At least four widely varying plans exist for a storm-surge barrier along the Texas coast and it will be some time before leaders settle on a final version, according to a project briefing held Tuesday.
Only one of the four plans discussed Tuesday includes a barrier along Galveston’s West End and all four call for a ring levee around the central part of the island, according to briefing documents.
And while selecting a plan will take time, it would be even longer until construction starts, unless the federal government can be persuaded to waive normal procedures to advance the project.
The Texas Legislature’s Joint Interim Commission to Study a Coastal Barrier System met Tuesday at Texas A&M University at Galveston for an update from various groups about where the proposal stands.
Generally, the coastal spine project is thought of as a series of walls and sea-gates stretching along Galveston Island, across the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel and along the length of Bolivar Peninsula.
One version of the plan has already been presented by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Response District, a six-county group of elected leaders that was organized to study storm protection after Hurricane Ike in 2008.
The district released its recommendation in June 2016.
But officials are still awaiting a $20 million “mega study” being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must be completed before Congress can appropriate money for the spine.
The Corps study isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2021, although the agency plans to release a report in May about which version of the coastal barrier its more detailed feasibility study would analyze.
Corps officials on Tuesday told legislators the agency was assessing four possible configurations of a barrier system, including a version running along the coast commonly called the Ike Dike.
Three other options call for positioning the main barrier systems northwest of Galveston and protecting only parts of the island with a ring levee system, leaving the far west and east reaches outside of the protected area, according to briefing documents.
Corps officials also noted that recent severe flooding from Hurricane Harvey had added uncertainty to the proposal.
“I don’t know if we understand what the federal government might legislate post-Harvey,” said Col. Lars Zetterstrom, the commander of the Army Corps Galveston District, said.
Having alternative versions of the projects maximizes the chances that some version of the spine will be approved and funded, he said.
Even after the plans are completed, construction of the barrier could take another 15 years.
State Sen. Larry Taylor, of Friendswood, said he hoped officials could find a way to waive some of the corps’ regulatory requirements and fast-track the spine project.
“If we go through the normal process, it will take a very long time,” Taylor said.
Beyond the technical design, there are still other issues to be hammered out, including how the construction costs — which start at an $11 billion estimate — will be paid for, and how annual maintenance and operation costs would be paid.
State leaders have consistently said the project, which could be one of the largest engineering feats of the 21st century, needs federal funding to be built.
Maintenance and operations would seemingly be left to the state, although no concrete plans have been determined. During this year’s legislative session, local officials, including Taylor, proposed a bill that would have given maintenance and operation responsibility to the little-known Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority.
The bill drew some public objection, including from Galveston County commissioners, who said they had not been consulted about the proposal before it was filed in the legislature. The commissioners court later voted to support the idea, but the bill did not become law.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, of Angleton, co-chairman of the joint committee, said state leaders should have a better plan for management before the next session begins in 2019.
“We should have had a clear plan before January this year,” Bonnen said. “I do not want us to bumble an opportunity.”