Texas leaders say they want a coastal barrier to protect the Houston and Galveston areas from a massively damaging hurricane, and have increasingly called for Washington’s support for what could be one of the largest and most expensive public works project in U.S. history.
But a federal study being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — one that offers the clearest path to a coastal barrier plan being approved — is analyzing versions of coastal barriers that differ significantly from the way the project is typically described and marketed.
At a presentation to the Texas Legislature’s Joint Committee on a Coastal Barrier System in October, Army Corps officials provided an update on a $19 million Coastal Protection and Restoration study, and showed a slide that presented four different alternatives to the coastal barrier.
The first alternative is familiar to people who’ve followed surge-mitigation plans for years, with a barrier running along the length of Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula. The three other alternatives the Army Corps presented show barriers built farther in the interior of Galveston Bay, including one that starts near Texas City and another “nonstructural” alternative that runs along the perimeter of Galveston Bay.
All four proposals include a ring levee around the more-populated east side of Galveston Island, with a flood gate across the mouth of Offatts Bayou. Three of the four alternatives put no barrier on Galveston’s West End.
The drawings, part of an extensive study being conducted by the corps, offer different versions of what a coastal barrier system might look like and differ from plans that have been widely promoted since Hurricane Harvey spurred more talk about hurricane protection in the Houston region.
Kelly Burks-Copes, a project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said all of the proposals are considered equal now and a final recommendation is still months away.
“We’re in the middle of sausage-making,” Burks-Copes said. “Some of it is still being adjusted as we learn more information.”
The different alternatives are being judged on how feasible they are, their cost-effectiveness and their potential environmental consequences, she said.
Conversations about ring levees and inner-bay barriers have come up before, and have raised concerns from some people about being left outside of whatever protective barrier is ultimately built.
When the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District received public comments on its proposal in 2016, a design that called for levees along FM 2004 drew skepticism, because it would have left some communities between the wall and Galveston Bay.
That proposal was not the one the recovery district chose when it released its recommendation later in the year. The report recommended a coastal barrier, ring levee and a flood gate near Clear Lake.
Since the recovery district’s report was released in June 2016, local and state support for a barrier along the coast has coalesced.
The Texas General Land Office in April asked the Trump administration to support funding of the coastal barrier system. Land Commissioner George P. Bush has said he supports a plan that calls for a barrier on Galveston Island as opposed to farther up the bay.
That barrier was one of the dozens of projects, costing a proposed $61 billion, the state of Texas in October asked federal officials to fund with Hurricane Harvey recovery money.
While all four of corps’ alternatives call for a ring levee around parts of Galveston Island, they don’t specify exactly how the barrier might be built — a berm, for example or something more like a wall — or fine details about where exactly the barrier would be placed.
It’s unclear, for instance, whether a coastal barrier would be built immediately adjacent to highways along the coast, which some have suggested would be more affordable, or along the dune line, which would potentially protect more beach front homes.
Brittany Eck, a spokeswoman for the land office, said the agency had not yet recommended such specific details. The land office, which is helping pay for the corps’ study, will name a “locally preferred plan” eventually, Eck said. If that doesn’t match what the corps’ recommends, the state will be required to pay for the cost of the difference.
But the land office is not making its official preference known until the corps study is complete.
“It’s really impossible to state what you prefer,” Eck said. “At this time, the General Land Office doesn’t have an opinion, we’re just supporting the corps process.”
The Army Corps’ tentatively selected plan will be released some time around May 2018, Burks-Copes said. That release will be followed by a series of public hearings to gather input on the project.
Congress would have to approve whatever plan the corps recommends before the project could get underway.
Even after a plan is determined from among the alternatives, many details would remain to be worked out. Only about 10 percent of the engineering work will have been completed by the time a plan is chosen, for example, Burks-Copes said.
“Once the plan is selected and authorized, we do detailed engineering and design,” Burks-Copes said. “The alignments could shift slightly then, too.”