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Ellis Pickett

INTERVIEWEE: Ellis Pickett (EP)
INTERVIEWER: Jessica Schoenbaechler (JS)
DATE: February 24, 2006
LOCATION: Liberty, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Jenny Gumpertz and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2390

Boldfaced numbers mark the time codes for a audio tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to background noise or off-camera conversation unrelated to the interview.

00:00:56 – 2390
EP: The mission of the Surfrider Foundation-Texas Chapter, and in fact, all four chapters in Texas is to protect and preserve Texas Coast, to preserve beach access, and then to—to ensure…
JS: Actually, why don’t you tell me about what it was like when you—when you founded Surfriders because there was that one day at the beach when you and Jeff were talking—or we were at Whataburger and you were saying how—how the Texas Chapter was regarded in California versus how the—how Surfriders in general are regarded here.
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EP: Oh. Okay.
JS: Do you remember that?
JS: So when you wanted—when you started Surfriders Foundation Texas
00:02:30 – 2390
EP: Oh, you mean when I went out to California and spoke to them about how we would operate—okay. Let me see…
JS: And what were their perceptions of the boys from Texas?
JS: Well, he was saying how—in—in California they regarded you guys as, you know, gun toting Republicans, work for (inaudible).
00:02:54 – 2390
EP: Oh, yeah. Well, Jeff does that better than I do. Well, before I started Surfrider Foundation here in Texas, I’d been a member for many years. And in the mid nineties, I went out to California a few years in a row and spoke to the director—executive director of the chap—of the organization, told him I’d like to get a chapter started in Texas, and they were excited because at that point there were no chapters between the—California and—and the East Coast. And they were, of course, a—a bit concerned about Texans being involved in an environmental organization. They weren’t too sure of where we were coming from, and—in—in fact, I’m—I may have reinforced that a bit because one of the main questions I asked was does the national oganiat—organization dictate our issues and our position? And they said no, if you follow the charter, everything’s fine. So I grabbed some surfing attorneys and we read the charter, and we figured we could come up with a good—good interpretation of the—the mission. And we set about—oh—oh, okay, (inaudible).
00:04:23 – 2390
EP: Well, one of the things—I wanted to make sure that if we had an organization here in Texas, it would have a Texas perspective. I explained to the people in the California that—and the people I surf with, we all hunt, we fish, we have guns, and we work for oil companies. And our issues might be different from the national issues. And that’s when they said that if you follow the charter, everything’s fine. And I got some surfing attorneys; we read the charter and felt we could come up with a—a Texas version of Surfrider here.
JS: So—so the one mission that unifies all the chapters regardless of their location is…
00:05:04 – 2390
EP: The m—main mission of Surfrider Foundation is to preserve the coast. To preserve beach access, and to enhance the water quality.
JS: Well, I’ve never heard of the—a surfing attorney. Is that how they’re listed in the phonebook?
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EP: Uhhh. In—matter of fact, in California, they are. They have surfing realtors and surfing doctors and surfing—there’s even a surfing rabbi in California. That’s on his business card.
JS: So when you go down to Surfside, or have meetings, or whatever, I mean how are you regarded in Texas now?
00:05:40 – 2390
EP: Well, when we organized, w—one of our committee members stood up and addressed the—the chapter and said that we’re surfers, we’re in Texas, we have no clout, we have no money, and they don’t respect us. We have a different lifestyle, which is different from California, because in California, surfing is the lifestyle. And over the years, what we have done is, through hard work and educating ourselves on the issues and the science and—and the laws, we’ve gained quite a reputation for being reasonable
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and knowledgeable on the issues. And ins—at first we were thought of as outsiders who were just trying to stir up trouble, and—and now the state agencies and elected officials frequently call us and ask us to attend meetings, ask us to participate.
JS: What about in Surfside though?
00:06:38 – 2390
EP: Well, that’s one of the fun things about this. Surfside Beach, since our—our chapter’s—was formed by people who mainly surf there, and that was a microcosm of what’s going wrong in Texas on the coast. The people in Surfside, it—it suffered a lot of erosion. There were thirty-four houses on the—on the public beach beyo—between the line of vegetation and the water. And our first job, our first mission was we decided we were going to call for a—enforcement of the Open Beaches Act, which is prohibition against private structures on the beach. That upset people who had houses out there,
00:07:16 – 2390
which was strange to the lawmakers up in Austin because there’s a bunch of hippie surfers calling for law enforcement. And there was a—a big battle to start with. There was a reluctance of the people in Surfside. They thought all we wanted to do was get rid of the houses. That’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to preserve the beaches. We wanted to ensure that there were not one hundred or two hundred or three hundred houses on the beach in the coming years. And so we felt that we needed to head this off and begin a campaign of law enforcement and better regulation of coastal development.
