Two months after closing the public comment period for a plan to build a storm-surge barrier along the Texas coast, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is about 90 percent finished sorting through the more than 6,000 written comments it received about the proposed project that would be the largest civil works project in U.S. history, officials said.
The work, which includes categorizing and responding to each of the comments so they can be put into a final report to be presented to Congress when it’s complete in 2021, is part of the normal process for a project being undertaken by the corps, said Kelly Burks-Copes, the project manager for the barrier.
But even as the normal work of the corps project progresses, state and local officials were meeting in Washington D.C. this week to discuss whether and how the corps can deviate from its normal procedures in reaction to the public feedback the barrier project received.
At the top of their list was the question of how the corps might hold a second round of public meetings about the project, Burks-Copes said.
“At this point, I can’t tell you for sure that we’re going to be having the second public review comment period, because that’s part of what the meeting is this week,” Burks-Copes said. “We’re evaluating it and proposing and taking a schedule to our chief commander this week that talks about how we could incorporate public comments into revisions of the plan and also how we might go about having a second public review comment period.”
The Galveston corps office needs permission from higher-ranking offices within the corps before it can move ahead with a second public hearing and comment period, she said. She didn’t know when the corps might make a final decision on the hearings, although it could come within a week, she said.
“It’s not a normal procedure to have a second public review period,” she said.
But given that the coastal spine proposal would be the largest civil works project in U.S. history, irregular procedures might not be surprising.
After three years of internal study and development, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revealed its draft plan for a coastal barrier in November. The plan called for 70 miles of barriers and floodgates along the coast on Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, as well as along the western edge of Galveston Bay. It featured a massive floodgate between the island and the peninsula, a ring levee around much of Galveston Island and ecosystem restoration projects up and down the Texas Coast. The project is estimated to cost up to $31 billion.
Similar barrier plans have been pitched and talked about for years as a way to protect the Houston region from massively damaging storm surges that can occur during a hurricane. But as details about the corps’ plan emerged, Galveston County residents and property owners began to question the wisdom of the project.
On Bolivar Peninsula in particular, a vocal group of residents protested the possibility that the barrier could be built along state Highway 87 and leave beach homes between the wall and the Gulf of Mexico. On Galveston Island, the proposal of a ring levee, which would protect the backside of island from surges, was met with similar objection.
Corps officials said placement of the barriers had not been finalized, although critics pointed to mapping data the corps used to draw up its proposal as the source of their fears.
In December, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush called on the corps to develop a plan that places the barrier at the dune line, which would protect most homes in the area from storm surges.
The General Land Office is the corps’ partner in the coastal barrier study.
On Wednesday, Burks-Copes said that the next time a draft plan is released, it will include an analysis of barriers — both seawalls and more dune-like structures — placed along the dune line, and what the benefits and risks of such a placements would be.
There are other measures being considered in response to the public meetings. The land office intends to start recruiting local people to be members of “working groups,” whose members can take questions to state and local officials, and take information back to concerned neighbors, General Land Office spokeswoman Karina Erickson said.
“It’s very much a work in progress for us to be better able to communicate with the community with regard to what’s going on with the Coastal Texas Study,” Erickson said. “I think it was clear to us that, regardless of the public outreach that had been conducted prior to the release of the first draft of the study, that the public was not fully aware of what the entire plan was looking like.”