Sunday, May 29, 2005

Crowded Beaches!

Over the last year I’m been reading how other beaches have banned certain water sports, simply because there simply were too many people in the water. Certain parts of New York and California beaches are designated such as “no surf boards,” “no jet skis,” “no fishing,” “surf board only,” and so forth. South Padre Island hasn’t quite gotten as bad as Jones Beach in New York or Huntington Beach in California, but on high season days like Memorial Day and the 4th, it is getting close. I’m not proposing any special rules or anything; it is just something we could give some thought.

To my knowledge, nobody on South Padre has gotten walloped yet – but at times I’ve been fearful about these flying machines. The operators of the banana boat rides are very good but there again, I’ve seen drunks on their personal watercraft almost running folks over. The kite boards scare the poop out of me, since they’re looking at the waves and the kite – not us. The surfers are probably the safest as a group but sometimes I like to grab the same waves – and they think they own them (hah, you stinking body surfers and boogie-boarders!). Put all three of them together on a crowded day with some nice surf and you have a recipe for disaster.

My thinking is that all water craft should be banned except for the banana boat vendors and any emergency craft (of which we have none, it appears). I’m thinking like 200 yards from the beach.

Kite boards are a big “extreme sports” fad these days but it would be nice to have their competitions when there aren’t thousands of people in the water, since they like to swoop the whole beach. Otherwise, perhaps they could stick to the northern end of the beach, such as between the Island Inn (Wanna) and Beach Access 5 or 6.

As with the kite boards, surfers should be allowed to compete wherever they want but on crowded days they could work out a couple of areas on the crowded parts of the beach where they could surf, so as to reduce conflicts. The Isla Blanca jetties would be a fine place because the waves break way out, far away from the swimmers.

I’m not saying that there is a big problem or that the city and county needs to get in the water police patrol business. Perhaps an analogy would work here: what if a group of shark fishermen show up in the thick of the crowd and start chumming the waters with dead bait and chicken blood? That would not be cool, right? Think about it, as South Padre becomes more and more popular, with more extreme sports, something will have to give down the road – it usually takes a death or two to catch people’s attemtion. Why wait?

Monday, May 23, 2005

Full Steam Ahead

The house up here in Leander is not selling but we’ve decided to go forward with buying two houses so we can get one on an island - the Island. We close on the SPI house in mid-June and move a week later. Perhaps the house will sell by then, at which time we’ll pay off most of the 20% note on an 80/20 financing deal. Scary times, these are!

This old house must have some bad juju or something, since some are selling but ours sure ain’t. We’ve scrubbed, painted, added new carpet, and cut down scruffy trees. I even went as far as eradicating the burr patch, planting Bermuda and religiously watering every day (these plus-90 degree days are not helping). We have all the classic good luck stuff like the lucky candle and the little statue in the front yard. Lori even bakes cookies for the open houses. I mean come on, what do folks want – free beer, cokes, hotdogs, and Willie Nelson?

I talked about this with the realtor and she was sympathetic but said something like “Sam, you have a starter home, and most folks starting a family can’t qualify these days, which is why they go for the builder’s zero-down deals and then go bankrupt.” To me this was a shocking statement. First, I never considered my $125,000 house a “starter kit.” Second, I never would have thought all these yuppie bankruptcies would level the market to below $100,000. “Oh yeah,” she says, “You can pick up a house like yours for sixty to seventy cents on the dollar in the monthly courthouse auctions.”

Plus now the neighbors are getting weird. “We told you that you can’t leave, Sam.” We’re always watching out for each other, hauling out the garbage can, house-sitting the dogs when gone on business or vacation, mowing each other’s lawns, and cooking BBQ together. All the sudden these folks are getting real friendly! “Let’s go out on the patio boat again next Saturday.” “Sam, come on by and see my new power-joiner woodworking thingamabob.” “Hey you got some brush piled up there – can I take it to the recycling center for ya?” Even the mean ole grandmas walking the block with their doggie-whacker golf clubs smile and stop for a chat.

This only makes Lori even more resolved. “Will we miss the downtown music and arts scene? Heck, we haven’t been downtown in about four years – and you haven’t either!” See, Austin is so big now that “going downtown” is like going to a different country. The 25 miles takes about an hour and a half, what with all the congestion and construction. [This must sound hysterical to people living on an island.]

She’s close to getting a job down there and I’m checking for a high-speed Internet connection for a low-speed cost. Why do those silly little electrons seem to cost more on an island? Now for questions like moving company, rent a deuce-and-a-half truck, or get one of the shipping container “pods”?

