Building an artificial reef for oysters seemed like a small, simple project; it turned out to be much more.
fishermen pursued flounder and trout, while commercial fisheries harvested Gulf shrimp. Just below the water’s surface, however, a less picturesque scene had unfolded. Ravaged by time and natural disasters, the bay’s Half Moon Reef, which once spanned 400 acres (162 hectares), had gradually dwindled away to nothing.
As the reef disappeared, so did the ecologically vital oysters that lived on it. A single oyster filters 40 to 60 gallons (151 to 227 liters) of water each day.
In 2008, The Nature Conservancy launched a six-year program to re-create nearly 60 acres (24 hectares) of oyster reef in the bay. It would be the largest reef-reconstruction initiative the not-for-profit environmental organization had attempted—and one of the largest in U.S. history.
“The conservancy has historically done a lot of work on land. Over the past 10 years, we’ve been looking at marine and freshwater systems as pieces of nature’s machine that we need to pay attention to as well,” says John S.C. Herron, The Nature Conservancy’s director of Texas conservation and science, Austin, Texas. “We’ve got seven major bay systems on the Texas coast, and everything is linked to everything else. We need our bays and estuaries good and healthy for a functioning ecosystem. That’s where the oysters come in.”
At one time, the Matagorda reef had a veneer of live, water-filtrating oysters atop at least six feet (1.8 meters) of dead shell. The once-thriving reef also provided shelter for other reef-dependent invertebrates and acted as a feeding ground for bigger fish, supporting biodiversity and the fishing community. In addition, the structure guarded against erosion and served as a first line of defense against tidal waves from storms and hurricanes.
With its US$5.4 million Half Moon Reef restoration program, The Nature Conservancy hoped to lay a literal foundation for a new reef that may naturally grow to the hundreds of acres that once graced the area.
“We need our bays and estuaries good and healthy for a functioning ecosystem. That’s where the oysters come in.”
—John S.C. Herron, The Nature Conservancy, Austin, Texas, USA
In 2007, the conservancy had applied for several grants, including one from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Estuary Habitat Restoration program and another from the Texas General Land Office’s (GLO) Coastal Impact Assistance Program.
“Both funding requests were approved but had slightly different requirements about who does what,” so The Nature Conservancy divided the program into two projects it sponsored, Mr. Herron explains.
For the project funded in part with US$855,000 from the USACE, the team planned to build approximately 15 acres (6 hectares) of reef. The project funded with US$3.8 million from the GLO would build 45 acres (18 hectares).
The conservancy intended to launch the program with the smaller USACE project and then proceed to the larger one. But then intention met reality.
INTO UNCHARTED WATERS
The USACE had executed flood-control, beach-renourishment and other ecological initiatives. Yet it usually handles more typical construction and navigation projects, such as dredging ship channels to allow for safe passage of goods to the ports it maintains along the Texas coast, including four of the nation’s 10 busiest ports.
WITH ITS US$5.4 MILLION HALF MOON REEF RESTORATION PROGRAM, THE NATURE CONSERVANCY HOPED TO LAY A LITERAL FOUNDATION FOR A NEW REEF THAT MAY NATURALLY GROW TO THE HUNDREDS OF ACRES THAT ONCE GRACED THE AREA.
THE NATURE CONSERVANCY’S PLAN TO START WITH THE SMALLER USACE PROJECT AND THEN DO THE LARGER ONE HAD TO BE REVERSED AS THE USACE INITIATIVE BECAME ENTANGLED IN LENGTHY REVIEWS AND APPROVALS REQUIRED OF FEDERAL PROJECTS.
While the Half Moon Reef project was smaller than many the USACE had executed, the problems it presented were not.
In 2010, the USACE named Byron D. Williams, PMP, of Galveston, Texas, the project manager for its Half Moon Reef initiative. First, Mr. Williams created a letter report—a basic feasibility report required by USACE that describes the project problems and opportunities and recommends a solution. He also put together a preliminary construction plan. The USACE approved the plan in July 2010.
Mr. Williams then needed to secure access to the land beneath the reef— which is when the difficulties began.
“The real estate was more involved than I ever could have imagined,” Mr. Williams says.
The floor of the bay along the coast is owned by the Texas GLO, which needed to give approval for the project and lease the land for use. The GLO offered a 20-year lease—more than sufficient for a reef that would, if all went well, be self-sustaining in five. However, USACE projects require land to be acquired in perpetuity, something the GLO didn’t have the authority to do. To come up with a solution, Mr. Williams enlisted extensive help from the USACE’s real estate experts.
His team wrote white papers explaining to the legal department at the Army Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., why perpetuity wasn’t necessarily applicable for this type of project, as well as maintenance reports to illustrate the difficulty of perpetuity with a structure that would need no upkeep and could be self-sustaining within five years. Meanwhile, Mr. Williams had to allocate project resources for writing the reports, which began to chip away at the project budget.
“We had to be careful that we didn’t research ourselves out of a construction project. I anticipated the risk with [USACE requiring land to be acquired in perpetuity], but I didn’t anticipate the length of time it would take to resolve it.”
