GALVESTON

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.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

(27) comments

Susan Fennewald

It isn't just environmentalists who are concerned - it's also fiscal conservatives. They fear that the rush to build the Ike Dike will mean that cheaper and more effective remedies will be bypassed in favor of the more expensive and elaborate Ike Dike.

David Schuler

Oh yeah, cheap is a critical factor. I'm certain there were many cheaper plans in 1901 than * raising the entire island * but i'm really glad they did. Protecting the coast in any meaningful way is not going to be cheap nor easy. Just ask New Orleans about their 'cheap' levee system that turned out to be a 'levee in name only'. Is that what we want the ID legacy to be after the first big one hits?

PD Hyatt

What you failed to mention about raising of the island is that there was NO help from the Feds as it was all done by the locals.... Big difference.... New Orleans is built below sea level and that wasn't a very smart move on their part....

Mark Aaron

Paul: "What you failed to mention about raising of the island is that there was NO help from the Feds as it was all done by the locals...."

Close, but not quite correct. The state chipped in some to raise the island too. It returned state ad valoren tax and part of the occupation and poll taxes for 17 years. The Feds came in later to extend the seawall west from Ft. Crockett.

https://books.google.com/books?id=Q_kaAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA211#v=onepage&q&f=false

Susan Fennewald

I said cheaper AND MORE EFFECTIVE!!!!

Mark Aaron

Susan: "I said cheaper AND MORE EFFECTIVE!!!!"

That's not the way it normally works. You get what you pay for.

Susan Fennewald

I know that's not the way it NORMALLY works. But when the public and the politicians insist that they want the Ike Dike - instead of insisting they want good protection - that's what you'll get.

Jose' Boix

I understand that we need to "cross all Ts and..." but we have to use rational evaluation and approaches; including being environmentally prudent. However, are "we" rushing into a solution? Let's recall Ike was 9 years ago, and I just read that some of the "approved" evaluations will not be done till 2018. To me the view of any future coastal protection is dim and fuzzy, and I can't shake the now disappeared "Snail Darter" causing a detrimentally significant hydraulic design change for the Texas City Levee and Pumps; that while effective not the best solution in my opinion. We do need to move with some degree of urgency; one that I do not yet "see."

Scott Jones

Unfortunately, some are pushing to rush this project by asking for a waiver of the environmental review. The reason we have the National Environmental Policy Act reviews is because of all the unintended environmental costs we incurred nationwide before we knew better and passed NEPA. Most of damages are from big structural projects where we alter the environment so much.

Those losses were more than just to water quality and habitat. They include losses of recreational fishing and waterfowl hunting as with Florida's Kissimmee River flood control project. Our own older flood control projects in the Houston area are testaments to the lack of environmental review, e.g. Brays Bayou, White Oak Bayou and the other highly modified straightened channels, whether concrete lined or grass lined.

Thankfully, as a result of the environmental review process, today we do a better job of building structures in consideration of the environment consequences. Far from perfect, but we are making strides.

We deserve to have a decent handle on all the costs, including, environmental, so we can make wise decisions.

Susan Fennewald

There are some things that could be done quickly that would be non-controversial and OK with both fiscal conservatives and liberal environmentalists (Though I believe that many of the fishermen, who should be concerned, would consider themselves conservatives.)

The ring levee around Galveston is needed with or without the gate. There are 4 plans currently being evaluated. Only 1 has the gate, but all 4 plans have a ring levee around Galveston. And, I believe, all 4 plans have a small gate to block off Clear Lake from the bay. This is needed even if the big main gate is present.

So - they could put those two items in place - the beneifit/cost is high - and then fight over some of the other aspects.

For Galveston, whichever plan they choose - they would be a ring levee, and the west end will get water - either from the Gulf (no ike dike) or the Bay (with ike dike - coming via San Luis Pass and overtopping.).

Steve Fouga

Susan, has the San Luis gate been eliminated from all the plans? Have you actually seen the plans? I can't find them.

Susan Fennewald

Yes the San Luis gate has been eliminated from all plans. You can find the report about the Ike Dike plan and its gate on the GCCPRD website. I'll try and find a source for the 4 plans that the Corps said they were evaluating.

Scott Jones

As Susan mentioned, none of the 4 alternatives that the Corps is current reviewing include a gate at San Luis, but they do all include a ring levee around the urbanized portion of Galveston. Note that only 1 of those 4 alternatives (Alternative A) is a coastal spine that would connect a levee system on Bolivar Peninsula to the Seawall via a gate structure at Bolivar Roads. That alternative includes additional levee that ends at San Luis Pass. The other 3 alternatives (Alternatives B-D) tie into the Texas City levee system, but they each have different configurations.

