Author’s note: This is the final article in a series describing nine changes that we would propose to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Tentatively Selected Plan, based upon our Ike Dike-related research over the last decade.

We live in interesting times. Our population is moving to the coast, and the seas are rising to meet us. The United States is beginning to follow other nations in moving to strategies of protecting people and infrastructure from storm-induced damage, instead of allowing damages and then assisting in recovery.

A protection strategy is being developed for Texas’ Upper Gulf Coast, where hurricane-induced surge has the potential to claim thousands of lives and cause well over $100 billion in economic losses. However necessary and useful here, it isn’t a simple process at this point.

We citizens are dealing with trying to make sense of and properly comment on a massive, costly protection plan immersed in an inflexible U.S. Army Corps of Engineers process, obviously designed for smaller, more straightforward projects.

The relatively inflexible corps process also limits it in how it deals with the great uncertainties in planning conditions over the next decade. Instead of a fixed process, some form of adaptive management makes sense. We need to continuously monitor conditions and change our plans as conditions change.

For example, we need to adapt to relative sea level rises that are faster or slower than expected by hurrying additional protection or delaying it. Working with the federal government and state, we need to set up a regional institution, or institutions, that can effectively monitor changes in natural environmental conditions and the built environment, and using the latest technologies, modify coastal barrier planning appropriately.

For now, we need to remember the corps controls the planning and is constrained by its own process to design and build a barrier that would eliminate surge damage on the 100-year flood plain in 2084. This will naturally lead to some pretty hefty protection as they try to account for major uncertainties over decades, such as rate of sea level rise, nature of the development of our human settlements and changes in storm intensity and frequency.

And, although understanding that better technologies will be developed, they have to use present technologies to design a project expected to remain operational until at least 2084.

Given corps planning constraints, they’ve done a good job designing a strong spine, and although the plan is tentative as far as final detail, it provides plenty of detail for citizen response. Also, the design team has wisely alluded to areas where more non-structural approaches might be appropriate and even pointed out that engineered dunes could be examined for the land barrier.

I believe the corps and its funding partner, the Texas General Land Office, will seriously address our comments. That’s why I’m commenting publicly through this series of articles and my comments and hundreds of backup pages to the corps.

The Tentatively Selected Plan is a good plan in that it uses the correct overall strategy of a coastal spine as the main component of protection. But it can be tweaked to be a better plan.

In previous articles, I’ve tried to outline a modified version of a coastal spine design that I think fits better into the fabric of our coastal communities. It leaves no one in harm’s way in front of the barrier by placing an engineered dune land barrier directly on the beach. It gives more flexibility to managing transport of water through the water barrier by modifying the gates at Bolivar Roads to allow more open-water flow, especially on its far eastern portion.

By extending the barrier to the west and gating San Luis Pass, the design takes full advantage of the active gate system’s ability to reduce water levels and surge in the bay.

This surge reduction allows one to question the complexity, costs and even need for additional protection in the form of large gates at Clear Creek and Dickinson Bayou, the Galveston ring levee and the portion of the barrier that runs north from High Island.

As a plug for adaptive management, it’s useful to point out that these features can always be added or strengthened if changing conditions over the years warrant it.

I thank the corps and land office for the opportunity to comment and urge each of you to comment. Over the longer term, please get involved and stay involved in community organizations working to protect our region from coastal hazards. It’s not a one-time fix, but rather a continuous process.

William Merrell is president emeritus, regents professor and Mitchell chair of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores, Texas A&M University at Galveston.


(11) comments

Bill Broussard

Bill. If the barrier as drawn absent the circular levee and the upstream gates were moved to the shore line what does that do to a cost of let’s say 8 billion ? If it isn’t will the feds and glo have to offer buyouts?

Next question since the shore barrier requires sand covering and any public beach will certainly need to be maintained where does the sand come from. Nearest deposit is thirty miles away and the park board used every dredged gradual the ACOE brings up?

Bill Broussard

Bill it was just too early! What I meant was if the upstream gates were abandoned and we started at a total cost of around 8 billion then what would the additional cost be to move from 3005 to dunes on the west end?

The sad question stays as is because absent sand any public access goes away completely in the west end within the build out time is my guess.

Randy Chapman

Dunes will never be a substantial enough barrier to even consider.

George Croix

The first REAL test of the TC levee, 10 years ago with Ike, showed what happened to dirt, with grass overlay and rip rap underlay, not sand, that had been in place and settling for anywhere from 20 to 46 years at the time. Close call....
And this barrier did/does not change location after every small storm and have to be rebuilt.
Good luck with those sand dune 'spine' protection barriers in such a storm surge.....

Susan Fennewald

Dr. Merrell always totally ignores the environmental aspects of gating Bolivar Roads and/or San Luis Pass. I like to eat fish and shrimp - and I like to bird watch. He just ignores all the HUGE impacts this huge project would have. He's an engineer and addresses only the engineering issues. All of us need to watch for all the unintended consequences of such a huge project.

Steve Fouga

Susan, I agree with your feelings about the Ike Dike, but not with this statement: "He's an engineer and addresses only the engineering issues."

Dr. Merrell is a distinguished professor, an academic. He holds degrees in mathematics, physics, and oceanography, and is the chair in marine sciences at Texas A&M. If he worked in industry or for the government, and designed and built things, I would call him an engineer. A big difference, as I see it, is liability. Engineers (usually through their companies) are responsible to their customers and, when expectations are not met, can be punished with lawsuits, financial penalties, career ruination, etc. This is why I trust industry and government SO much more than academia, when it comes to engineering projects.

A good engineer takes into account all of the issues at play in their project. It is now universally recognized that environmental impact, legal issues, long-term reliability and maintainability, and COST (development, acquisition, and operations) should be factors in the design of everything from TVs, to autos, to refineries, to public works. An engineer who doesn't address these factors is simply doing a bad job.

Miceal O'Laochdha

Susan: As a licensed Marine Engineer and a certified ISO 14001 Auditor, I can tell you your comment regarding Dr. Merrill's limited view as an engineer is fundamentally uninformed. Engineers are not only capable of considering environmental factors in planning and managing projects but, are trained and specialized in doing so. Do you hold similar credentials, or are you limited to just the consumption marine life?

Paul Sivon

I don’t believe Dr. Merrill has an engineering degree, not that it reflects on being competent and capable or not.

Jarvis Buckley

Great comment Steve . Right on target.

George Croix

Boiled down, the issue is NOT what 'could' be built, but what won't be built unless the multitude of obstacles in the way are overcome.
All the planning and designing in the world don't matter until the project gets going.
So far, the first obstacle is simple recognition of realities.
We could start by recognizing that, no, if the Dutch could do it, we, in this country, probably still CAN'T do it, certainly not anytime approaching soon plus 20 or 30 years. And NOT because of the bigger technical or construction issues. But because of the political, 'environmental', and moneyed voting block(s) issues......
There it is................

George Croix

Don't forget the turtles.
Right now, turtles on the beaches are better protected than humans, or nearly.....
Need to be sure and engineer some little pathways through the surge barrier that can be sealed off so we don't risk a turtle.
I'm guessing that's good for, oh, 3 to 5 years of lawsuits and delays right obstacle.....
Debbie Downer?
Well, cheerleaders don't win ball games...the players do..............

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