Matagorda is just another small Texas town, but its bay is one of the key areas in the state for oyster harvesting and processing. It’s also where the mouth of the Colorado River feeds into the Gulf of Mexico, which creates a unique habitat for animals that survive within a careful balance of fresh and salt water.
The area has been hit hard in recent years by drought, and the lack of rainfall has also taken its toll on the aquatic life, whose survival depends on the fresh water to lower the salinity levels of the bay, which is where shrimp hatch and oysters reproduce.
Buddy Treybig, who has lived in Matagorda all his life, worked as a shrimper and then opened several seafood shops and oyster harvesting plants.
Treybig said on a good day his crew has hauls in roughly one-third of the oysters he used to harvest prior to 2011. He said he has downsized his entire operation and it’s very likely he won’t be able remain open for a full season.
"There just ain’t very many oysters out there in any of the bays," Treybig said. "You know, the drought worked on them pretty hard -- no fresh water this summer -- that’s why we are so upset that they want to just cut the water off from the bay."
Treybig is talking about the recent desire of the Lower Colorado River Authority to shut off over 5,000 acre feet of water flowing into Matagorda Bay from Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan. This past week the LCRA rescinded that order because of the October rains that flooded parts of Central Texas.
"They just putting out a little trickle," Treybig said. "They trying to put out 5,000 acre feet of water a month for the bays, just enough to keep creatures alive hoping it will get better. What they don’t understand is it ain’t going to get better. You can't fix the problem that Texas has with water by taking it from the bays to make sure they have water up there. It's everyone's responsibility."
What's good for rice is good for bay life
Today the LCRA board voted to raise the lake level threshold of the Highland Lakes, which would stop the flow of water downstream to rice farmers, who are just upstream from the bay, for a third straight year.
Treybig said the oysters, shrimp and filter-feeders all survive on the minerals and bacteria that flow into the bay from rice farming.
"When they cut those farmers off, that’s a lot of food and minerals that’s not coming down to the bays," Treybig said. "You see, that’s another thing, when the farmers don’t get their water, that’s another way that oysters in the bays and estuaries don’t get any water because that’s food, that’s minerals."
Years and years of impact
Longtime oyster harvester and veteran birding guide Jim Arnold said fixing Matagorda Bay’s freshwater inflows must go beyond the LCRA’s recent decision to continue feeding the bay with water.
Arnold said there are a number of decisions made over the last 30 years that have had an impact on Matagorda Bay and led the area to where it is now.
"[In] 1991 the river was diverted back into Matagorda Bay and we lost the inflows into East Matagorda Bay," Arnold said. "And our bay has been sitting here for 22 years without any freshwater supply with exception of water that comes in from the watershed."
Arnold said that decision split Matagorda Bay into east and west -- one side with access to freshwater, the other with little to no freshwater inflow.
Arnold said a lack of rainfall and a decrease in the amount of water released by the LCRA affected the reproduction rates and ability of oysters to thrive due to the salt levels in the water. He said only about 1 percent of the bay contains oysters now.
"The oysters really are in areas where you have freshwater inflows," Arnold said. "If you don’t have water coming in, freshwater coming in, then normally you don’t have oysters, and that holds true right here and right now. The rivers provide a lot of it, the watershed provides a lot of it, but haven’t been getting off the watershed and we’re not getting it off the Colorado River."
More than just oysters and shrimp
Arnold's knowledge and field guide services are utilized every year for the annual Audubon Society bird count and he said the lack of fresh water has also spilled over to the bird population.
"Matagorda is the birding capitol of North America and the count on the number of individual species of birds is still here in Matagorda, but the totals are extremely low," Arnold said.
Arnold said the Matagorda Bay estuaries will be the salvation of the area if they can keep a steady supply of freshwater flowing into the bay.
"When the conditions get better, what’s developing here will improve that area out there," Arnold said. "When you look this way it’s closed to oystering -- it’s a nursery area for both shrimp and a closed area to oyster -- and hopefully all this area here is going to be the salvation of Matagorda Bay."
Arnold said a bill passed in the Texas Senate this past session was designed to provide a significant flow of freshwater to areas like Matagorda Bay’s estuaries, but he remains skeptical that anything will change.