Diane Brodie

Are we to believe that no environmental study has been done to date? That can't be right.

Susan Fennewald

Yes it can be right.
NO environmental study has been done.
The attempt to circumvent normal Corps approval and shove it through Congress as a mandate is because then they might not have to do an environmental study. Because the bay is such a rich source of biological components - shrimp, oysters, various fish species - most of which spend part of their time in the bay and part in gulf - and therefore travel through the area where the gate would be built- there is fear that the gate would never pass environmental review and any environmental review would have to be long and complex. The goal would be to make sure that the construction of the gate didn't cause the shrimp population or the fish populations to crash.

Allison Buchtien

Here's the link to the Coastal Texas Study (Corps of Engineers) http://www.swg.usace.army.mil/Missions/Projects/Coastal-Texas-Feasibility-Study/ There is also a link to the GCCPRD site on the right side of the page.

Scott Jones

Just FYI that as of October 16, the latest slide presentation that shows the four alternatives the Corps is reviewing has not yet been posted to that page.

Scott Jones

FYI the Corps presentation showing their 4 alternatives is on the Corps Galveston website at http://www.swg.usace.army.mil/Media/Public-Notices/Article/1338011/zetterstrom-brief-to-joint-committee-on-coastal-barriers-10-oct-17/

Scott Jones

To date, the only studies completed are cursory 2D salinity and circulation modeling. And from what we understand, those models don't use the most current 3D methods. There have been no studies of the impacts of gate structures on the movement and survivability of larval fish, shrimp and crabs. Very worrisome when you are talking about the most productive bay in Texas and one of the most productive bays in the country as far as fish, shrimp and crabs. We are talking about the need to protect not only ecology and living species and recreational opportunities, but the economy and jobs built on healthy recreational and commercial fisheries. We need to investigate all options; not just Ike Dike. And we need real studies on environmental impacts, so a true benefit:cost can be calculated.

Steve Fouga

Scott, do any of the alternatives include a gate somewhere north of Bolivar Roads?

Scott Jones

I assume you are referring to the reach including Galveston and Chambers counties. None of the alternatives - be they prepared by the Corps, GCCPRD, SSPEED, or TAMUG - include a gate north of Bolivar Roads. Same goes for Jefferson and Orange counties... only levees were recommended in those two.

Steve Fouga

Thanks, Scott. I was referring to the so-called "Centennial Gate" at the Fred Hartmann Bridge and "Mid-Bay Gate" at San Leon. I'll be glad when I can take a look at the 4 current concepts.

Scott Jones

Sorry, Steve. I understand you now. Yes, three of the four alternatives do have gates in the Bay somewhere north (or west) of Bolivar Roads as follows:

Corps' Alternative B (named "Coastal Barrier") has the levee running from High Island to Port Bolivar (specific alignment to be determined later in the Corps' study process only if it is chosen as the Tentatively Selected Plan in summer 2018 - it could be by the Intracoastal Waterway or elsewhere), then navigation gates (and if needed, environmental lift gates) connecting the levee from Port Bolivar to the Texas City Dike (which would be raised), which then ties into the Texas City levee system.

Corps' Alternative C (named "Mid Bay") has the levee running from the Double Bayou area southwest to near Smith Point, then environmental and navigation gates from just east of Smith Point to Dollar Point, where it ties into the Texas City levee system.

Corps Alternative D (named the "Upper Bay Barrier") has environmental lift gates that run around from Tabbs Bay to Hog Island, and then a Houston Ship Channel navigation gate from Hog Island to Spillman Island. From that point, Alternative D has two options: (1) a levee that is right on the bay shoreline from Spillman down to the Texas City levee system or (2) a levee made by elevating Highway 146.

As previously mentioned, all 4 Corps alternatives complete the ring levee around Galveston.

FYI Corps' Alternative A, which is a coastal spine concept like Alternative B, is named "Coastal Barrier/Nonstructural System." It's specific alignment - (1) wet beach, (2) elevated existing roads,or (3) north of existing roads - would be determined later in the Corps' study process only if it is chosen as the Tentatively Selected Plan in summer 2018.

Hope this helps.

Steve Fouga

Thanks, Scott. Excellent info! Now I have a much better picture of what's going on. [thumbup]

Scott Jones

FYI the Corps presentation showing their 4 alternatives is on the Corps Galveston website at http://www.swg.usace.army.mil/Media/Public-Notices/Article/1338011/zetterstrom-brief-to-joint-committee-on-coastal-barriers-10-oct-17/

Steve Fouga

Thanks for posting, Scott. It would be a blast to work on this! [thumbup]

Mark Aaron

Thanks Scott.

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