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But in this time period, some of the people who listened to a sound byte of what we said and made their decision have availed themselves to listen to more of our—our message, and they have joined in our—on our side in many cases. As a matter of fact, Surfside Beach at one time was the most lawless place on the coast. And in the last few years since we organized, Surfside Beach is now the—the officials and the—the people who live there have come to understand that we are trying to preserve the coast, and they have begun to—well, more or less—oh, well, just be nicer to the state people when they came
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down. And they’re—they’re—they’re beginning to realize that the state does have authority over the coast and over their town. And it—the mayor and the city council has—they’ve come a long way. They’ve turned around considerably. I mean it—we don’t anyone to lose their house. That’s not our—that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to make sure that the beach is there for our kids.
JS: So why—why don’t you tell me a little bit more about that, in particular, how—I mean do you feel Surfriders has created some sense of unity—unity or like public awareness in that location in particular?
00:09:33 – 2390
EP: Oh, you—well, of course, at first they united against us. And—but since then, because of—of the—the fact that more houses are on the beach, and—and that there’s—erosion is a—has become an accepted fact, I would say that—well, one of the main things we’ve done is we have caused—we’ve educated more people to the issue. We have gone to the media, the newspapers and the television. And they have—been articles printed about Texas erosion. Well, in the Wall Street Journal, uh, the Los Angeles Times, The International Herald Tribune, in—in Europe, uh, and more people understand the issue and are beginning to realize that owning a house on the front row
00:10:23 – 2390
is—is a risky—is risky bus—venture. And that’s our main mission right now, is to—to make sure that people understand that and don’t take that risk because that puts the rest of us in a—a—monetary liability situation. We have to help pay for the removal of these things. We have to help pay to maintain the infrastructure to support them. And if they were not in a highly eroding area, we wouldn’t have to pay so much to repair the—the facilities.
JS: So when you—when you’re communicating these messages to like the press, or, like, Jeff and his class anymore, when you go to talk maybe inland lawmakers or something—I mean summarize to me what it is that you say to them on why it’s important to not have these houses there. Or why it’s important to, you know, conserve.
00:11:19 – 2390
EP: Well, one of the things, we have republican administration in—in most cases now, and it kind surprises them when we show up and we speak in their language. We say that as conservatives we’re concerned with the liability, the tax liability that—that this risky business ventures are creating. We ask that the—e—laws that are on the books be enforced. They’re good laws. They’re—they’re for the—the people. It’s unfortunate that an individual here and there has to lose his property, but he purchased coastal property. He knew it was risky, and the chickens came home to roost now. What we’ve—well, let’s see.
JS: Well, I think that’s interesting what you just said about—as Republicans, because it seems like in some cases, environmentalism is something that liberals and conservatives can both get behind
00:12:28 – 2390
EP: It—n—that’s one of the things that just—just totally surprised me is the fact that people can call themselves conservatives, and you would think they would want to conserve the good things that they have. They would want to conserve the resources rather than burn them up as fast as they can. So we—we find it kind of silly that the democrats have a lock on the environmental issues. W—why can’t the conservative party—why can’t they look at it as something I am going to enhance the wealth of my children by being a better shepherd of our resources?
JS: Very well put, having been a democrat state in the past. So could you tell me—I mean why—it seems like—I mean environmentalism, especially when like Eckhardt and Schwartz were in office, there was a place for this stuff in—in government and the media that was—it seemed like it was more accepted back then. I don’t know. You tell me.
00:13:36 – 2390
EP: Well, I don’t know. That’s a tough question.
JS: What happened? To go from a Democratic Texas to a Republican, that’s…
00:13:43 – 2390
EP: I’m not a politician. You’re going to have to ask Kerry that question. I don’t know. Golly, I never thought of it that way. Well, I’m—in most—w—you know, back—it—was called southern democrats. They were actually more conservative than the eastern democrats, eastern liberals. We—you know, southern democrats, we’d carry guns and drive trucks, work for oil companies. Uh, I don’t know what happened to swing us more towards a more republican-dominated government. I don’t know. That’s just—you caught me on that one.
JS: Why is Texas unique in terms of the OBA compared to other states like California?
