Texas may get a coastal storm barrier, but will it be too late?

Hurricane Harvey struck Rockport in 2017, causing widespread flooding and property damage. (Brandon Formby/The Texas Tribune, Brandon Formby/The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Through hurricanes and flooding, Jerry Mohn has waited a long time for the federal government to build the kind of protective barrier that could shield Galveston’s coastline from devastating storm surges triggered by massive weather events.

In 2008, Hurricane Ike devastated the island town with head-high floodwaters and 110-mile-per-hour winds that caused billions of dollars of damage and killed dozens of people.

“Look what happened with Ike — the same thing could happen again,” said Mohn, a longtime Galveston resident and beach preservation advocate. “It devastated Galveston Island completely, the downtown flooded, all the beaches were destroyed — it was just really bad.”

Protecting Galveston isn’t the only goal of a massive series of infrastructure projects meant to limit the devastation from extreme weather. Scientists have modeled worst-case scenario storms that also make clear the potential for devastation in nearby Houston.

Given that the state’s largest city is home to millions of people and the nation’s largest petrochemical complex — and that climate change is expected to make extreme weather more severe and more frequent — the region’s vulnerability to deadly storm surges is seen as both a national security and economic issue.

Even though Hurricane Harvey made landfall much farther down the coast in 2017, its torrential rains put large swaths of Houston underwater and drove home the widespread damage a hurricane could inflict on the nation’s fourth-largest city.

“If you think about it, 42% of the specialty chemical feedstocks for the entire United States is produced here,” said Bob Mitchell, president at Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. “Twenty seven percent of the gas, 60% of the jet aviation fuel, 80% of the military-grade aviation fuel is all produced right in this region that the coastal spine will protect. Not including the 5.5 million people that live in this area.”

The recent signing of President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion dollar infrastructure plan renewed hopes that Texas would finally have federal funding for a coastal storm barrier. That new federal law is part of a piecemeal system of approvals and an appropriations process that the project would need to clear before being built. But it is not the primary funding vehicle for a coastal barrier — and little, if any, funds in the bill are likely to go toward the project.

The $29 billion needed to build it will require several stages to raise. And once funding is secured, the project could take up to 15 years of building. In that time frame, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says Houston could get hit by another major storm.

“A project like this, if the Army Corps of Engineers picks it up, will be the largest project that the Army Corps has ever started in the United States,” Houston Mayor Pro Tem David Martin told The Texas Tribune. “It fits hand in glove with what we’ve been working on for literally the past 10 years here.”

Inspired by a Dutch concept

A coastal storm barrier has been a topic of discussion — and debate — for over a decade. Bill Merrell, a marine sciences professor at the Texas A&M University at Galveston, began preaching the storm barrier gospel after Ike. He introduced a concept dubbed the Ike Dike, which mirrored a Dutch concept of stopping storm surges right at the coast. The Netherlands is a low-lying country that has become the world leader in flood control.

The Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas General Land Office eventually put forth their own, similar proposal to Congress. Called the Texas Coastal Spine Project, it requires at least $29 billion to extend the Galveston Island seawall and build two 650-foot-by-22-foot storm surge gates between the Bolivar Peninsula, Galveston Bay and the island itself.

Get the data and visuals that accompany this story →

The project includes a ring barrier encompassing Galveston Island made up of a series of floodwalls and surge gates. It would build a beach and dune system on the west end of the island and the Bolivar Peninsula and renourish existing beaches and dunes on South Padre Island. The project also includes restoration of coastal marshes, oyster bays, beaches and waterway salinity.

NOAA says that a storm surge — the abnormal rise in seawater levels during a storm — is often the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane and can extend many miles inland from coastal areas.

According to the National Weather Service, because the continental shelf east of the Texas coast is shallow, a storm surge from a tropical storm or hurricane will be much higher than one striking the steep shelf of the Atlantic coast.

Renewed discussion for storm mitigation measures comes after Texans are still reeling from the impact of 2021’s devastating winter storm and catastrophic weather events are hitting the state with increasing frequency.

For years, researchers and climate scientists have quarreled over the cost and effectiveness of both Merrell’s original plan and the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposal.

Arguing the Ike Dike doesn’t do enough to protect Houston, scientists with Rice University have advocated for alternative projects. In 2015, Rice environmental law professor Jim Blackburn developed a storm levee plan that creates new islands in the Galveston Bay from dredged materials from the Houston Ship Channel.

But the Army Corps of Engineers and Texas GLO ultimately chose to pursue and expand on Merrell’s original plan.

Despite the apparent need for storm mitigation infrastructure, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said that securing the funding for the project will be a long-term task in Congress.

“If we can provide a coastal barrier, like the one that the Army Corps of Engineers has recommended, we could avoid a lot of property damage loss and even potential loss of human life,” the Texas Republican said. “So that’s why I’m committed to the project, but it’s not as easy as I think some people think.”

“These ideas take time”

The Corps of Engineers’ proposal must first be put forth and approved by Congress before being considered for any funding from an appropriations bill.

According to members of the Texas congressional delegation, the primary funding route for the project would most likely require passage of the Water Resources and Development Act of 2022 — a biennial authorization bill to strengthen national flood mitigation efforts.

