The Texas Joint Interim Committee to Study a Coastal Barrier System held a hearing on Wednesday to hear further testimony regarding a proposal to protect the Texas Gulf Coast, particularly the Houston-Galveston region, from hurricane storm surge events.
Co-Chairs Senator Larry Taylor and Texas State Representative Joe Deshotel presided over the meeting, which opened with testimony from Larry Dunbar, project manager for Rice University's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters, or SSPEED, Center. Dunbar discussed the center's recommendations for the development of a storm surge protection system for Galveston Bay. In his testimony, he noted that the center has been working with other organizations, such as Texas A&M University at Galveston, to develop recommendations for storm surge protection.
“Although some, in the past, have view our efforts as contested and in opposition to one another, in reality our work has been coordinated and complementary,” Dunbar said. Listen (30:03)
He noted that multiple elements would be needed to provide protection for the bay, with a coastal barrier and an in-bay system.
“Both the SSPEED Center and A&M Galveston came to the conclusion that a coastal barrier by itself does not provide full protection within the bay,” he said.
Dunbar then described a system including a coastal spine, similar to the “Ike Dike”, that would provide a coastal barrier at the outer part of the bay, which would provide a “first line of defense”. An in-bay barrier and gate system would block off water in the bay from encroaching into the Houston Ship Channel.
Dunbar noted that the SSPEED Center is not advocating building the coastal barrier first or in-bay system first.
“Ideally it all gets built, and it all gets built at one time and it all gets built fast,” Dunbar said. “It all depends on funding.”
Colonel (Ret.) Len Waterworth with Texas A&M University at Galveston, and Sam Brody, Director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores provided testimony in the second panel.
In his testimony, Waterworth echoed Dunbar's statement regarding the need for a coastal barrier, stating there was “consensus” that a coastal spine should be part of a coastal surge protection plan.
“The concept is feasible, modeling has indicated that if you build the coastal spine you will reduce damages in the Galveston Bay complex 85 percent,” Waterworth said. Listen (14:19)
Waterworth noted that the concept of the coastal spine, or “Ike Dike” had been proposed in 2008 by Dr. Bill Merrell, following Hurricane Ike.
“In the midst of Ike, he had an apartment on The Strand, and it was November 2008 we sat down with Jim Guidry of Guidry News, and he proposed the concept of the Ike Dike,” Waterworth said. “That's an important date.”
He also discussed the costs of hurricanes, stating that Hurricane Katrina resulted in $90 billion in damages for New Orleans, and that Hurricane Ike caused approximately $30 billion for the Houston-Galveston region. He also noted the area's economic importance.
“This is an economic center of gravity, not only for Texas, but for the nation,” Waterworth said.
He then noted the United States Army Corps of Engineers study for the entire Texas coastline.
“By the Corps' schedule, the study will be totally complete somewhere in 2021,” he said. “That's if funding is provided by Congress each year.”
Waterworth said he believed that the Corps will recommend the coastal spine, and said the project has “momentum”. However, he favored moving forward.
“I don't believe we should wait around and have a direct hit on our region, and then have some form of engineering knee-jerk reaction on a project on the Texas coastline,” he said, recommending moving forward on engineering for a Texas preferred project.
He also said that Merrell suggested moving forward with a project in which the environment was the leading factor.
Taylor noted the normal Corps of Engineers process to complete a project, which he said was time consuming. He then asked Waterworth if the Corps had built a project as large as the one proposed.
“Never,” Waterworth said. “The normal Corps process requires annual appropriations, going to Congress every year asking for money for studies, construction, operations and maintenance, and it becomes very difficult.”
He clarified that the Corps was a great organization.
“They can make virtually anything happen,” he said. “I believe the Corps of Engineers needs to build this, but they need to get away from their normal process.”
Taylor agreed, and stated that the project should be federally funded.
“It has national importance to our national economy, to national security,” Taylor said.
Brody repeated that the coastal spine should be “the first line of defense” for Galveston Bay. He also discussed additional studies he would like to see conducted, including short-term costs, and environmental issues. He said the environmental concerns would be “baked in” from the beginning of the design. He also said that the state needs to support an entity to study the issue of flood risk reduction in the long term.
“Whatever proposal that the state decides to endorse or support, it's a long term proposition,” Brody said. Listen (12:58)
United States Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District Commander Colonel Lars Zetterstrom spoke during the third panel.
Zetterstrom discussed the Corps' study of the Texas coastline, which he did state is anticipated to be completed in 2021. He discussed positive and negative aspects to conducting the normal process versus receiving direct appropriations to move forward with a project such as the locally studied coastal barrier projects.
“Direct appropriations should be faster, and this is a large-scale project, but it's going to limit on one alternative, and there's going to be certain things done after the fact,” he said, noting that environmental impact considerations and real estate acquisition could impact the timeline. Listen (35:30)
The fourth panel included Colonel (Ret.) Chris Sallese, who is the project manager for the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, who discussed the GCCPRD's study for the district's region, which includes Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties.
The district also selected a coastal spine alternative for protecting the region, with the spine beginning at High Island, with gates. Sallese noted that the district did study the width of new, larger ships being built in response to the widening of the Panama Canal, responding to concerns of gates being able to accommodate ships coming into the bay. The wall would tie into the existing Galveston Seawall, and the study recommends the Seawall be raised.
He noted that the system would keep the San Luis Pass open.
“There were some environmental concerns with closing that pass,” Sallese said. Listen (56:09)
Taylor noted that multiple plans have come forward, and that there was a need for a single plan.
“We need to have a plan,” Taylor said. “And even now, we're still kind of splintering off with the mid-bay, and we haven't coalesced around a plan.”
Taylor said it was “a little frustrating” regarding studies and progress on a possible project.
“Right now we're our biggest detriment to getting this done,” Taylor said, noting that no formal requests have been made to Congress, as a single plan has not come forward.
Dr. Ken Wisian Senior Director of Coastal Protection with the Texas General Land Office, discussed the state's involvement, which is working on a master plan for the coast.
“The goal of the master planning that we're doing is to roll all of these previous studies that have been talked about into a comprehensive long-term framework and strategy for the economic and ecologic protection of the coast,” Wisian said. Listen (14:25)
The final panel included representatives from area industry and other associations, with Texas Chemical Council President & CEO Hector Rivero, East Harris County Manufacturers Association Executive Director Craig Beskid, Director of Advocacy for the Galveston Bay Foundation Scott Jones, Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership President Bob Mitchell and AECOM Senior Vice President and Program Director Christopher Toomey. Listen (1 hour)
“The need for comprehensive surge protection is as dire as ever,” Mitchell said in his testimony, noting the issuance of states of emergency for various states due to the approach of Hurricane Matthew.
Mitchell noted a lack of action since Hurricane Ike, and compared it to federal action following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which he said received $17 billion in storm surge protection project funding.
“That is a community whose gross domestic product and population is less than one-sixteenth of that of Houston,” Mitchell said.
He noted that storm surge efforts for the Houston area are trying to protect 6 million people and 17 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
“We're used to tackling our own problems here in Texas, but Washington, D.C.'s utter disregard for Texas' vulnerabilities has been downright pitiful at best, and grossly negligent at worst,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell concluded noting the support for the coastal spine concept, and urged progress towards building a project.
“A ticking time bomb is waiting to go off in Texas, but it doesn't have to be that way,” Mitchell told the committee. “We need your help to get the coastal protection plan finalized.”