—Byron D. Williams, PMP
“We had to be careful that we didn’t research ourselves out of a construction project,” he says. “I anticipated the risk with perpetuity in the real estate, but I didn’t anticipate the length of time it would take to resolve it.”
The project schedule devoted one year to securing the land, but the process ended up taking twice as long.
The Nature Conservancy’s plan to start with the smaller USACE project and then do the larger one had to be reversed as the USACE initiative became entangled in lengthy reviews and approvals required of federal projects.
Fortunately, Mr. Williams’ plan had reserved contingency funds to support the project during the protracted legal concerns.
“We had a 25 percent contingency planned to keep us afloat,” he says. “That helped fund labor for district employees and was adequate as most of the legal issues weren’t charged to the project directly.”
Mr. Williams sees it as an important lesson learned, not just for the USACE should it pursue more environmental projects like Half Moon, but for himself as a project manager.
“I compared the size of the project to the potential problem, and you can’t do that,” he says. “The same law applies to a small project and a large one, so the solution will take just as long.”
In July 2012, Mr. Williams signed a 60-year lease with two 20-year renewal options.
With the land rights finally secured, the USACE team could focus on the engineering plan. Since the conservancy had already completed the design work for the other project, it made sense for the sponsor to craft the engineering plan for this one. Indeed, that seemed like the easiest way to do it: The experts create the plans, then the government agency approves them. But it wasn’t.
The Nature Conservancy and the USACE reviewers went back and forth repeatedly over the plans. “Dealing with the government, we have specific ways that we have to write up plans and specs,” Mr. Williams explains. “The sponsors needed an adjustment period to properly incorporate our guidelines and regulations. They would work on one set and send it to us, and there would be so many edits and corrections based on them learning what was expected.”
After a month of drafts and revisions, Mr. Williams decided to expedite the process by taking the engineering design in-house. This required him to commit additional USACE resources, but by doing so, the process took only about three weeks to complete—more efficient and less costly in the end. “This was also a lesson learned, as this should have been scheduled in-house initially to avoid this,” Mr. Williams says.
THE MAKING OF A REEF
- June 2007: The Nature Conservancy of Texas requests funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Estuary Habitat Restoration program.
- March 2008: The USACE approves the funding.
- July 2010: Approval of the project plan
- July 2012: After a two-year process, the project team obtains access to the bay floor beneath the reef.
- May 2013: Approval of the engineering design
- September 2013: The reef-construction contract is awarded.
- December 2013: The contractor begins the construction phase.
- March 2014: Fog delays construction for three weeks.
- April 2014: The Half Moon Reef project is complete.
“There’s a lot involved even in the smallest of projects. You think, ‘Six rows of rock in the water, big deal.’ But what you see is not even close to a representation of what you had to go through to get to the ribbon cutting.”
—Byron D. Williams, PMP
The engineering design entailed building six 50-foot-wide (15-meter-wide) rows of reef out of concrete along the bay floor, each row stretching 250 feet (76 meters) in length. In May 2013, the design was approved. In September, Mr. Williams awarded the building work to RLB Contracting, in nearby Port Lavaca, whose bid came within 25 percent of the government estimate, allowing construction of all six rows by March 2014. This would put the completion of the USACE project— and thus the entire program—just three months behind the completion of the GLO project.
From mid-December 2013 to January 2014, RLB Contracting stockpiled 3,000 tons (2,722 metric tons) of concrete, broke it into pieces—none bigger than 36 inches (91 centimeters) in diameter—and cleaned them to remove all metals and potential contaminants. On 15 February 2014, the team members began shipping the concrete on barges to the work site. Once there, they used an excavator bucket to lift the rock and drop it onto the bay bottom, just eight feet (2.4 meters) below the water’s surface. They piled the massive rows, similar to stone walls, to a height of five feet (1.5 meters).
Based on the engineering plan, the project team had determined that about two feet (0.6 meters) of the wall would settle into the bay floor. That would then leave about five feet (1.5 meters) of clearance between the tops of the walls and the water’s surface, enough room for the boats above.
Then the team hit another delay—but this time, not a man-made one. In March, a sudden and intense fog slowed work to a virtual standstill.
“The fog came out of nowhere for this particular stretch of time,” Mr. Williams recalls. “We lost about three weeks as a result.”
Once again, careful planning came to the rescue: Mr. Williams had accounted for potential weather delays, granting the contractor 26 non-working days due to poor weather. RLB needed to use only 20. The non-working days thus incurred no additional costs.
The six rows were completed on 12 April 2014, compared to the original goal of late 2011 or early 2012.
“There’s a lot involved even in the smallest of projects. You think, ‘Six rows of rock in the water, big deal,’” Mr. Williams says with a laugh. “But what you see is not even close to a representation of what you had to go through to get to the ribbon cutting.”
The Nature Conservancy intends to launch two similar reef-reconstruction projects along the Texas coast within the next two years. By then, Half Moon Reef should be showing signs of sustainability.
“Hopefully this will be a center of highly productive reefs and we’ll see reefs establishing themselves where we didn’t build them,” Mr. Herron says. “Maybe we’ll even bring it back to 400 acres someday.” PM
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