Just don’t tell the neighbors how good it will feel on our last, long-assed ride from Austin, when we cross the causeway and see the blue waters of the Laguna Madre. We’re home!

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Dredge Story, Part 1

Dredging. Some folks have walked the beach and said “gee, this beach re-nourishment thing sure was sort of a mess.” Folks up by the Port of Mansfield are is a high dither because their 20-foot deep channel is only seven feet deep now. A few charter boats have had to be hauled and have their propellers and shafts straightened already. The Port of Brownsville and the Intra-Coastal need a hundred million bucks to widen, deepen, and straighten the shipping lanes but all the Corps of Engineers money is going to the War on Iraq. One of the contributing factors to the tugboat collision with the Queen Isabelle Causeway was because of shifting sandbars on a dangerous 70-degree curve.

Dredging is one of the nastiest professions around, although it made US ports so important for this global economy. It is a relatively new technology, with steam dredges being used after the Civil War, many until the 1960’s when they were converted to diesel. The main technologies are the crane, sand-sucker, and dust-pan. Most folks understand cranes OK, which may be clamshell buckets, drag-lines, or hydraulic excavators. Ladder bucket cranes were used in construction of the Panama and Suez canals but had the same idea. The sand suckers were a little different, where spoils (the stuff on the bottom) was sucked into a pipe and deposited elsewhere. This rapidly evolved into the cutter-suction dredge we know and love today. The “cutter” snout loosens the spoils but basically it is still a pipe; its origins date back to the Gold Rush days such as the Klondike gold boats. The dustpan is pretty new stuff, evolving in about 1930 and invented for use on the Mississippi River. It is essentially a big vacuum cleaner, about as wide as the boat, maybe 30-40 feet, which is lowered to the bottom and pulled like a shrimp net. Water jets at the edges loosen the spoils. A huge pipe in the middle sucks the loosened spoils up to the ship. Now days, the dustpans are called “hopper dredges” that more resemble ships.

All three have been used at or around SPI. The cranes were used to deepen the small craft channel running from the Causeway past Louie’s up nearly the Convention Center. The cutter-suction dredge was used to maintain the Brownsville Ship Channel, especially Brazos Santiagos Pass. This is where we got the spoils from the recent “beach re-nourishment.” Dustpans were used in the past to reduce the sandbar off the jetties. Interestingly, a study was conducted ands they found that the offshore sands were much better for beach re-nourishment. A case study showed that dustpan dredges could dump their loads close to the shore, in about 14 feet of water, and that these underwater berms actually reduced erosion rates over several years, by providing a nice stockpile of high-quality marine sand a quarter-mile off the beach.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is mandated to keep commercial ports open, which is why Brazos Channel gets dredged but Mansfield does not – the latter only supports recreational fishing. Unfortunately, one of the persistent things about Mama Nature is that the channels will silt up. This silt can be similar to beach sand but will contain higher amounts of clay and organic fines. In addition, the local geology shows that there is a stratum of Rio Mud in the area of Brazos Channel. This was why I jokingly called the dredge a “clay turd machine” in a web forum. However, the SPI area is blessed because there is little or no hazardous material, except maybe for some way up by Brownsville about 17 miles up the Ship Channel. Hazardous material such as dioxin and PCB contaminated areas near Houston, New York, and Providence RI must be dumped in special landfills on land.

Most ecological studies do show major disturbances when dredge scoop up the spoils and then dump it somewhere else. How could it not? However, after about 4 months the sites usually restore themselves. In some cases there may be positive impacts. For example, the “spoil islands” along the channel create an ideal site for birds, new eel grass beds, and in some cases, oysters. As to beach re-nourishment, if sand was not periodically emplaced on the beaches, the surf might be up to the bulkheads, such as at the Iverness. The northern end of the city beach is where the beach sand is needed.

For this reason, I recommend using hopper dredges to shoot clean marine sand on just the northern parts of the city beach, maybe from north of La Quinta to somewhere near Suntide II. For a small amount of money, Texas A&M or UT could be hired to investigate if the sand is needed, and if so when the sand would be needed, and finally where the sand is actually needed. I’m a proponent of creating offshore sandbars, although the hopper dredges can actually pipe sand to the beach itself, where it can be used to create dunes or flattened to make the beach wider. Or try all three and see which works best!

Benefits would be a less invasive technique having higher quality sand that is more consistent with the native beach sands – and no need for seven miles of pipe on the beach. I am not sure about the costs, which is why you want a reputable study before making future decisions.

There is some anecdotal information that beach re-nourishment over the years has changed the beach ecosystem. The conventional method using Brazos Channel spoils seems to affect the ghost crabs on the beach, the blind shrimp in the surf zone, and near-shore the crustaceans, crabs, and baitfish. I am not sure if these patterns are part of a larger decline which might be common to the entire Gulf coastline, but there sure seems to be less shell on the beach.

