HARLINGEN, Texas (ValleyCentral) — The largest coastal wetland restoration project in Texas is nearing completion, as improvement of the Gayman channel connecting the 10,000-acre Bahia Grande basin to tidal influence is scheduled to be finished early next year.

The 1936 construction of the Brownsville ship channel cut off tidal flow to Bahia Grande, and the once productive estuary became a dust bowl.

The decades-long campaign to restore Bahia Grande began in earnest with the vision of Joe Gayman, who when president of the Texas Shrimp Association in 1983, raised $3,000 and had a ditch dug from the ship channel to Bahia Grande.

“Started just as a dream, and wound up being the largest wetland restoration,” said Joe Gayman.

That initial ditch quickly began to fill the basin, much to the surprise of then engineer, Earsel Lantz, of the Port of Brownsville.

Gayman said, “We just laughed about Earsel Lantz saying, look at the miracle that water is flowing into Bahia Grande because he said it was all above sea level and there was no way we would ever flood it.”

However, adjacent landowners became alarmed about the inundation of their property and threatened legal action, so that first ditch was closed after only 13 days.

With the eventual purchase of Bahia Grande by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 2000, a new pilot channel was dredged in 2005.

However, this was only a temporary fix until additional funding became available for a much larger permanent channel, as vastly increased circulation was needed to prevent Bahia Grande from becoming hypersaline or saltier than the sea.

The current $5 million project will increase tidal flow by a factor of 13 times and is being implemented by the Texas General Land Office.

Funding was derived from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill litigation and Joe Gayman’s dream to restore Bahia Grande is finally being realized.