However, there are still no guarantees that WRDA will even be considered, let alone include the project.

“WRDA technically happens every two years, but there are times it doesn’t happen,” said Byron Williams, a deputy district engineer with the Corps of Engineers.

Still, Williams said funding is likely years away. Even in a best-case scenario, the appropriations wouldn’t be approved until 2023.

In 2021, Houston-area congressional members signed a letter urging funding for a coastal barrier to be included in a previous iteration of the infrastructure bill that was called the American Jobs Plan.

“It aligns with the goals of this Committee and the American Jobs Plan by taking seriously the need to protect against increasingly frequent and intense weather events,” the members wrote. “The unique conditions present on the Texas Gulf Coast also make this transformative plan a national priority.”

People discuss a map of the coastal spine at an Army Corp of Engineers meeting about the Texas Coastal Study, in Galveston on Dec. 12, 2018.

People discuss a map of the coastal spine at an Army Corp of Engineers meeting about the Texas Coastal Study in Galveston in 2018. Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Despite those efforts, the final version of the hotly debated infrastructure bill did not commit funds specifically for any state projects. It simply funds grants for which specific projects must compete. And it is unlikely that any of the $17.1 billion marked for the Corps of Engineers in the infrastructure bill will go toward the Gulf Coast proposal.

The Corps of Engineers has an approximate $109-billion backlog of projects across the country that will be competing for the funding.

U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said while the infrastructure bill that did pass may not fund the project, it may help clear the backlog for the Corps of Engineers, which could indirectly free up other funds for the coastal spine in the future.

“These ideas take time, particularly a huge project like this,” Garcia said.

Cornyn said Texans should manage their expectations regarding the many hurdles the proposal faces.

“Unfortunately, it takes a lot of time and effort and persuasion to try to get enough people on board to get something this big and this expensive passed,” he said.

But lifelong Houstonian Evan Mintz criticized Texas officials for not doing more to fast-track funding for the project, noting how the Louisiana congressional delegation successfully secured recovery dollars for existing storm mitigation projects following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“They were just kind of sitting on the shelf, some proposals that were all ready to go but never funded or half-completed,” said Mintz. “But nevertheless, you had people willing to go to the mat for it, and we haven’t really had that in Texas for this.”

A starting point

While 65% of the project’s estimated $29 billion price tag would be funded federally, the remaining 35% would be up to the state to raise.

During the 2021 legislative session, Texas state lawmakers approved a bill creating a special tax district called the Gulf Coast Protection District with the intention to help Texas secure its own portion of the funding, which is roughly $10 billion.

Mitchell, the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership president, is also the vice president of the Gulf Coast Protection District’s board.

He said that while the completed project could take up to 10 to 15 years to construct, once funding is secured, the initial stages of construction could begin in the next two to three years — beginning with a gate system in the Jefferson County area.

“We’re working with Sen. Cornyn on the WRDA bill to make sure that we get that one construction site in. And what that will enable us to do is we get this one small construction piece in, which is like in the $20 million range,” Mitchell said. “So that really is the first big step in making this happen.”

Mitchell said the next piece would likely be building the dunes, then the Galveston ring barrier and then pumping stations in the Dickinson Bayou.

Mitchell said that if the Corps or the protection district secures supplementary funding through the infrastructure bill, it could mean a faster construction process — at least for some early phases of the project.

“If we get funded under some supplemental act … or through this infrastructure bill, then it could take two years for the planning phase, and then we can actually start some type of construction on our environmental restoration features. Not the actual gate. The gate construction is going to take a little bit longer to do with all the design.”

Though members of the Texas congressional delegation and local officials are hopeful the new federal law could give their effort greater momentum, there’s still a long process ahead for Texans to see the project become a reality.

“All we can do is express our capability,” said Williams. “And we’re definitely open to receive funding as soon as possible. But we can’t make that ‘yes.’ We can’t say it’s a 70% chance or a 30% chance because we really don’t know.”

Mintz says that the Texas congressional delegation’s lack of unity on the issue is fueling a worrying delay.

“You have opportunities to come up with tricks, come up with shortcuts, and our delegation just hasn’t successfully done that,” he said. “They’re going through the normal order of things as if this were a normal project. And I don’t think it’s normal, and I think that it’s critical.”

Cornyn, who has twice supported measures that advanced studies of the project, said he wants to see it come to fruition — but is working within the realities of trying to get a major infrastructure project funded by federal lawmakers.

“I’m committed to doing everything within my power to do it. I just want to make sure that people’s expectations are reasonable based on what’s possible,” Cornyn said.

Though disappointed with that time frame, Mohn, the Galveston homeowner and advocate is optimistic that the Corps of Engineers finally has a proposal in front of Congress.

“It’s been frustrating, but, you know, we finally got it, they finally finished it, and we’re just delighted with that, but wish it would go faster than what we did,” Mohn said.

Disclosure: Rice University and Texas General Land Office have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction, Jan. 22, 2022: A previous version of this article misstated the outcome of two congressional provisions U.S. Sen. John Cornyn supported to help advance a coastal storm barrier in Texas. The measures were signed into law; they did not stall in Congress.