00:14:35 – 2390
EP: Oh, well, Texas is—is—well, the Texas has the Open Beaches Act. We were the first state to have such a law. In 1959, Bob Eckhardt was, uh, in the legislature. He was cha—he was the author and championed that. The other states—Oregon has one similar. In Texas, the Open Beaches Act guarantees public access—beach access to everyone. From the line of vegetation to the water is public beach easement. Now, if someone may privately own some of that due to erosion, they actually may have corner markers out there because the coast moves inland all the time. And what this does is allows the beach
00:15:22 – 2390
to be wherever it’s going to be. And that’s public. And that—that was one of the—the key insights that they had when they wrote this law, was they—they knew at that time that the beach was going to be moving, and they felt like protecting the public’s right to use the beach was the most important thing. If—one of the things—one of the problems that we have right now is because someone places their corners out there and the beach erodes, and at some point—in Surfside Beach, I’ve taken photographs of corner markers that are out in the Gulf of Mexico now. And those people, that’s their property, and they
00:16:01 – 2390
want it, and they’re mad because it’s gone. But I didn’t take it away from them, the state didn’t take it away from them, the Gulf of Mexico did. Who are they going to blame? Who are they going to sue? Who are they going to fight? They can fight with the Gulf of Mexico, but she wins. At—it’s actually—if it—if it we—came down to whose fault is it, nature operates under one set of laws. Man operates under another. The man who chooses to purchase property on an eroding coast, he is the person who has placed himself at risk. He should be personally responsible. It’s unfortunate that it happens, but that’s business. Good business plan, bad business plan. High risk, great re—rewards. Beachfront property is high risk and you get a lot of money every week for rental. Sometimes the high risk, it ends. So…
JS: Well, what about like when—if somebody (inaudible), it is manmade erosion because they relocated the Brazos River since (inaudible).
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EP: That’s—that’s a good point. It is—I mean it’s like one of the things that courts do now with liability. It’s not a win or lose situation. It’s—usually when there’s in—a judgment is—occurs, they—a portion of the blame is based—is placed on the defendant and the plaintiff. So if it’s fifty-fifty, they only get about half as much money as they’d hoped they were going to get. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. It’s—it’s not, uh, just the movement of the—of the Brazos River, and the Corps of Engineers did that in 1930-something. They relocated the river mouth, they dredged a new channel. The sand that was going to Surfside and Quintana was now diverted about ten miles to the south. And
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there’s a big point out there. Big—the land—a lot of land has been added to the Texas coast at that location. That is one of the factors. Another factor is sea level rise. And whether you believe in global warming or not, the fact is for twenty-five thousand years the sea level has been rising, and will continue to do so until the next ice age. You’re just going to have to live with that. You can either hope for an ice age, or buy something on the second row.
JS: So tell me about Babe. I mean how—what kind of an inspiration has he been for you?
00:19:29 – 2390
EP: D—we’re very lucky to have Babe around. He is a fighter. He is—he’s been a mentor of ours. He knows how politics works. He knows the law like the palm of his hand. He’s our go-to guy. He’s helped us out in so many situations. As a senator—a retired senator, he has doors open to him that are not open to most people. And he has really worked hard and helped us quite a bit. He’s my mentor. He—I count on him.
JS: Did you vote for him?
00:20:07 – 2390
EP: I wasn’t—you know, old enough to vote for him. He wasn’t in my district either.
JS: Okay. So tell me, when you go to Austin and you testify before these house committees, what—what are you doing? What’s your goal
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EP: Well, what normally happens in Texas is our legislature meets every odd-numbered year for a hundred and forty days. And during that time, we’re all at risk because they’re making laws that are taking things away and charging us money right and left. Most laws are written by special interest groups, handed over to a senator or a—or member of the house, and they sign off on it and run with it. If a special interest group writes a law, there’s a good possibility the twenty million Texans out there are left out of the loop on the benefits. And what we’ve found is if s—enough people will show up and
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make a reasonable plea, you can have some influence on the final bill or you can kill the bill if you’re lucky enough. But that’s—that’s the main thing, is—is we just have to go in and turn bad legislation into good legislation or kill it if it can’t be salvaged.
JS: So do you—I mean do you have to miss work? And what? You drive all the—all the way to Austin, and…
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EP: Oh, yeah. It—some meetings start at eight o-clock in the morning, or if schedules start at eight, don’t start until four in the afternoon. It’s a little over two hundred miles from here to Austin. I’ll have to take off from work, either drive up the night before or early in the morning. And that’s one of the great things about having a Surfrider Chapter. We’re a nonprofit organization and I can get my expenses paid now. So, we have—and plus the fact we have a lot of support. We have people that we can call on to make phone calls or send e-mails up to the l—people in the legislature. It’s not just one or two or three or four people showing up. It’s people from all over the state who are inputting.
