With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Antonietta Quigg is an oceanography professor and associate vice president for research and graduate studies at Texas A&M University at Galveston researching the health of the Gulf of Mexico, including impacts of drought and oil spills. She has participated in 42 research proposals, acting as lead investigator on 27. Quigg is currently involved in a range of projects from studying freshwater inflows and bioindicators in Galveston Bay. Quigg will lead this team toward an understanding of aggregation and degradation of dispersants and oil by microbial exopolymers.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: How do you evaluate the health and recovery of the Gulf?
Antonietta Quigg: We are looking at freshwater inflows into Galveston Bay. We are interested in how the bay is recovering from the drought we had in 2011. Now we are looking at the flooding events which are happening just in the last few months with all the rainfall we’ve had, and all the freshwater that is coming in from the Trinity River. We are interested in how that changes the phytoplankton, which are at the base of the food web, and how that might impact higher trophic levels, on the fish and oysters and clams.
Trib+Water: Are these ongoing measurements of the bay?
Quigg: We started working in Galveston Bay in 2005. We’ve been working for almost 10 years in the bay now and will continue. The project has evolved over time. Initially, we were interested in just how the phytoplankton were responding to nutrient inputs from the two river systems. That has evolved to looking at bioindicators, specific species, to test ideas of whether the bay is healthy or unhealthy.
So we have the data on the health of the bay long before the big spill in Galveston Bay. We are now looking at the impacts of that.
Trib+Water: Do droughts and flood impact the Gulf as much as an event like an oil spill?
Quigg: Definitely. One of the observations that we made is that prior to 2010, there were reports in Opportunity Bay of a plant called Wild Celery present in that part of the bay. It is an important species for ducks. They eat it and use it as an important habitat. We found that, after the drought, it had essentially disappeared. We haven't seen it come back as a result of the drought.
Another example is in Galveston Bay. As a result of the drought, we had very little to no freshwater inflow. We found that the bay became much saltier. With that, we saw the appearance of a number of harmful algal species. Some of those led to the closure of the oyster hatcheries.
Trib+Water: Does that kind of impact catch the attention of people?
Quigg: That kind of thing gets their attention more. Phytoplankton aren’t sexy. I know that. I think they are, but the general public doesn’t.
If you can’t harvest oysters because there is a harmful algal bloom, then people will start to pay attention. If you see a decline in certain kinds of birds because some plant species are no longer present, then people do start to pay attention.
Trib+Water: How do you make people understand that a drought can impact marine life, even though they live in water?
Quigg: Most people don’t realize that it has an impact on our bays and estuaries. If you think of the definition of an estuary, it is something that has a gradient between freshwater and saltwater. People don’t realize how important that gradient is to maintaining the life that lives in that estuary.
Trib+Water: Researching the bays, are you in tune with the water plans in the city?
Quigg: Absolutely. One of the things that we are interested in studying is something called returned flows. As the population all the way up in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex grows and as we see a shift in agricultural lands to residential land, the amount and kinds of nutrients that are entering the rivers is changing and in some places it it is increasing.
When someone flushes their loo in Dallas, they don’t think about the effect it is going to have on Galveston Bay. And, yet, the Galveston Bay watershed starts all the way up in Dallas. Even though Galveston Bay is a hundred miles away from them, what they are doing up there actually has an impact on what is going on further down in the watershed.
Trib+Water: Do you deal with the public often?
Quigg: Yes, I try and do as much outreach as I can. I give talks and seminars. I go to as many community meetings as I can where I can share the story.
Trib+Water: How do you connect with people on this subject?
Quigg: People are interested in oysters and fish, so I say that we study what the oysters and the fish eat. If they don’t have any food, then they don’t eat. And if they don’t eat, then we lose them. A drought is like putting a fish that is used to being on a Big Mac diet on a cheeseburger diet. They get really unhappy.
If I am talking to recreational fishermen, I say it is going to impact the size of the fish that they catch and how long they are going to have to spend out there before they catch what they are there for.
Trib+Water: So your data is very useful for fishermen, but what is your goal for documenting the health of the bay?
Quigg: In my opinion, Texas is facing and is going to face a really big water crisis. We don’t have enough freshwater for the growing population. If you think about San Antonio, it is probably going to hit this crisis point before other parts of the state.
I want people to appreciate that they should be careful with the water that they use and how they use it because it has consequences. Not only to their health and well-being but also to our bays and estuaries, which they rely on for their health and well-being. It is not just for the commercial and recreational fishermen.
My goal is to make people more water smart and more respectful of the resources that we have.
Trib+Water: The water physically outside of the state, like the gulf, are not often part of the policy conversation. How do you deal with that?
Quigg: I am slowly but surely educating a bigger audience. For me, that is the ultimate struggle. We are not like Louisiana. We don’t have the enormous Mississippi River and the dead zone, although Texas has its own dead zone but people don’t know about it.
I think people will start listening when we really start to have major water issues. Unfortunately, it is going to take that before people will start paying more attention.