These islands have been eroding for years and are critical for ground- and shrub-nesting waterbirds such as gull-billed terns, herons, egrets, ibis, skimmers and gulls.

The second component of Phase II will restore the hydrology of the Paso Corvinas wetlands, some 670 acres.

Channelization and irrigation over decades have led to high salinities and frequent drying out of these once productive wetlands, and new construction will restore the natural flow of water.

rkelley@valleystar.com