JS: So it sounds like you’re lobbyist, too, then.
00:22:23 – 2390
EP: I’m a volunteer lobbyist. That’s what it’s turned out to be. I just wanted to be someone who went surfing and met a bunch of cool people and had some parties and some beach cleanups. Did some good deeds. Helped some of the people. Turned out, what we ended up having to do is spend a lot of time in Austin, and other places up and down the coast. I’ve spoken to the city council in Galveston. I’ve spoken at meetings from Port Arthur to So—South Padre Island.
JS: So when you talk with—I mean how often is it that you find yourself in front of like an inland member of the house or the senate who just doesn’t get it? Or do who just doesn’t understand how (?) erosion…
00:23:08 – 2390
EP: Most—well, if it’s a—if they ever get a chance to sit down and have it explained to them, they can catch on right away. But in politics, it’s all back-scratching and deals and I’ll give you yours if you’ll give me mine. And it—since it’s a special interest bill, a lot of trading goes off, and if we’re not around, somebody on the coast will come up with a good way to make us some extra money and we’ll do some dam…
00:24:02 – 2390
EP: E—a—one of the main things that we—we have to do is—is educate the inland members of the legislature. Th—th—they’re unaware—they’ve heard of erosion, they’ve got some idea of what it is, and they—the way it’s usually explained to them by the people who own the houses is my land’s being taken away from me and the state’s taking my land. They’re not going to pay me for it and that ain’t right. And I point out to the inland legislators that on the Trinity River up in Corsicana, or any of the other rivers, those rivers move all the time. They’re moving east and west, north and south. The banks move. And if I own property on one side and you own property on the other, I
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may gain or I may lose, and you are the beneficiary or the—the other person who is harmed if it moves in your direction. No one sues the state inland. Those rivers move. It’s—it’s basically the same law. It’s a force of nature. It’s moving, and it’s moving your property boundaries. Same thing happens on the coast. The difference on the coast is they have the rolling easement of the line of vegetation. And that’s where the coastal people are complaining that their property is being taken away because they—their house is now on the beach and they have to remove it. I point out that inland, if your house is on the edge of the cliff of the river, most people are smart enough to pick it up and move it over another hundred feet so it’ll last a few more years. For some reason, on the coast, they just like to leave them standing.
JS: So Babe keeps referring to it as the mean high tide. So what’s the difference between the line of vegetation and the mean high tide?
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EP: Oh, okay. He’s—uh, one of the things is the mean high tide line is different. That’s where the—the wet portion of the beach and the line of vegetation is further inland. The mean high tide line is where the actual ownership of the property transfers. And it becomes state-owned submerged land. So you actually lose property, which is what happens when the river moves over and it’s—you’re now standing in water. Same thing happens on the coast. But that’s the difference. All—the public beach easement, the beach that everyone can use is from the line of vegetation, which includes the dry sand area going up toward the edge of the dunes.
JS: Okay. So there’s like a s—everything under water is state-submerged land. There’s mean high tide where the t—tidal transfers. Then there’s rolling easement up—up to the line of vegetation.
00:26:38 – 2390
EP: Right. Right. So…
JS: (?) graphics to explain that?
00:26:43 – 2390
EP: Yeah. Yeah.
JS: Okay. So tell me, when you’re down there taking pictures of hatch marks or stand lines or whatever, uh, your photos, what are you trying to document, and how do you use those photos?
00:26:58 – 2390
EP: Well, the photographs that I’ve been taking since 1998 down at Surfside Beach, I was documenting the problem. So the people in Surfside felt that I was trying to make them look bad. No, what I was trying to do was—was obtain data—photo documentation of how the sand moves, how the line of vegetation moves. I mean, it goes backwards and forwards. It moves inland and it moves out to sea from time to time. The net effect on our Texas coast is erosion, usually seven to ten feet per year on the north coast. So what I’ve actually done was just wanted to show s—photographs that were easily understandable as to how the coast is moving. And it’s just a educational aid up in Austin. And also, factual data, because everything I had, it was dated, we knew when it was taken, and I used landmarks that were easily discernable.
JS: Why don’t you tell me about the most recent developments just in the last few months with all the stuff being collected out from these houses?
