In oil state, a beach cleans up its act

Texas isn't known for its pristine shores, but Rockport takes pride in its hourglass sands.

Sam Sealy is tush-down in the shallows making mud pies. His little brother, Simon, is closer to shore eating seashells. The two seem oblivious to the fact that their mother is in a hurry.

"I like it here 'cause I like to make new friends," says Sam in the matter-of-fact manner of a 4-year-old. "I like the water, and I like to make mud pies."

With the arrival of the Memorial Day weekend, Sam and Simon are taking advantage of something that millions of other Americans will be looking for: a blue-ribbon beach.

Across the country, scientists agree that America's beaches overall are healthier than they've been in 20 years. Shore-lined states like California and Florida have led the way, spending millions on cleaning up polluted waters and syringe-littered spits of sand.

But here in Texas, where oil is king and the environment isn't always a top priority, beaches still face pollution problems. They routinely make the national "beach bum" lists of environmental groups.

A shift in values

In Rockport, though, things are different. Where oil was once the biggest industry, tourism has taken hold - and with it, a new environmental ethos. "I don't see us ever returning to an oil-based economy," says Diane Probst, president of the Rockport-Fulton Area Chamber of Commerce. "It would be a really hard sell. Our natural resources are too important to us."

Indeed, the area is blessed with a diverse ecosystem. Most serious bird watchers in North America have made the trek to the Rockport area, where one can spot up to 100 different species on any given day.

It is also enjoys natural protection from the gulf waters by San Jose Island, which runs the length of the county's shore and keeps the beach free from undertow and dangerous waves.

That natural protection, combined with residents' growing commitment over the past decade to keep their beach clean, led to recognition this year: The mile-long stretch was certified as a "Blue Wave Beach" by the Clean Beaches Council, a national conservation group. The organization dubbed it "the Best Little Beach in Texas."

It is the first and only Texas beach to make the group's list. The certification means a beach has met certain standards, including water testing, habitat conservation, erosion management, and visitor services. "Rockport is testimony to what can be done," says Walter McLeod, president of the Clean Beaches Council in Washington.

Visitors seem to agree, both for its Palmolive-clean waters and swimming-pool conditions. "You can walk for miles and still not reach your waist," says Angie Robledo, as her husband, Richard, dumps a pail of water over his daughter's head.

The Robledos, from San Antonio, are big beach goers. They've traveled up and down the Texas coast, from Galveston Island to South Padre Island. This is their first trip to Rockport, but certainly not the last.

"We bought our annual pass already," says Mrs. Robledo, ankle-deep in saltwater. "This beach is real clean.... I just feel more comfortable letting my girls go in the water here."

The Lone Star State's location, with Gulf winds and currents that come directly onshore, is tough on Texas beaches. Add looser environmental laws, hundreds of offshore drilling rigs and shrimp boats, and the result is mounds of trash.

Bleach bottles and soda cans

"It's a highly industrial state with a big petrochemical business. That's hard on beaches," says Stephen Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami. Scientists believe the majority of trash is related to the shrimping and petrochemical industries.

Oil and tar washing ashore has decreased in recent years, but milk jugs, egg cartons, soda cans, chemical jugs, and bleach bottles still spill up regularly.

Residents in Rockport have tried to fight back with a combination of civic duty and hefty bags. Harbor superintendent Wilson McBride sends crews out daily to fish trash from the waters. He says local laws are tougher on shorefront property owners and boaters, but floating debris knows no bounds.

The town's decision to clean their beach up was partly economic. Since Gen. Zachary Taylor stopped here in 1845 to place the flag claiming Texas as the 28th state in the Union, Rockport has changed from a ranching community to a fishing port to an oil-driven economy. When the oil industry went bust in the mid-1980s, Rockport's economy was devastated. Only then did city leaders begin to get a glimmer of their future in tourism.

Helping keep city officials on track is the area's large retirement community. Take John Huckabee, a retired ecologist who spent a recent Friday afternoon studying the now-nesting black skimmers.

"We're getting better at striking the right balance between people and nature," he says, binoculars swinging. "But as things get better, here come more people."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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