At some time in the future, something will have to be done because of the high erosion and depletion rates at the northern end of the island’s city beaches. A few good tropical storms and it may become a necessity.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Mom's Chili

Mom’s chili was really something. I was thinking about the recipe after the South Padre Chili Cook-Off last weekend. That was the day before Mother’s Day and I was thinking of her. Gosh it was a lot of work but I might make some next year and see if anyone likes it. She’s gone rather oriental on us these days and likes to stir-fry organic stuff, but I recall that chili real well when we lived in San Antonio. Some of her ideas are described if you want to read on.

First thing, Mom went and got some real good chuck, round, or shoulder from the butcher and trimmed off all the fat. It was cut into cubes varying between a quarter-inch and one inch, kinda crazy, and the fat was reserved for frying the onions, garlic, and steak. For some reason she always floured the beef before cooking it, with just a pinch of salt. When done, any juice was thrown away and the goodies were set aside for just a few minutes.

At the same time she steamed or boiled at least a dozen ancho peppers, which are dried poblanos. These were drained, de-seeded, de-skinned, and mashed or blended. This is fairly tedious work and I remember helping her with that, getting purple ancho all over my hands but it didn’t burn like jalapenos.

She wouldn’t start the chili unless she had at least two cans of Lone Star beer. One was for her and the other was for the pot. This is similar to Don Henley’s recipe which involves Mexican beer, preferably a case on ice – well, you know those rock-n-roll guys. So you dumped the browned goodies and the ancho goop into the pot with a can-o-beer and started the heat real slow, no rapid boiling or nothing.

Every once in a while she’d add some more water or a dash of beer, just to cover the goodies. Cumin was the next ingredient, the secret. She found a gal down at the Mercado in San Antonio that had freshly roasted cumin seeds (ground into dust right in front of you!), and also picked up a few dried hot peppers with names we did not understand. Well, Mom always gave enough business so the gal threw in a few weird peppers for free. The ones dried by roasting & smoking were the best! Chipotle? Throw them in whole, is what she did.

On went the Dutch oven’s iron lid after imparting these strange boogers. After steam started coming out she turned the chili off: time to go on the back porch and listen to canned Willie and have her grill me about my seemingly useless life, at least as compared to her. I think she was allowing the chili to “set,” as Dutch ovens stay hot a long time. After admitting that I should quit smoking and be a nicer person (score, Mom!), she opened the lid on the pot and started fussing over it. All floating grease was eradicated. The whole peppers were discarded before they fell apart. Maybe a little more beer to thin it or some flour to thicken it, along with some spices she’d never tell me about. Brown sugar or cayenne? Freakin’ oregano or cilantro? Finally, she turned up the heat just a little bump for a minute and stirred it up good and ladled a big spoonful onto a coffee saucer and said “Try this.”

We both smiled.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Time's Getting Close

Well, I almost made it to Election Day but hey, it's my blog and I wanted to update y'all about real estate, moving, and all that non-political schtuff. Yes, things are getting close and we still are trying to sell our house here near Austin. Talk about tight timeframes, our closing date for the SPI house is June 17th and it takes about 30 days to close a deal if we sell here. I was hoping to have some major cash right now so I could lock in a favorable deal with Island Mortgage. They say stagflation is setting in and there are all kinds of bad omens, or shall we say challenges.

On Sunday our realtor, who is a real nice gal, said "gee, maybe is we take out this bush it would look better." This was about three o'clock and I was tired already. So I fired up the chainsaw and started on taking out a bush. It was a photinia about 15 feet tall and 20 feet around. No, this was not your common bush; it had a stump about twelve inches in diameter. By golly, I had the derned bush in the back of my pickup truck, ready for the dump, by six o'clock. I estimate about 5/8 of a ton of photinia. I even raked the yard and planted grass and had the little sprinkler going.

Basically, Monday and Tuesday I was a vegetable, since I had fallen on my can real bad once and had pulled every muscle in my bod. Mr. chainsaw did not decide to eat me on the way down, for which I am very grateful. Gosh, I hadn't fallen on my can like that since college. So here I am, wore out, trying to make the move. Why do the minor little medical things get worse? Why does work and the kids go ka-flooie all at rhe same time? Where's my captain's wages?

I'm sure there have been lots of folks in those shoes, trying to make the move and getting stressed. You might have feelings like wanting to run away just because it is so intense. Maybe a dude ranch in Branson or a hippie commune in Portland. It will work out, I am sure. We can do it. You just have to think positive.