Kelly Burks-Copes, from the Army Corps of Engineers' Mega Projects Division, stands at Fort San Jacinto Point on Galveston Island, where the seawall ends and the stretch of water between Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula begins.
Boats pass through on their way to the Houston Ship Channel, and a lighthouse marks the shores of Bolivar Peninsula in the distance. Twenty years from now, this scene could look completely different.
“We’re going to have a series of gates that go across, there’s about 37 of them if I counted right," said Burks-Copes.
It's where the Army Corps plans to build a massive floodgate system, the so-called Ike Dike, that would block up to 22 feet of storm surge from coming into the bay, up the Houston Ship Channel and causing catastrophic flooding and destruction to homes, business and the petrochemical complex.
"You’re literally looking at [what will be] the Corps of Engineers’ largest civil works project ever undertaken in its entire history," she said.
The gates are the centerpiece of the Army Corps' $34 billion project to protect the Texas coast from hurricane storm surge. It cost $20 million dollars and six years to study and come up with the plan. At the end of last year, Congress took an important step forward by authorizing the project.
Even still, the project needs to get funded and key questions about how it would impact everything from ship navigation to the bay's ecosystem need to be answered before ground is broken.
"Now we can kind of start moving forward in a way we hadn’t been able to before," said Nicole Sunstrum, the Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Protection District, which is the state body tasked with securing the local funding for the project.
The hope is that the federal government will fund roughly two-thirds of the project, with the rest coming from Texas. The funding will most likely come in pieces, with the Army Corps planning to start the studies on the gates first since they will take the longest to design and build, but also offer the most protection.
At the state level, the proposed budget for the Gulf Coast Protection District this legislative session is $500 million. Even though it’s a tiny fraction of what’s needed, Sunstrum believes it will be enough on the local side to get things started.
"The speed, the scale, that is so heavily dependent on the federal funds," she said.
Sunstrum said she hopes to have an update in June when federal appropriations are underway.
"There are different avenues for potential funding at the federal level," she said.
Congressman Randy Weber has already started pursuing one of those avenues. He has requested $100 million from the House Appropriations Committee for the project in fiscal year 2024.
But once funding comes through, it will still take years for construction to start. Kelly Burks-Copes with the Corps of Engineers said there are still major studies that need to be done and the design will continue to evolve.
She said it will take seven years just to finalize the design for the gates, with further studies needed on ship navigation and environmental impacts.
The main gates will be housed on three islands that the Corps plans to build between Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula. The gates would only be closed when a storm is on the way, each stretching 650 feet across. They're so big that Burkes-Copes said it will take a year just to paint each gate.
From the main gates to the shores, there would be another series of gates, called vertical lift gates.
"They’re each a football field wide; they’re 62 feet tall. And in open position, they’ll be up here in the air," said Burks-Copes. "There's about a 10-story stanchion between each one that will hold them up in the air, and then when they’re deployed, they drop down."
The Greater Houston Port Bureau recently raised concerns that the current design of the main gates would create problems for cargo ships trying to navigate through.
"Once we get the funding, and we start the design work, we need to run ship simulations," said Burks-Copes. "As we make the changes, we will rerun the simulations over and over and over again."
Though the gates are the centerpiece of the $34 billion project, the plan also includes building a "double dune" system on 43 miles of beaches on both Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula, with 14-foot tall dunes on the landward side and 12-feet tall on the Gulf side, acting as an additional barrier against storm surge. The Corps will also add about a football field's worth of sand to the beaches, extending them into the Gulf to help protect against coastal erosion.
On top of that, the study also calls for implementing a so-called "ring barrier system," stretching 18 miles around the backside of Galveston Island, and consisting of a series of floodwalls, gates, pump stations, and levees.
Even seemingly simple details could have rippling effects on the whole ecosystem. For example, the sand chosen for the dunes could affect endangered sea turtles that lay their eggs on the beaches, according to Burks-Copes.
That's because the gender of turtles is determined by the temperature of the eggs while they're incubating.
"The problem is if you put the wrong color of sand on the beach, it will end up being all male or all female," Burks-Copes said. "And so we have to match what’s out there so that we don’t affect the population of turtles."
Mini Ike Dike 👀 pic.twitter.com/NtmdXBHlzv
— Katie Watkins (@ktwatkins) April 18, 2023
Because the project is so massive, the Army Corps is doing the environmental review process in steps rather than all upfront. Environmental groups have raised concerns about this approach.
"They’ve essentially decided which direction they’re going to go without understanding the environmental impacts," said Bob Stokes with the Galveston Bay Foundation. "It’s not ideal."
Stokes said in particular he's concerned about how the gates could impact the ecology of the bay. The current gate design would restrict the flow of water between the Gulf and the Bay by about 10% while it's open. Stokes said though that may not sound like a lot, it would impact the tidal range, which could destroy large parts of the area's intertidal marshes.
"You’re going to lose essentially, the grass at the very top of the intertidal range and the grass at the very bottom of the intertidal range," he said.
Stokes said the gates' impact on water quality and fish nurseries also needs to be studied more.
There's also the question of whether the system being designed is enough to protect the region from the storms of the future, as climate change continues to cause sea level rise and warmer Gulf waters.
"Is the structure that are designing today going to be protected against whatever increased sea level rise, we have not just 20 years from now, but 50 years from now?" Stokes said.
There’s a lot at stake as the Army Corps tries to protect billions of dollars in property and lives. Kelly Burks-Copes with the Army Corps said with a project this big, it will forever change the Texas coast.
"There’s only going to be one shot at this, we need to make sure we get it right the first time," she said.
You can view interactive maps of the project, here.