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Agencies Release Tentative Plan for Storm Barrier on The Texas Gulf Coast

The plan would include a series of levees and other physical barriers across Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula.

A decade after Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston, a plan to build a massive storm barrier system on the Texas Gulf Coast is moving forward.

Since Ike, local researchers and officials have pushed for some kind of physical infrastructure to better protect the coast – and the Houston Ship Channel in particular – against hurricanes and storm surge. Now, federal and state agencies have released their preferred path forward.

The “tentatively selected plan” calls for a network of physical barriers stretching from the west end of Galveston Island to the eastern end of neighboring Bolivar Peninsula. The project would include improvements to the existing Galveston seawall, along with the construction of new levees and/or “floodwalls” along the rest of the coastal area. The “largest feature” would be a system of surge barrier gates built in the water between Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula that would allow ships to pass through.

Details of the plan, one of a handful that have been under consideration, are outlined in a lengthy draft feasibility study and environmental analysis released Friday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas General Land Office. The plan is expected to cost between $23 and $32 billion.

A depiction of the plan for the Galveston area from the feasibility study.

“The Coastal Texas Study is about protecting our people, our economy and our national security,” Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush said in a statement. “The options selected are proven to be effective in mitigating the deadly effects of storm surge on our state.”

In addition to the physical barriers, the plan outlines ways to boost natural storm protections through beach and dune nourishment on South Padre Island and nine ecosystem restoration projects along the coast, stretching from the Houston area to South Texas.

Still, some have criticized the agencies involved for relying too heavily on physical infrastructure to better protect the coast.

The group Bayou City Waterkeeper has said the Corps’ plan, which the group had expected to focus on physical barriers, would “significantly change the nature of Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula, while continuing to leave many communities unprotected from future storms.”

The group is among a number of local environmental organizations who have called for a more nature-based approach that would focus on improving natural storm barriers, like wetlands and barrier islands, and minimize the use of physical infrastructure. They say protecting the coast should also involve stricter building regulations and requirements for industrial facilities to better protect themselves.

Scott Jones, with the Galveston Bay Foundation, worries the impacts haven’t been studied closely enough.

“You’re talking changes to everything from phytoplankton, all the way up to the bigger top predators,” he says.

The Corps says it will be looking at ways to further minimize the environmental impacts of the project.

Local researchers have for years debated the best approach to a coastal barrier. Texas A&M’s proposal emphasized a “coastal spine” approach similar to the one that’s now being pursued, while Rice University’s plan called for “multiple lines of defense” further inland from the coast.

Proponents of the barrier idea say it’s needed to protect a growing coastal population and economy, which directly impacts the national economy because of the region’s shipping and energy sectors.

Land Commissioner Bush told News 88-7 that officials hope to gather feedback from a variety of stakeholders, including residents, industry, environmental groups and others.

“Philosophically, I’m open to modifications,” he said. “This is not an overnight deal by any means.”

The feasibility study points to another reason: climate change.

The study notes that sea levels could rise by one to six feet over the next 50 years. A four foot increase in sea level, the study says, could impact almost 75% of the ports on the Gulf Coast.

A series of public meetings on the plan will be held as the Corps gathers public comments through January 9, 2019. From there, the plan could be modified before it’s sent to Congress for approval in 2021.

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Travis Bubenik

Travis Bubenik

Energy & Environment Reporter

Travis Bubenik reports on the tangled intersections of energy and the environment in Houston and across Texas. A Houston native and proud Longhorn, he returned to the Bayou City after serving as the Morning Edition Host & Reporter for Marfa Public Radio in Far West Texas. Bubenik was previously the...

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