Bahia Grande (“Big Bay”), a 6,500-acre tidal basin located in southeastern Cameron County, is a large restored wetland connected to the Lower Laguna Madre system and influenced by coastal tides. It currently is bounded by State Highway 100 and the community of Laguna Vista to the north, the Brownsville Ship Channel and State Highway 48 to the southeast, the Laguna Madre complex to its northeast, and State Highway 100 to its west–northwest. For a number of years it was cut off from its natural system by the construction of the Brownsville Ship Channel, which was completed in 1936, and further impacted by the construction of a roadway. The road, shown on U. S. Geological Survey topographical maps in the 1950s, was listed as Farm Road 1792 on survey maps by 1970 and eventually listed as State Highway 48 on topographical maps by the 1980s and ran from Brownsville to Highway 100 near Port Isabel.
The Bahia Grande wetlands functioned as a significant nursery for a broad variety of fish and shellfish such as southern flounder, mullet, redfish, gulf menhaden, red and black drum, spotted seatrout, blue crab, white and brown shrimp, and American oysters, and also served as an important habitat for wintering waterfowl and other wildlife. In the 1800s the wetlands may have been traversed by shallow-draft watercraft transporting goods (landed at the port of Matamoros at the Brazos Santiago Pass) to the Rio Grande and on to the city of Matamoros, Mexico. The Rio Grande Railroad built a line, which opened on July 4, 1872, from Point Isabel to Brownsville across the Bahia Grande. The trestle work, however, allowed the natural flows to continue. Waterfowl hunters were often permitted to disembark from the train to shoot the plentiful migrating waterbirds. By 1929, however, topographical maps showed only a few stretches of “old railroad grade” in the area. The placement of dredged earth from the ship channel and roadway construction projects resulted in the obstruction of tidal flow to Bahia Grande, and the wetlands dried up.
For nearly seven decades the Bahia Grande in its degraded state was an obnoxious source of blowing dust, which, with the predominant southeast wind flows of the region, adversely affected the city of Port Isabel, the town of Laguna Vista, and the community of Laguna Heights. In 2000 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the 21,700-acre Bahia Grande Unit for the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. This included the 6,500-acre Bahia Grande basin and almost 3,850 additional wetland acres.
Restoration of the Bahia Grande basin began in 2005 with the construction of a pilot channel under State Highway 48. The channel connected the basin to the Brownsville Ship Channel. The conservation easement across the highway is 1,000 feet wide, 2,900 feet long, 15 feet deep, and is three feet below sea level. Additional work in 2007 completed two interior channels that reconnected Bahia Grande to two smaller interior basins—the Little Laguna Madre and the Laguna Larga—providing for natural tidal flow and exchange throughout the entire system.
As of 2016, the continued improvement to the ecological system of the Bahia Grande and its surrounding wetlands was ongoing, but the restored hydrology system was already paying dividends and once again served as an important nursery for fish such as red drum and shellfish such as blue crab and shrimp. The interior islands attracted breeding waterbirds such as gull-billed terns, skimmers, and a rare nesting pair of brown pelicans. Student groups have been active in replanting mangrove and marsh grass seedlings. As of 2016, plans were in place to widen the inlet channel to allow for the greater daily exchange of water to reduce water salinity. Specifications for the main channel ranged from 150 to 225 feet wide with a sea level of –9 feet. Additional construction would include a State Highway 48 bridge, extending 200 feet or longer, along with a forty-foot wildlife crossing, a wildlife observation tower, and public parking. The Bahia Grande restoration project is the largest estuary restoration in North America.
Federal governmental efforts to restore the Bahia Grande have been abetted by the partnership of more than sixty-five groups known as the Bahia Grande Restoration Partnership. These partners have included local, state, and federal agencies; corporations and foundations; municipalities; educational institutions from the secondary to university levels; corporations and foundations; local, state, and national conservation organizations; commercial and recreational fishery organizations; and private citizens and landowners. In 2007 the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and its collaborating partners were recognized in the Presidential Wetlands Report and were honored with the National Wetlands Conservation Award and the Coastal America Partnership Awards.
The Bahia Grande Coastal Corridor Project, Council Member Proposal—State of Texas, November 2014 (https://www.restorethegulf.gov/sites/default/files/Bahia%20Grande%20Coastal%20Corridor.pdf), accessed August 3, 2016. “Bahia Grande Master Plan Overview, March 2009,” Bahia Grande Project, Ocean Trust: Sustainable Fisheries Wildlife & The Environment (http://www.habitat.noaa.gov/toolkits/tidal_hydro/portfolio_resources/tidalhydro_bg_11_2009_masterplanoverview.pdf), accessed August 8, 2016. Bahia Grande Unit, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (https://www.fws.gov/refuge/laguna/about/bahia_grande_unit.html), accessed August 3, 2016. Houston Chronicle, October 2, 2005. “Rebirth of the Bahia Grande, Texas,” NOAA Fisheries, Southeast Regional Office (http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/habitat_conservation/hcd_headlines/bahia_grande_tx.html), accessed August 3, 2016. R. K. Sawyer, A Hundred Years of Texas Waterfowl Hunting: The Decoys, Guides, Clubs, and Places, 1870s to 1970s (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012).
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