Sargassum (seaweed) on the Texas coast.

How the Texas General Land Office turns seaweed into sand dunes

Spawned in the Bermuda Triangle, sargassum is seen by many as a plague on the Texas coast. It is also one of the best things going when it comes to helping build up Texas beaches.

Tourists -- who spend billions a year visiting the coast -- hate the stuff. But rapidly eroding beaches need it to help trap windblown sand and build dunes.

So what is a coastal community to do? Recent research funded by the Texas General Land Office suggests a light touch is best when a city or county absolutely must remove seaweed from the beach. Last summer's epic seaweed season -- when it piled up in stinking, rotting mats that stretched for miles -- is a good example of when heavy equipment is justified.

"We are working now, trying to quantify it better, but it's clear that just letting it stay on the beach creates a much different beach morphology than a beach without it," said Jim Gibeaut, endowed associate research professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

Gibeaut and his colleagues are working to better understand how removing sargassum affects beach and dune development on Mustang Island with a grant from the General Land Office.

The study should provide useful information about how cities and counties along the Texas coast manage their seaweed, Gibeaut said. And if better management helps beef up the beaches and dune systems along the Texas coast, it will be money well spent. Wide beaches and a sturdy dune system offer a natural protection against storm surge.

"It would be very expensive to build a seawall with the same level of protection as a healthy dune system," Gibeaut said. "Beach volume has a great value in protecting infrastructure."

So if seaweed helps build up beaches and dunes, is it possible to build up a dune system while removing the stuff when it piles up and drives away tourists?

Probably so, says Jens Figlus, assistant professor of maritime systems engineering at Texas A&M University at Galveston. Figlus is working on a General Land Office grant to study how bales of seaweed can be used to help build sand dunes.

"The bales hold water and nutrients, acting like a time release capsule that helps the plants grow above," Figlus said.

The Innovative Technology Seaweed Prototype Dune Project is being tested out at Apffel Park, adjacent to the South Jetty. Figlus and his team spent last summer baling some of the seaweed that piled up on Galveston shores and piling sand on top. "It seems to be working really well, so far," he said. "It helps to reduce the volume of seaweed, and it's odor-free."

Figlus will present the results of his study at the Young Coastal Scientists and Engineers Conference this August in Delaware.

While the process of loading seaweed into a baler is labor-intensive, Figlus is working to refine the baling method. "This looks like it could be a pretty viable method," he said.