State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood; Col. Len Waterworth, executive professor at Texas A&M University at Galveston; and Morgan's Point Mayor Michel Bechtel spoke during an Aug. 10 webinar hosted by the Bay Area Houston Transportation Partnership. The officials shared details on Coastal Texas Study, which the Texas General Land Office and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been conducting over the last several years ever since officials in 2008 proposed building the "Ike Dike" to stop the Texas coast from flooding during hurricanes.
Originally, the study proposed creating 76 miles of flood walls and levees along Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula to protect the area's 6.5 million residents and its important petrochemical industry in the event of catastrophic flooding. The study also called for creating a massive navigable gate between the island and the peninsula that would open to let ships pass but close in the event of a major storm. The gate would have been the largest gate of its kind in the world.
Taylor said the project is incredibly important to the area not only to protect residents and property but also industry.
"This is a huge economic engine for the entire state of Texas, not to mention for the nation," he said.
In February, officials announced the plan had changed: Now, the study calls for building miles of sand dunes in place of the miles of flood walls. A ring of levees would be built around Galveston Island to mitigate flooding to the island, particularly the backside, and the idea for a massive gate between the islands is now a series of smaller gates offset by artificial islands.
Waterworth said Texas A&M has taken a look at the study and pointed out some issues with it. For one, the dunes need to be fortified with clay in the middle, and there are some concerns with the levee ring around Galveston Island, he said.
"I don’t know what the final [project] is going to look like, but we’ve made those comments to the Corps,” Waterworth said.
Bechtel said the GLO and the Corps are targeting an Oct. 9 public rollout of the study. Around that time, the organizations will host another 45-day series of public meetings, during which residents can see the final plans and submit last-minute comments.
The study itself will go to a chief engineer in the Corps, who will sign off on the plan before it goes before the U.S. Congress for approval and funding. Unfortunately, with the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing and with several other proposed projects in the works, the Coastal Texas Study has a lot of competition, Bechtel said.
Other states around the country—including New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Florida—are conducting similar coastal studies that will finish around the same time as the Texas study. Additionally, with COVID-19 affecting the federal budget the last several months, local officials are unsure how much federal dollars could be allocated to the Coastal Texas Study's implementation, Bechtel said.
"I see there’s going to be a lot of [competition] for federal dollars when we’re knocking on the door up there with our plan, also," Bechtel said.
However, Taylor expressed confidence in the plan's chances before Congress.
"I think we have a pretty good project to sell," he said.
With that in mind, officials are considering ways to creatively fund the project locally either to match 35% of a potential federal grant or to fund critical parts of the plan without federal financial help.
One idea is to use resilience bonds, which would be basically the same as funding the project with insurance savings. When the project is complete, insurance rates will decrease for several entities, and it is possible to use resilience bonds to take those insurance savings and put them toward the project that will result in the savings, Bechtel said.
Bechtel said he is in talks with over a dozen cities in Harris and Galveston counties to help fund a $100,000 study to see if such a method would work, as it has never been done on such a large scale before. The goal is to have the study done before the Coastal Texas Study goes before Congress so local cities are ready to hit the ground running if and when Congress approves the project, Bechtel said.
“There’s a lot of heavy lifting that needs to happen as a community to make any federal project happen," Waterworth said.
Projects similar to the Coastal Texas Study can take 20, 30 or even 100 years to complete. The goal this time around is to get the project done as fast as possible before another Hurricane Harvey-level storm ravages the coast, Taylor said.
"It’s just been a slow, painful process, but we are making progress," he said.