Three environmental groups say documents obtained through an open records request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reveal the agency’s true intentions for the placement of a storm-surge barrier along the Texas coast.
The records, mapping shapefiles used to draw lines on graphics modeling the coastal barrier, show a barrier that would run down local highways and potentially leave hundreds of homes between the barrier and the Gulf of Mexico.
The groups are urging area residents to use the maps to find their own addresses, and use that information to develop public comments about the barrier plan to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But an Army Corps official in charge of the coastal barrier study said the files don’t represent the corps’ final plans and that the technical design of the barrier is only about 10 percent complete.
The three environmental groups — the Galveston Bay Foundation, Bayou City Waterkeeper and the Turtle Island Restoration Network — held an informational meeting at Galveston’s Rosenberg Library last Wednesday evening. The meeting focused largely on the groups’ concern about the ecological effects the barrier would have on Galveston Bay, and on how people with similar concerns can submit public comments to the Texas General Land Office.
But the meeting also included a presentation of what the groups say is the clearest picture available of where the corps would build levees and seawalls along Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island.
The groups filed a public information request for shapefiles the Army Corps used to draw maps showing barrier concepts. Those maps have been widely shared, but only in ways that show the barriers from high above, they said.
A closer inspection of the files showed the corps drew its lines with some degree of intention, the groups said. The shapefiles show a barrier built along state Highway 87 on Bolivar Peninsula and along FM 3005 on Galveston Island.
“This is going to be the footprint,” said Joanie Steinhaus, the Gulf Program Director for the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “This is their selected project.”
In that scenario, thousands of homes in both places would be left outside the barrier — most of them on the south sides of the highways.
Hundreds of other properties would be in the direct path of the wall, and could be targeted for eminent domain, the groups said.
“Our argument is, based on what we’ve seen with the environmental impact and the feasibility study, as well as through conversations with them, that this is probably a pretty close, if not exact alignment of what they are going to be proposing in their final study,” said Jordan Macha, executive director of Bayou City Waterkeeper, which states its mission is to protect and restore the integrity of bayous, rivers, streams and bays through advocacy and education.
Specifics about the alignment of the barrier cannot be found in the report released on Oct. 26 by the corps. While the report describes the alignment generally, officials said that a final alignment wouldn’t be decided until the report is finalized in 2021.
But the next two months are the only time in the development of that final study during which people will be able to submit their thoughts on the proposal, said Kelly Burks-Copes, the project director for the corps’ coastal barrier study.
The shapefiles don’t represent a final plan for barrier placement, and the corps’ recommendation could change to move the barrier nearer to the Gulf of Mexico, or closer to Galveston Bay, as economic and environmental impact studies continue, she said.
“This is an evolving process, we’re only two and half years in and we have two to go,” Burks-Copes said. “We’re only at 10 percent design at this point.”
The study was still in its first phase: where the corps was trying to decide whether a barrier at the coast or a barrier along the rim of Galveston Bay was more effective, Burks-Copes said. The corps decided to focus on the coastal barrier and is now studying what the best placement on the island and the peninsula would be, Burks-Copes said.
“That line is very conceptual,” Burks-Copes said. “It could very well move to the front of the island. There’s several things that could happen and we’re not saying anything is going to happen yet.”
Still, people who are concerned about what the shapefiles show should say so in their public comments, she said
For the environmental groups, alignment and the effect on personal property is just one of the issues being raised as an objection to the coastal barrier project, said Scott Jones, the director of advocacy for the Galveston Bay Foundation
The groups are calling for more environmental analyses of the issue, to answer questions about how the corps’ proposal and other alternatives could affect Galveston Bay and its fisheries, Jones said.
The corps will host a public meeting about the coastal barrier plan in Galveston from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Dec. 12 at the Galveston Island Convention Center, 5600 Seawall Blvd. People can submit written and verbal comments about the barrier plan at the meeting.