The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Texas General Land Office on Friday released the second draft of its massive, multibillion-dollar project to protect the Texas Gulf Coast from hurricanes and storm surge.
Plans to build a coastal storm barrier — also known as the “Ike Dike” — have been in the works since Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston in 2008. And after a close call from Hurricane Laura earlier this year, local officials renewed calls to make a storm barrier a priority.
"This hurricane season has given us pause because it’s given us too many close calls not to heed its warning," said Col. Timothy Vail with the Army Corps of Engineers at a press briefing.
The latest draft incorporates feedback from the public on the initial plan, which was released in 2018. Initial estimates put the project's cost between $23 billion and $32 billion. The latest draft pins it down at $26.2 billion. Federal funding would comprise 65% of the project cost, and the final plan has to be submitted to Congress for federal approval and funding.
The Army Corps estimates the project would reduce average annual storm damage costs by $2.28 billion — recovery costs from Hurricane Ike alone totaled $38 billion dollars.
"The plan is economically competitive for federal investment, and we are shifting into detailed discussions on how strategically implement this project going forward," said Vail.
One of the biggest changes to the revised version is that it removes plans to build a series of levees and floodwalls parallel to State Highway 87 on Bolivar Peninsula and FM 3005 on Galveston Island.
Instead, they're being replaced with 43 miles of a natural dune and beach system, which the Army Corps says will reduce environmental and social impacts. Previous criticisms of the project were that it relied too much on physical infrastructure, rather than natural solutions.
The dune system will consist of 14-foot dunes on the landward side and 12-foot dunes on the Gulf side, followed by 250 feet of beach. The Army Corps estimates this would require about 39 million cubic yards of sand for beach and dune construction on both Bolivar Peninsula and West Galveston Island.
The project's key component is a storm surge gate system across the water between Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula. The updated version of the project now calls for two 650-foot wide surge gates at the mouth of Galveston Bay, instead of the initially proposed 1,200-foot wide gate.
The Army Corps estimates that these design changes at the navigation channel would have less of an impact on restricting the flow of water between the bay and the Gulf, which was a concern raised by environmental groups — though water flow in the current plan would still be reduced by up to 10%.
The gates, which would only be closed in the event of a storm, represent the most critical part of the defense, according to the Army Corps. Because of that, the plan calls for the gates to be implemented first.
"We believe that the gate is the first element to be put in place because it's essentially the linchpin of the system; it has a broad effect across the bay and provides benefits to the entire region and not just locally," said Brian Harper, with the Army Corps of Engineers.
The third major component of the proposed project is a so-called "ring barrier system," stretching 15 miles around the backside of Galveston Island. The ring's floodwalls and gates would be 14 feet high. The plan also recommends increasing the height of an 8-mile stretch of the existing Galveston Seawall to 21-feet.
A series of public meetings about the project will be held over the next two months. The Army Corps aims to publish the final report in May 2021, after which it would be sent to Congress for approval. If approved, it's estimated to take another 12-20 years to design and construct it.
Rice University’s SSPEED Center is also moving forward with its proposal to protect the Ship Channel from 25-foot storm surge, which would complement and enhance the Army Corps’ design.