00:28:21 – 2390
EP: Y—one of the things over the years, the—the people who owned houses on the coast, whenever a storm would come in and—and—and wash away the sand, they would try and do something to shore up their property. They would haul in concrete—busted concrete slabs and roadways, things like that—rocks—basketball sized rocks to boulders that wouldn’t quite fit in the trunk of your car. And they’ve been doing that for many years, thirty—forty years in some cases. So—and so there were a lot of rocks that—and what happens is when you sit down on the beach, just like when you’re standing in the sand, waves come up, your feet sink. The rocks sink. So there’s no telling how many
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tons of rocks and concrete there are along the Texas coast that have been placed there for years. Surfside Beach, last July, one of the hurricanes came in and a young man was sailing his catamaran at Surfside Beach. He’d been a sailor for fifteen years. And he went out between the bulkheads. He was sailing his ship—his boat back in, and he—the waves were pretty big. It was hurricane surf. And he got forced over to a corner and actually got pitched out of the boat and was pinned up against a—a busted concrete seawall that someone had built there years ago. When he was pitched out he broke his femur, and he had to be life-flighted into Houston. He could have died. You know, the femoral artery could—could have been severed and he would have died right there on the
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beach. But after that occurred, a number of people were upset. We had been trying to get the rocks removed as hazards, but the state government had felt that they weren’t a safety issue. Jeff Houton and I went up to Austin and met with Land Commissioner Patterson, and pointed out how dangerous they were. And of course, and—and the fact that as the man in charge of the coast, he should be out there with a bulldozer and a backhoe picking that stuff up. And he s—at that point, he had stated that, well, I—certain things I can and can’t do, and we realized that. And then Jeff asked him, what are you
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waiting for, someone to get killed? And that probably struck a chord with him because a few weeks later, there were front-end loaders and dump trucks out there, and they began removing the—the rocks and the—and the debris. It was great that it was finally done. And most of it—most of—of the debris has been removed. It’s taken them a while to do it, and there’s still more under the sand, and it will be exposed sooner or later. But finally, the state has acknowledged that that is a safety hazard. And another thing that has occurred is there—in Surfside Beach there are two metal bulkheads that were placed
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there in the seventies, I think—early seventies. And one of the bulkheads was damaged in one of the earlier storms this—in 2005. And in Katrina—in Rita it was—it was heavily damaged. Most of it was ripped up and—and tossed all over the place. And the city and the homeowners finally realizing the inevitability and the—the—what the legal status of the—the bulkhead was, they removed most of the debris. The—the state has a lawsuit—(?)—Commissioner Patterson actually filed a lawsuit about two years ago against the bulkheads for removal. The storm did most of the damage, and now they’re being removed. The second bulkhead still has a—a lawsuit against it. It’s intact, and it will—may go to court. We don’t know.
JS: So after—what—what are some of the next steps for Surfrider’s in the coming years in terms of lawsuits?
00:32:34 – 2390
EP: Well, uh, I—I’m—well, one of the things that’s going to happen is in June of this year, the moratorium will expire for the hundred and sixteen houses that are—have been on the beach since actually 1998. It was a two-year moratorium, but it—the law just went into effect two years ago. The—at that time those houses will be illegal. They will not be protected from a lawsuit, and the state will begin filing suit to remove those houses. So I expect some of those houses to be removed some time in 2006. I don’t know how many. It just depends. I hope that most of the owners will realize that it’s
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futile to go to court, and they would save their money, and instead of hiring an attorney, they would use that money to purchase a lot inland and move the house. Land Commissioner Patterson is working hard to come up with some money to buy them out, or to help mitigate the cost. And if the government wants to do that, that’s not a bad idea. It’s cheaper to do that than it is to litigate in many cases. And I’m really not a advocate of paying people off for stupid ideas, or for stupid investment mistakes, but that might be the easiest way to solve the problem. As far as—well, go ahead.
JS: Does Surfriders—I mean does Surfrider’s sue people? Sue any of these homeowners?
00:34:09 – 2390
EP: Well, we were—we intervened in on—in a lawsuit a couple of years ago against some of the homeowners in Surfside Beach. They had—some of the homeowners there had filed a lawsuit against the city, the county, the state, the Land Office, the Land Commissioner, the Attorney General, and the at—the Attorney General’s office, and the Attorney General. They wanted reimbursement for lost revenue as their houses could not be rented since they were illegal and were prohibited from having utilities connected. And Surfrider intervened in the suit on the side of this—of the state. We had Mithoff and Jacks in—in Austin was our, uh, at—attorneys. I was deposed, but that is all on hold
00:34:59 – 2390
right now. We’re waiting for the results of the upcoming beach nourishment project there in Surfside. But as—as far as litigation is concerned, it—we’re ready to go any time. There are a number of other issues. There’s an issue right now in Corpus Christi. Packery Channel, a developer wants to move in down there and—and really restrict beach access. We don’t feel that’s right. He wants to use state land to build his—his hotel and tennis courts and marina on. And we feel state land on the coast should be dedicated parkland. And he owns—I don’t know—twelve hundred acres down there. He ought to find room on his own property to build his own hotel. I may—I may stay there.
