The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a plan to protect the Houston area from future hurricane-related storm surges, and is looking for public support and input on the concept.
It centers on the idea of a "coastal spine," also called an "Ike Dike" after 2008's Hurricane Ike. The barrier protection plan has support from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, with Sen. John Cornyn having pushed previously to pass a federal bill that funded the Corps taking the next steps on the project.
What remains unknown is whether the federal government will fund a project that is now estimated to possibly cost more than $30 billion overall, with costs rising from previous estimates just a year or two ago. Also unanswered at this time are longer-term costs.
The Texas General Land Office and the Corps of Engineers have released their Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Study Draft Integrated Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement that was funded by Cornyn's legislation.
The two agencies had previously narrowed coastal protection plans to four alternatives. Their final plan, with the environmental impact statement, is similar to original plans proposed by Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction and Evacuation from Disasters Center and Texas A&M University Galveston, among others.
It calls for building a new levee on both Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula to its north, plus a gate between the two levee sections to keep ocean surges from entering Galveston Bay. It also proposes beach and dune renourishment along the lower coast, and nine landscape scale ecosystem restoration projects to increase resilience to future storm surges.
In February, Cruz (R-Texas) voted for extra funding for the completion of the Coastal Texas Study, which now has the just-completed environmental impact statement. He also introduced legislation with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to expedite the completion of the Coastal Texas Study that was passed into law recently as part of the America’s Water Infrastructure Act.
The estimated cost for the entire project is $23 to $31 billion. The Houston-area barrier may cost as much as $17 billion with the rest going toward ecosystem restoration projects. That is up from the $15 billion in federal money Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush sought last year.
"This is the only study to fully identify the environmental impacts and required mitigation of the proposed plan. The study also includes results and lessons learned from methods used to mitigate the dangerous impacts of floods and storm surges worldwide," said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District Commander Col. Lars Zetterstrom.
Environmental groups aren't yet sold on that claim. The Sierra Club and other organizations have called for options that would be less intrusive, including abandonment of some threatened coastal areas.
Brandt Mannchen of the Sierra Club's Houston group spoke about this in 2016, on the group's website.
The damage to the San Luis Pass area, probably the last, most natural fish pass left on the Upper Texas Coast, if not the entire Texas Coast, has been ignored. The San Luis Pass area will be walled in, out, or through by the Central Spine which will seriously affect this fishing, beach combing, recreational, and ecological gem," he said.
The Central Spine threatens water circulation, movement of fish and shrimp, sediment placement, erosion locations, and salinity levels."
When the new Ike Dike plan was announced , the Houston group, on its Facebook page, also asked if the Corps had done any estimates on long-term maintenance costs. It also asked if the plan said who would pay for such costs.
Fisherman and shrimpers have expressed related concerns. They have said they worry how the storm surge gate, in particular, would affect water exchange between Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, and their livelihoods with that.
Some local officials have noted that the Ike Dike, or similar provisions for other parts of the coast, would do nothing to help with hurricane-generated rains causing inland flooding. Among those is Orange County Judge Dean Crooks, who said earlier this summer that his county couldn't afford to pay a local match portion of a proposed seawall and levee system for that area. Crooks added that, as far as he could tell, the state couldn't afford it, either.
The one main change from the original proposal is a ring-type levee around Galveston itself. Bill Merrell, a Texas A&M University Galveston professor who proposed the Ike Dike concept, called that an "extreme" measure that would require pumps similar to what New Orleans has behind its levees.
The Corps and the General Land Office are holding meetings along the coast through December. They are also soliciting public comments from across Texas and beyond.
The entire plan's feasibility study and environmental review is online here.
Public comments can be mailed to USACE, Galveston District, Attn: Mrs. Jennifer Morgan, Environmental Compliance Branch, Regional Planning and Environmental Center, P.O. Box 1229, Galveston, TX 77553-1229; or emailed to CoastalTexas@usace.army.mil. Comments must be postmarked or emailed by Jan. 9, 2019.