Individuals and organizations are often faced with decisions that impact our natural environment. When those decisions are grounded in the best available knowledge, people and the environment stand the greatest chance to benefit. Such knowledge, both historical and newly generated through the scientific process, can help inform stakeholders and influence decision-making.
Recent proposals for industrial development on Harbor Island and associated stakeholder concerns for or against development provide an opening for science to help guide decision makers. Members of the regional scientific community have expressed concerns, based in research, about various proposals to locate a desalination plant and a crude oil export terminal on Harbor Island, across the ship channel from Port Aransas. Citizen stakeholders, civic leaders and those who frequently visit Port Aransas to enjoy our coastal culture and the many activities uniquely tied to our natural environment share the same concerns.
Already, decision-makers have used information from scientists to shift away from earlier plans that threaten the environment. For example, a few years ago, the Port of Corpus Christi Authority (POCCA) approached The University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) to study environmental effects of a desalination plant on Harbor Island. Researchers agreed to investigate the environmental implications of the proposal, recognizing that the production of potable water through desalination may well help increase the freshwater supply to our drought-prone region.
The team found that the intake of large volumes of seawater from the ship channel for desalination risked significant damage to our fisheries. Fewer larval fish, crabs and shrimp would survive their journeys through the ship channel to nursery grounds of Redfish Bay, Corpus Christi Bay and Mission-Aransas Estuary. POCCA used this information to revise their proposal with a plan to locate the seawater-intake system offshore, reducing environmental impact.
Researchers also have sought to answer two additional environmental questions about desalination: the potential environmental effects of discharging brine from desalination back into the ship channel and the effects of discharging anti-fouling chemicals associated with the desalination systems into the ship channel.
While independent studies on the second issue are still underway, a study of the first issue, funded by POCCA and performed independently by scientists, wrapped up in August 2018.
At that time, the UTMSI team found little reason to be concerned about brine discharge. Due to the tidal cycle and massive volumes of seawater exchanged with the nearby Gulf of Mexico every day, salinity was not expected to be significantly affected in the channel, bay and estuary systems.
Since then, however, plans to deepen the channel have come about, and this could well change earlier models’ findings. More study will be needed to know for sure. In the meantime, UTMSI has also begun studies of the potential environmental impacts of proposed ship-channel deepening to 75-feet. (The deeper channel is under consideration to accommodate a deep-water crude oil export terminal on Harbor Island.) Scientists propose to study whether channel deepening would influence the movement of fish and invertebrate larvae into local bays and estuaries or affect storm surge and coastal erosion. They also will investigate what would happen if there were to be accidental oil spills at the proposed location of the oil export terminal.
Standing back from local concerns, it is worth emphasizing that the purpose of scientific study is to provide objective data that can prevent problems down the road. Society often needs accurate, credible new knowledge in order to make informed decisions. However, societal choices may also involve subjective value judgments made by individuals balancing competing interests.
People can agree on a common set of facts relating to a societal issue but disagree on the appropriate response. Still, facts matter.
By providing credible information, the scientific process builds trust and enables people holding divergent views and interests to deliberate and arrive at wiser solutions to societal issues.