JS: So Babe was re—Babe was pretty adamant that homeowners should not be paid out of public money, that they want to establish their own fund, uh, a tax on the transaction (inaudible) was one thing but not to use public tax money.
00:36:23 – 2390
EP: Well, and—and that’s—that’s another good point. What—we have always said that they should be personally responsible. A good cons—a conservative—a—a—a conservative precept is that each man is responsible for his—his self and his own actions. And we initially, of course, felt that if you built something and you now have to remove it, you should pay for it. It was a business venture and it made money for a while, and now it’s time to put an end to it. But after dealing with a number of the people in the state agencies, pointing out that it would be cheaper to—to par—buy them out in some
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cases, or offer them some type of incentive to move—you know, not—you know, they’re not going to get market price, they’re not going to get three hundred thousand dollars for a house that’s sitting in the Gulf of Mexico. They don’t get anything for the land. It’s—it’s worthless. But if you buy them out, it solves the problem sooner. But that leads to
00:37:35 – 2390
another point is we need to make sure that we don’t create more of these problems in the future. And that’s where in—in future legislation, we’re going to be very involved. One of our—our main goals is to come up with better regulation of coastal development. We need setbacks based on the rate of erosion, not based on, well, but I only hun—have a hundred and fifty foot deep lot, and I need this much space to build a house on. The—we need to—we need to do something to prevent more houses from being on the beach in the future. And one of the buyouts—one of the things of the buyout is you could buy out the whole front row on the coast, it’d cost quite a few million dollars, but then we would
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have a public beach all along the beachfront. Houses could be behind it. If we continue to maintain with beach nourishment in the future, that’s where we’d put the sand, out there on the public beach.
JS: Well, with setbacks, though, won’t that—I mean won’t that always be an issue? I mean—there’s—you can put, you know, so many million of money towards new sand every year, but the—the water’s—if you don’t do that, eventually the water’s going to get to the house even with the two hundred foot setback. It may give them thirty years or something, but are setbacks really the—the solution?
00:39:03 – 2390
EP: Well—you—let’s see. (?) do this? We—the setbacks would—would decrease the number of structures that are placed in harm’s way, or increase the length of time before that occurs. As long as the coast is—is—is—is moving, it’s going—well, uh—as long as sea level is rising, the coast is going to be moving inland. We probably would be better off if we just did not build anything on barrier islands at all. But we already have miles of houses on the coast. And there are tens of thousands of people ready to move to the beach right now. We need to do something to limit the number of houses or structures that are—are placed in harm’s way. And it—with—it—you’d—if you go in with setbacks, you place them far—well—(inaudible).
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EP: In some states, they have setbacks that are—are two hundred—three hundred feet in places, which is a considerable distance. And everyone, of course, wants to be right on the beach. They want to step off their front porch into the sand. But that’s not realistic. And what we need to do is change the mindset of the people and have them realize that the setback is a protection for their private property. We have to let them realize that that natural dune area in front of the house is not a long way to walk to the beach. That’s a beautiful scenic area. It needs to be free of sidewalks and streets and things like that out there. They need to limit the number of walkovers. Instead of every house having a walkover on West Galveston Island, like they do in most places, they ought to have one walkover at the end of each block. That way when you stand on a walkover and you look up or down the beach, you see grassy dunes and not just rows of picket fences of—of spindly-legged walkovers. Those walkovers in a storm, they become shrapnel to go through your house. They cost more to clean up.
JS: We’ve covered all my written questions. Is there anything you want to add?
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EP: Oh, God.
JS: I mean you—you love going to the beach, so—and, you know, you take trips and stuff. I mean wouldn’t you like to have a beach house?
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EP: Oh, I’d love to live in a beach house. But the—I sit out there in hurricane surf. I know what—I know what those waves will do. I choose to not own a beach house because I think it’s too risky. I live fifty-five miles from the nearest beach, which is Galveston, and I drive a hundred and ten miles to go surfing at Surfside. I don’t mind living up here and not having to worry about my house wash away in a storm. So—everyone would love to have a beach house. Me too. But I just know better.
