- Texas does everything big, and this applies to climate change adaptation as well. The state, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has proposed a $31 billion coastal barrier — the country’s largest civil engineering project ever — to protect Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast from storms and sea level rise.
- The matter is being taken up by the U.S. Congress, where the House of Representatives on June 8 approved a bill that would allow the federal government to begin planning the project, which still needs Senate approval. The biggest portion of the project is a hulking $16 billion concrete gate system dubbed the “Ike Dike,” designed to stem hurricane surge into Galveston Bay. Other components include levees, pumps and ecosystem restoration.
- The Texas coast is both hurricane-prone and uniquely vulnerable. About 522 million tons of cargo go through the Port of Houston (pictured above) each year, per the Army Corps’ Coastal Texas Study, and it houses the country’s highest concentration of oil and gas facilities.
Plans for the project started after Hurricane Ike swept through the area in 2008, killing 68 people and causing $37.6 billion in damage. Hurricane Harvey upstaged Ike in death toll and cost nine years later. Yet Ike easily could have been more devastating if it had caused major petrochemical leaks, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Still, critics question the effectiveness, price and environmental impact of the project, which would permanently alter hundreds of miles of coastline. The plan entails natural beach and dune restoration, pumps, levees, a taller seawall and other barriers as well as the massive gates in Galveston Bay.
The Army Corps has already spent six years and over $20 million to draft the multi-pronged plan of defense against hurricanes, flooding and erosion. The sea level along the Texas coast could rise another two feet by 2050, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and extreme weather is also projected to increase.
The Bolivar Roads Gate system between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula consists of a series of gates of varying sizes. Two gates — 650 feet long and 82 feet tall — will stand at the mouth of Galveston Bay, ready to drop when a storm approaches and close off the channel to ocean surges from the Gulf of Mexico. Otherwise, vessels will move through them, according to the Army Corps press release.
Fifteen smaller leaf-shaped gates would be stored on islands in the channel, ready to be floated into place to provide additional storm protection. A shallow gate attached to the Bolivar Peninsula side would allow marine animals to safely move in and out of the bay. Together, the gates are expected to reduce storm surge by 30% to 60%. The Army Corps estimates they will take 18 years to build.
Not everyone is excited about the plan.
Local environmental groups are worried the Ike Dike will threaten surrounding ecosystems. In an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, Galveston Bay Foundation President Bob Stokes and then-executive director of the environmental nonprofit Bayou City Waterkeeper Jordan Macha also raised concerns about the project’s expense and its unsecured funding, and called for more immediate plans to help stop climate change.
“Rather than waiting a decade or more for an expensive, ‘silver bullet’ solution, there are actions we can take immediately,” the authors said in the op-ed, and advised states to invest in “ecosystem restoration and non-structural projects.”
What’s next for the Ike Dike?
The Coastal Texas Study is included in the Senate and House versions of the Water Resources Development Act, which contains various federal initiatives that require congressional approval. The bill would invest in 36 Army Corps studies and authorize construction of the Ike Dike and 20 other projects.
When asked for comment about the Ike Dike, a representative from the Army Corps said in an email that the agency is “taking a pause on media interviews for this Coastal Texas Study while we wait for the congressional approval and authorization process to take place,” and referred Construction Dive to its website.
Funding for the project would likely be split 65% from the federal government and 35% from a non-federal sponsor, according to the feasibility study. That means the state could be on the hook for at least $10 billion, a number that could rise with inflation and increasing building costs over the projected two-decade construction timeline.
Details around who would lead construction and what that would entail are in flux, as the plan must still pass a full floor vote in Congress. If it does pass, the project must compete with other initiatives for funds, and the Army Corps already has more than $100 billion in backlog. The agency must submit a separate request, likely in the form of multiple appropriation packages, to secure the needed money.