Federal study lays groundwork for Texas coastal barrier

Image description
Federal study lays the groundwork for coastal barrier
Image description
Federal study lays the groundwork for coastal barrier
A $6 billion storm-surge barrier gate is just one component of a system of measures to shore up the entire Texas coast against hurricanes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is recommending in a preliminary study released in October—the latest chapter in the region’s decadelong pursuit of an “Ike Dike.”

“It’s going to happen; there’s never been any doubt here about that,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. “But our biggest fear is that another hurricane is going to hit, and it’s going to cost lives and cost the industry, and it’ll be too late.”

The draft plan is open to public comment until Jan. 9 and has already drawn comments from stakeholders and environmental groups, who question the plan’s ecosystem effects.

In 2021 the study is expected to go before federal lawmakers, who will need to commit to as much as $31.8 billion to implement it over the next several decades.

Despite the price tag Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, whose office funded the study, said he is optimistic the political climate is in the its favor.

“More progress has been made in the last four years than any point. There’s a need to act now,” Bush told Community Impact Newspaper.

The plan

The Army Corps’ study drew on all available data and concepts, including those produced by the Gulf Coast Community Protection District, the Texas A&M University at Galveston and Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center.

“We’re in general agreement with the strategy; the army is taking it seriously and did some good work here,” said Bill Merrell, the TAMUG professor of marine sciences who was the first to propose a barrier system in 2009.

For this $19 million study, the most expensive in the agency’s portfolio, the corps also had a much bigger scope, addressing the entire Gulf Coast and not just the bay, said Kelly Burks-Copes, the project manager for the study with the Army Corps.

“And our study, unlike others, is tied to a mechanism, the Corps, that can get funding and build,” she said.

On top of previous studies’ data the Corps also ran computer models simulating a wide range of scenarios.

“We generated a huge range of storms with different tracks and speeds resulting in different levels of flooding, ranging from Category 1 to Category 5, to assess the effectiveness of the barrier at different points. Even a 10,000-year event was modeled,” Burks-Copes said.

The study considered several variations of levees and gate systems, but based on a cost-benefit analysis, only one plan emerged, Burks-Copes said.

The study calls for building a 1,200-foot-wide storm-surge gate between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, adding 25 miles of levees along the peninsula, raising Galveston’s existing 17-foot seawall by 4 feet, and adding another 13.5 miles of levees west of the seawall. One section of levee is proposed to create a ring around the east side of Galveston Island, protecting its bay side from storm surge as well. This incorporates many of the ideas put forward by the first “Ike Dike” proposal as well as the 2015 GCCPD study.

In addition to these hard infrastructure projects, the draft identifies nine ecosystem restoration efforts throughout the coastline to reverse beach erosion, revitalize marsh land and replace lost oyster reefs at a total estimated cost of up to $11.87 billion—almost half of which would be for beach restoration alone. These projects are intended to improve the landscape’s resiliency—not only to withstand storm surge but also the projected relative sea-level rise over the next 50 years.

Without the barrier, the coast could expect to absorb about $3.1 billion in storm damage every year, according to the Corps. Hurricane Ike in 2008 caused about $30 billion in damage, most of which from storm surge. With the coastal plan fully implemented, estimated damages would drop to $1.82 billion a year, or a 40 percent reduction, according to the report.

There could be even more benefit with some fine tuning, Merrell said. His group plans to submit recommendations for a second storm-surge gate at San Luis Pass and moving levees closer to the coast to protect more properties.

Environmental-economic effects

Despite the planned environmental strategies the draft plan is light on the details when it comes to the potential impact the entire project would have on the Galveston Bay ecosystem, said Jordan Macha, executive director for Bayou City Waterkeeper.

“We’ve been raising this concern from the beginning. There is not enough detail on what the project will do for salinity and the specific plant and animal impacts,” Macha said.

Constructing a large storm surge gate at one of the points where the gulf meets the bay—at Bolivar Peninsula—will affect the flow of salt water into fresh water, which is critical to oysters and other species that hold up the entire bay ecosystem, she said.

“We need to know what will happen, not what could happen. … We can’t give adequate comments on an inadequate plan. We still have a lot of questions,” Macha said.

According to Burks-Copes, the study was the first to assess these impacts.

“There is a serious concern that putting anything in the water would restrict the flow, so in those situations we evaluated the potential change and what would need to be offset,” she said. “We work very closely with the agencies who have those habitats, like the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service, and we have an interagency team that talks through proposed plans to look at potential impacts.”

The waterkeeper group has put forward alternatives, such as emphasizing dune restoration and buying out property to return it to its natural state rather than building hard infrastructure. More than a dozen other groups, including the Galveston Bay Foundation and the Sierra Club, back these ideas.

“We should be allowing nature to act as the barrier island, as it was before,” Macha said.

The organization also questions protecting industry with taxpayer dollars.

“We understand there’s a huge commercial and industrial sector that needs to be protected, but their line of defense should be to armor themselves. … They can build levees, too,” Macha said.

Indeed, the area is home to among the largest ports in the U.S. and a massive petrochemical footprint, which is responsible for producing 80 percent of the fuel for the U.S. military, 60 percent of the nation’s aviation fuel and 27 percent of its gasoline.

Merrell, who as a research professor first pitched the idea of an “Ike Dike,” disagrees, saying the biggest beneficiary of coastal protection will be the rapidly growing population that lives and works around the bay.

“The industry leaders get this: If a storm wreaks havoc people can’t get to work. We don’t want to ruin the structure of the community. We need to protect everybody: infrastructure, hospitals, schools—we all pay for it anytime it goes down,” Merrell said.

An added upside is once the system is built insurance costs will drop or go away completely for those living behind it, Mitchell said.

“When this goes in, it removes a big red ‘X’ off the region. Development becomes more likely; you’ll see values go up,” he said.

Favorable climate

Assuming no delays, the plan will be finalized and eligible for federal funding in 2021. Before then, lawmakers in Austin will need to establish an entity for maintaining all the new infrastructure, which could cost over $130 million a year, Burks-Copes said.

If a local partner does not step up to provide maintenance, the project cannot move forward, she said.

“The Army Corps is watching to see how the state responds,” Bush said, but he expressed confidence the state Legislature will make progress when the session kicks off in January.

“With the potential with [Dennis] Bonnen as the next speaker, you have Houston-area folks at the governor’s office, the lieutenant governor’s office and the speaker of the House. They understand coast issues in a way some previous leaders may have not,” Bush said. “We feel it’s incumbent to have legislation in this session to create a sponsor entity to operate and maintain the system.”

Part of the coastal system has already received Congressional authorization. A bill signed by President Donald Trump in August addressed dozens of disaster mitigation projects on the books, including $4 billion for 62 miles of levees and dune restoration from Sabine Pass to Galveston Bay.

The recent progress has been good to see, Merrell said.

“As you can imagine, my patience has been wearing thin,” he said.