JS: Okay. Anything else you add?
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EP: Let’s see.
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EP: Well, there—there—for the future of Surfrider in Texas, I—I see two things right now. And I’ll probably see more tomorrow. But—of course one is—is strengthening the Open Beaches Act, ensuring that knuckleheads don’t show up and plop a billion dollar development down in the wrong place. We need to be—we need to educate the legislators to listen to the scientists. The experts have been studying the problem for years. They know places all along the coast where it would be more appropriate, or more risky to build, and it may be a difference of just a few hundred feet in one direction or the
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other. And we need to come up with better regulation of the coast. It needs to be guided from the state level. I know people say the local people need to do this. But we already know. We have a great track record here in Texas of the local people making decisions based on quick profit, not on longevity, not on responsibility. And that’s where you need to step back and be in Austin and take a look at the big picture to determine whether this is a good idea, whether this is appropriate. They should have approval authority for
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coastal development. Another thing that we have barely touched on is water quality. We’ve been testing ever since we’ve began our—our Surfrider chapter here. However, the Texas coast is lined with chemical refineries. There’s things out there that a lot of people don’t know about. One thing that irks me in particular is I know for a fact that many of the rivers and streams and the—the, uh, ship channel, the fish are dangerous, that they’re hazardous to eat. And there should be signs posted. There are very few signs posted in places saying do not eat the fish. You see people fishing there all the time. The
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refineries, they test their outfall, they test the water. What’s coming out? We don’t know. They—they do not publish that data. And even if they did, I don’t know many people would believe it. We need better testing. I know that testing for different chemicals costs a lot of money. But someone needs to start doing that. I—one of the things that’s been occurring in refineries, chemical plants, is they’ve been doing a thing they call pushing back the fences. Over the years the air pollution has gone out the smokestacks, drifted downwind, and fallen into the land surrounding the refinery or the
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chemical plant. And it’s polluted the land. The refineries know because they know what they’ve been pumping out. And so they have been quietly purchasing land around their—their facilities, pushing back the fences so that the public wouldn’t go in and find out what was going on. There’s the same thing with the water. Many of the—the chemical plants hire fisherman to go out and fish in specific places, take the fish back, and they test them. I sure would like to know what’s going on there.
JS: This—here’s something I just thought of when you mentioned, um, water quality. You said earlier that (?) is like a microcosm of a lot of other things happening along the coast. How is it also like a microcosm of the entire Gulf Coast, especially since Katrina and Rita (inaudible)?
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EP: Well, one of the things, everyone’s seen the damage done to the Mississippi Coast and New Orleans by—by Katrina. Katrina and Rita did a lot of erosional damage to Surfside Beach, even though it was hundreds of miles away. It—it’s—Surfside is a small community that—they don’t have anything two or three stories tall, well, I mean, other than beach houses. But they don’t have any high-rises, they—they have a very small tax base, they’re surrounded by chemical refineries, they have a ship channel there. It’s—it’s the same as—as many other places—South Padre Island, Corpus Christi, Galveston,
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even in Beaumont with the Sabine River. But it’s—it’s just a—a s—a small community. It’s compact and it’s suffering a—a great deal of erosion, and every foot of land it loses means a great deal to the town. I don’t want the island to completely go away. I don’t want it to erode all the way back to the intercoastal canal like it did just thirty or forty miles down the beach at—at Sergeant. So we need to find out what we can do to combat the erosion for the (?)…
JS: …(?) representative of issues all along the entire Gulf Coast, especially Katrina. (?) you talked about how they impacted this small town, even though they were so far away.
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EP: Well, Surfside is a microcosm, or good example of a—what’s going on up and down the entire coast. It’s a—it’s a small town. It has—the—very small tax base, it—it certainly doesn’t have enough money to solve the problem. E—even the—the wealthy communities on the coast don’t have enough money to solve the problem. It’s going to cost millions of dollars to perform beach nourishment. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, even though their landfall was anywhere from a hundred to three miles away, caused quite a bit of damage, quite a bit of erosion, and that’s continuing all up and down the coast.
JS: Can you think of anything to add to…
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EP: Uh…
JS: Okay. I think we’re done.
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EP: Okay. That’ll work.
JS: What were you going to say about Babe?
