Silt gathering at the bottom of Galveston harbor is costing entities millions to dredge and a waterfront businessman has a plan he says could solve problem.
Todd Sullivan, the principal of Sullivan Interests and a member of the Port of Galveston’s governing board, said a land bridge to replace the obsolete drawbridge to Pelican Island could dramatically reduce the silting.
“We plan on saying that this proposal could reduce silting as much as 90 percent,” Sullivan said.
A land bridge would create a strip of land, similar to a jetty, extending all the way across the waterway from Galveston Island to Pelican Island as a foundation for a road and a railway, Sullivan said.
Sullivan and others are proposing the land bridge as county officials consider ways to replace the aging bridge connecting 51st Street in Galveston to Pelican Island.
The bridge connecting Galveston and Pelican Island is not a county bridge, but county officials have been leading efforts to replace the aging structure with a new bridge. Galveston County Navigation District No. 1 owns and manages Pelican Island Bridge.
Proponents of the land bridge argue a rail link to Pelican Island would spur industrial development as well as reducing dredging costs.
“It’s a tremendous financial burden to us,” said Ted O’Rourke, chairman of the port’s governing board. “It would be a tremendous savings to us if we could limit whatever we can.”
The port in 2017 spent $2.12 million on maintenance dredging, significantly more than the $877,000 port officials initially estimated.
The silt has gotten so bad at the island’s docks that some areas have been placed under ship draft restrictions during 2017, officials said.
And the port isn’t alone in spending lots of money to maintain parts of the Galveston harbor.
“It’s expensive,” said Capt. Allan Post, executive director of marine education support and safety operations at Texas A&M University at Galveston. “It just cost us $550,000 to dredge our dock after Hurricane Harvey. That was to remove 22,000 cubic yards of silt and mud.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and several private businesses along the waterfront also spend substantial sums of money each year dredging the harbor to protect against ongoing shoaling, Sullivan said.
Shoaling is a process by which dirt and sediment gather in particular areas, and has become an issue for multiple entities, including the port and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, interim Port Director Peter Simons said.
The issue is exacerbated by coastal storms, most notably hurricanes Ike and Harvey, but including smaller storms, that pour rains down in the region and flushes water out of bayous and into the bay, Post said.
“Imagine you’re at a beach and digging a ditch in the sand,” Post said. “Then you pour water into it, it’s slowly going to fill in. It’s the same with the channel.”
Most of the sediment drifting into the harbor comes from the west end of the island, experts said.
A land bridge could protect against that, Sullivan said.
“It would achieve the goal of blocking sediment coming into the channel,” said Timothy Dellapenna, associate professor in the department of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston. “Everything will necessarily have compromises, but if that’s the most important thing, then it would solve that.”
There are several obstacles to building a land bridge from Galveston to Pelican Island.
Such a bridge would seal the harbor to access from the west and close off one popular route from Galveston Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway to the Gulf of Mexico.
The project would also have to overcome fiscal obstacles.
HDR Inc., a Houston engineering firm hired by the county to create three bridge design plans, returned three options, all fly-over bridges with construction and planning costs ranging from $63 million to $121 million to replace the existing Pelican Island Bridge.
The firm estimated that a land bridge could cost $200 million more than the preferred plan, officials said.
“I don’t know where the funding is going to come from unless someone gives us $210 million,” County Judge Mark Henry said in a previous interview with The Daily News.