Environmental advocates say they are disturbed by suggestions by elected officials that environmental rules should be ignored or changed to expedite building a storm surge barrier along the Texas coast.
“The bottom line is, we believe that any kind of major structure, whether you’re talking about storm surge or flood control, needs to have proper environmental review,” said Scott Jones, the director of advocacy for the Galveston Bay Foundation. “It would be the wrong thing to do to bypass environmental review.”
The coastal spine, also called the Ike Dike, is a proposed series of seawalls and gates that would stretch along the coast on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island. It was first proposed after Hurricane Ike in 2008 as a way to protect the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay area from storm surge flooding.
In the weeks following Hurricane Harvey, the proposal has drawn renewed interest because of its potential to protect against even more ferocious storms.
On Monday, after a tour of Galveston Bay with state legislators, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush said he hoped the federal government would waive environmental requirements in the name of speeding U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval of the Ike Dike.
“The speed bump will be the environmental permitting, and getting through the corps process,” Bush said. “We remind folks that after Katrina in New Orleans, and New York after Sandy, that the federal government did grant those waivers immediately.”
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana officials allowed corps projects to go ahead without following all the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.
There’s been little talk so far about what the environmental effects of the Texas barrier would be.
A study published by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District in 2016 stated that water quality conditions would “likely be minimally affected” by the new barrier, but also recommended more thorough ecological studies.
Still, Jones said the bay foundation was especially worried about how sea gates at Bolivar Roads, the zone where the Houston Ship Channel enters the Gulf, would affect shrimp and crabs as they move in and out of the bay.
“We’re talking about really altering things,” he said. “It could really harm the recreational and commercial fisheries.”
In the years since Hurricane Ike, officials have said a major hurricane could spur action on a coastal barrier, as happened in Louisiana, New York and New Jersey where federal rules were eased or simply ignored to expedite the construction protection systems.
Jones said he feared a rush to build a barrier would miss details that could cause unforeseen problems in the future, comparing that possibility to corps dam and levee projects in Houston that may have contributed to flooding in some areas during Harvey.
The corps plans to issue a draft feasibility report on the coastal spine proposal in May 2018. That report will identify potential environmental effects of the spine, said Edmond Russo, a deputy district engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Galveston District.
At a legislative committee meeting Tuesday, corps officials said a comprehensive study wouldn’t be completed until 2021. After that, the project could be funded by an appropriation from Congress. Officials also acknowledged the timeline could be changed by an act of Congress.
Federal lawmakers already have passed legislation that removes some bureaucratic requirements in constructing a coastal barrier.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Randy Weber in 2016 introduced a bill to speed construction of the barrier by allowing the corps to use data collected in local studies.
President Barack Obama signed that bill into law in December 2016.
The U.S. Senate next week is expected to vote on a multibillion dollar hurricane relief package, which Texas leaders asked to include funding for corps projects.
The House of Representatives approved a $36 billion version of the relief package Thursday.