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EP: Oh, well, okay. Well, one of the things is Babe, of course, he does not feel that nourishment is the appropriate response. I don’t want this on the tape. But I mean he—he just—he don’t want to see spending any money. The way we look at it is we’re going to have to spend some money on this. Let’s—you know, we’ve got a lot of money coming. There’s—there’s some offshore oil money coming starting in 2007. State of Texas may get somewhere be—around two hundred and forty million dollars over four years for coastal response. I don’t—can’t think of the exact word…
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EP: We realized early on that in order to get anything done we needed to educate the people and the members of the legislature, public officials. And we felt that the best way to do that would be through photographs. We’re not scientists, we’re not engineers, but we can take pictures, and pictures show what’s going on. To that end, I immediately began photographing—documenting everything that went on on the coast and at Surfside Beach especially because that’s where I was on—most often. I—I took thousands and thousands of photographs. I have the entire file drawer here filled with dated and annotated photographs of—of the beach erosion, of the status of the houses, of some
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interesting things on the coast. And in order to get these photographs into the hands of the members of the legislature, scan them in a—my computer and printed them out. I did some comparison photos. This one was done in August of ’99, and this one was done in December of 1999. Same location. The difference in these photos is the sand level. Here you don’t see any rocks exposed. In this lower photo, you see rocks sticking up two or three feet. Those pho—these rocks are here, but they’re beneath the sand. That much sand has disappeared due to some storms. We did that for a number of locations. Here’s
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another photo of the same—s—or another set of photos of the same location, starting in 1999—2000, and you can see the sand moves up and down, the line of vegetation moves inland. This is a house just down the beach, two houses down from this one. In the foreground here, this is the corner marker I was discussing earlier that is visible, and you can—it’s barely visible in this photo. It’s—I’ve seen it sticking up out of the ground just a few times in the last eight or ten years. Beach nourishment has now covered it back up.
JS: Can you explain to me again, each shot, what it—what it is?
JS: So show me the corner marker again.
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EP: Okay. In the two lower photos here, this is a house at 915 Beach Drive. This one was taken in June of 2000. I’m standing out in the water looking back to a—towards the beach. You see a lot of broken concrete in front of the house. But prominent in the foreground circled in red is a corner marker. This is a piece of pipe that’s driven into the ground by the surveyors. It’s usually three inches in diameter. It’s got a cap on the top. And it’s got—stenciled with certain data. It’s sticking up about eight to ten inches out of the sand in this li—at this date. After that it disappeared. The sand came up. It moved back inland a bit. And then—oops.
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EP: Okay. The two lower photos here, this is a house at 915 Beach Drive in Surfside. This photo was taken in November of 1999. You see the concrete piled out in front of the house. The house is one color in this photo. But right here, this little shadow, this dark thing, is a corner marker. It’s about three inch pipe that’s placed there by surveyors. It’s driven into the ground, got a cap on the top, and has been stenciled with some data on it. A few months after this photo was taken, the—at the beach, you couldn’t even see this. It was covered up with sand. Sand moves up and down. It’s—depends on the storms and the tides. Then in June of 2000, it appeared again after—during hurricane
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season. And here it’s—it’s sticking up a good eight to ten inches out of the sand. Now s—this indicate—what this does is indicates that the sand moves up and down there. It’s not coming back, the beach is not rebuilding, but it is fluctuating. The line of vegetation during all this time since 1998 has been behind the houses on Beach Drive. It’s been all the way at the road. It has not moved closer to the Gulf of Mexico, so the houses have always remained beyond the line of vegetation. The top four photos were—this is of 907 Beach Drive. And you can see the line of vegetation here in the—in the—October of 1999 photo. We’ve got vegetation behind the house. This is after—this is a year after
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the September storm of 1998 that moved the line of vegetation behind the house. Next photo is January of 2002. The line of vegetation is even further behind the house, and there are no dunes there. This is September of 2002 near the end of hurricane season. This is actually a good day of surf. You see the wet line is all the way back here. Mean high tide at this point, but this is actually a higher tide than normal. And this is in November of 2002. The line of vegetation is still back here. Nothing has gotten any—
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this has re-grown to—to relieve the property owner from the liability of the—under the Open Beaches Act. Also, in this photo the white things you see, those are the set—the—the sewer lines that are on the public beach. I have some other photos of the same houses—9—once again, 907 Beach Drive, this is 1999. You see the rocks out here, you see some people walking around them. You see a house in front. This was the octagon house. The one that—that’s what the surfers called it. It was actually a Buckminster Fuller dome house. It doesn’t have eight sides, but we’re surfers. But in this photo, it’s gone. And that’s because, uh, the city removed it in 2000, not long after this photo was taken. But in this photo the lines—indicate…
[End of Reel 2390]
[End of interview with Ellis Pickett]