The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday officially announced its preferred alternative for protecting the Texas coast from damaging storm surges: a 76-mile-long system of barriers and gates built along Galveston Island, Bolivar Peninsula and inside Galveston Bay.
The plan is estimated to cost between $23 billion and $30 billion, according to the official announcement.
Friday’s announcement comes after three years of study by the Army Corps, and more than 10 years since Hurricane Ike’s storm surge flooded Galveston Island and parts of the mainland.
The corps’ coastal barrier plan is similar to proposals made by researchers at Texas A&M University in Galveston and the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, a six-county coalition formed after Hurricane Ike to study and recommend hurricane protection plans for the Houston area.
The plan includes building a 1,200-foot wide floating sector gate at Bolivar Roads, the body of water between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula and the entrance to the Houston-Galveston Ship Channel. The gate would be accompanied with dozens of smaller lit gates.
The plan also calls for levees and floodwalls on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island, including a ring levee around the east end of Galveston and barriers extending out to the west end as far as San Luis Pass.
Gates or other barriers are called for near the Houston Ship Channel, Clear Creek, Dickinson Bayou, Offatts Bayou and Highland Bayou.
The plan also proposes nine ecosystem restoration projects that the corps said would increase coastal resiliency and reduce flooding risks on the coast.
The corps’ announcement of the plan was accompanied by a statement of support from Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.
“One storm can cost many lives and billions of dollars in damage, so the expense of doing nothing far outweighs the investment to protect and enhance our coast,” Bush said. “The options selected are proven to be effective in mitigating the deadly effects of storm surge on our state. I thank the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and look forward to continuing this vital cooperative effort.”
The Texas General Land Office partnered with the corps to produce the Texas Coastal Study.
Supporters of the barrier say it will protect people and property — including critical oil refineries in the Houston area — from floods caused by future hurricanes.
When it was first proposed by Texas A&M, the university called the concept of the barrier the “Ike Dike,” though the corps does not use that term. The earliest proposals, which did not include protective measures inside the bay or ecosystem restorations, estimated a coastal barrier would cost $3 billion.
In the years since, estimated costs have increased. In April 2017, Bush asked President Donald Trump to commit to funding a $15 billion barrier. In August, a corps official told the Galveston City Council that the barrier could cost up to $19 billion.
The corps report does include a number of human and ecological issues that leaders will have to grapple with if they want to move forward with a barrier project.
If built as planned, the barrier could increase erosion on Gulf of Mexico beaches and increase the potential for harmful algal blooms to form in Galveston Bay, according to the report. The barrier could increase localized flooding after rainstorms near Offatts Bayou, Dickinson Bayou, Clear Lake and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, according to the report.
Constructing the barrier would require altering or damaging thousands of acres of wetlands and bay habitats, the report also stated. American eels could lose breeding habitats, juvenile fish and shellfish may be less able to travel between the bay and Gulf of Mexico, manatees and sea turtles may be crushed by the gates and dolphins living in the bay may become essentially stranded “out of habitat” by slight changes in salinity to the bay.
The environmental issues in the report drew quick criticism from some environmental groups.
The report “does not adequately address the potential impacts to Galveston Bay’s ecological health and the continued productivity of its commercial and recreational fisheries,” the Galveston Bay Foundation wrote in a press release on Friday.
The group called for more consideration of less costly proposals, that would have a smaller overall impact on local ecosystems
“We should get past the idea that this is an all-or-nothing proposition,” the group wrote.
In its release about the study, the Army Corps said the study complies with the National Environmental Policy Act and considers the impacts the project will have on natural, economic, social and cultural resources.
Friday’s report also doesn’t address the exact placement of levees or barriers, and whether constructing them would require buy-outs or other private property considerations.
Over the next two months, the Army Corps will hold public meetings about the proposed barrier plan in cities on the Texas Coast. The public meeting in Galveston will be held on Dec. 12 at the Galveston Island Convention Center.
The release of the tentatively selected plan is the start of a long process. The corps doesn’t plan to issue a final feasibility study about the coastal barrier until 2021.
After the final report is issued, it will be sent to the U.S. Congress, which could choose to fund construction. Some Texas leaders have long called for Congress to waive some of the normal corps requirements to allow construction of the barrier to start sooner.
If approved, the Corps said it could take as long as 15 years to construct its proposed barrier.