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Galveston Bay

Will we ever get an Ike Dike?

We will when it gets funded. When might it get funded? Ummm…

If the Houston-Galveston region continues to boom for the next 60 years and sea level rises as scientists predict, a direct hit to Galveston from a massive hurricane could destroy an estimated $31.8 billion worth of homes, a new study says.

But Texas A&M researchers found that if the government builds a 17-foot barrier about 60 miles long from Galveston Island to Bolivar Peninsula, the potential residential destruction from a storm surge would drop to about $6 billion – a reduction of more than 80 percent.

The only problem: So far, Texas can’t get congressional funding to build the coastal barrier, a proposal that has been floated since Hurricane Ike threatened to make a run for Galveston in 2008.

“The numbers make sense,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican who has tried for years to get federal funding for a coastal barrier, estimated to cost up to $12 billion. “This investment is going to pay for itself time and time again.”

The cost-benefit numbers could change with additional data: The A&M study only looked at damages to homes and apartments from a storm surge – not flooding caused by rainfall – and excludes the potential harm to the region’s commercial buildings and its bustling ports.

[…]

U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, a Friendswood Republican, said some Republican lawmakers have pushed back against funding infrastructure as part of disaster relief, warning it sets a bad precedent.

Weber said he hopes to get the coastal barrier included in an infrastructure package if efforts to include it in disaster relief ultimately fail.

“This is foolish for us to just keep paying for these disasters over and over and over again,” Weber said. “How about something to prevent this from happening on the next go around?”

That story was from January, before the budget agreement that included disaster relief, but still no Ike Dike. I should note that the state has been officially asking for Ike Dike money since April, well before Harvey. But you know, there was Obamacare to repeal and tax cuts for millionaires to push and collusion investigations to obstruct. The Republicans have just had their hands full, you know? I’m sure they’ll get to it eventually. Hurricane season doesn’t begin for another four months, right? So there’s no rush.

The dolphins in the bay

Dolphins in Galveston Bay are having health issues.

Kristi Fazioli first spotted the pair of dolphins swimming behind a shrimp trawler near Morgan’s Point, eager to get a mouthful of breakfast.

They appeared healthy as they popped in and out of the choppy waters typical for a November day on Galveston Bay. But a second glance showed the truth: Their skin was mottled and blotchy, covered in a patchwork of white lesions that stood in stark contrast to the gray coloring characteristic of bottlenose dolphins.

Where some might have winced at the dolphins’ sickly appearance, Fazioli, a research associate at the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Environmental Institute of Houston, calmly snapped photos of the lesions, documenting the time, date and place of the sighting.

This is the post-Hurricane Harvey reality for the popular bay dolphins, known to swim alongside boats and ferries throughout Galveston Bay. Nearly three months after the storm’s destruction, the more than 500 dolphins she’s documented in Upper Galveston Bay still are struggling to recover.

After the storm, some dolphins turned up with excessive skin lesions. Others were skinny and malnourished. Still others vacated the bay and have not returned for the season.

These changes in dolphin health and behavior have been observed in other areas after hurricanes, but Fazioli said little is known about the short- and long-term impacts of such an event.

Excess amounts of freshwater, and higher levels of pollution, are considered possible causes. Both resulted from the rain and runoff in Hurricane Harvey. Researchers are trying to get a better handle on it now, and they should have a lot of data to work with. I wish them the best.

Harvey and the oysters

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Oyster lovers will shell out more for the marine delicacy this fall, as freshwater runoff from Hurricane Harvey’s historic floods killed virtually all of the bivalves in the prolific seabeds of Galveston Bay.

The storm was the latest setback to a multimillion-dollar commercial fishing and seafood-processing industry that appeared poised to finally rebound from floods, including two devastating tropical weather systems, and an extended drought in less than a decade. Shrimpers, crabbers and other fishermen who work the bay also will feel an impact.

But it’s most lethal in the case of the oysters, as Harvey-spawned rains and rainwater runoff drove down the bay’s salinity to fatal levels. Salinity levels of 12 to 30 parts per thousand are ideal for a healthy oyster harvest in Galveston Bay, which researchers say is the nation’s most bountiful. Yet preliminary tests performed by commercial fishers on Tuesday revealed salinity levels at 0 to 5 parts per thousand – and excessive water continues to drain into the bay.

Industry leaders fear no more than 10 percent of oysters in the bay prior to the storm have survived. It’s possible, they said, that the entire crop is lost.

“That much freshwater in the bay has taken its toll on us,” said Mark Lewis, sales representative for wholesaler, Jeri’s Seafood. “There’s nothing in Texas to buy.”

From Hurricane Ike to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the drought to the other big floods of the last two years and finally Harvey, it’s been an extremely rough time for the oyster population and the industry it sustains. Things aren’t much better in Louisiana right now, either. Maybe we should work a little harder at being good stewards of the environment? Just a thought.

Texas asks for Ike Dike money from the feds

Good luck with that.

Almost a decade after Hurricane Ike killed dozens of people and caused $30 billion in damage, a group of Texas politicians and business leaders say they finally have “all the support necessary” to break ground on a massive coastal barrier that would protect the Houston area from another devastating hurricane.

Now they just need $15 billion to build it. And that’s what they urged the federal government to provide in a recent letter to President Donald Trump.

Signers of the letter include Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, more than 20 area mayors, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and several Houston-area members of the Texas Legislature.

[…]

Even for a president that has pledged to restore the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, the barrier will be a tough sell. Such an ambitious public works project has never been built in anticipation of a natural catastrophe. It took the Great Storm of 1900, which killed thousands of people in Galveston, to get a seawall constructed on the island; New Orleans’ failing levee system was not fixed until after Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people in 2005; and only after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York did Congress allocate a significant amount of money to pay for storm protection studies.

The massive projects that do get funding also usually require years of planning and federal studies. In December, then-President Barack Obama signed a law that might help speed up that process for the Ike Dike, but there is still no official consensus plan on exactly what to build. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will have the final say on what plan to pursue and is conducting its own study of the issue, has estimated that construction on any such system for Texas couldn’t begin until 2024 at the earliest.

And it might take far more than $15 billion to get the coastal spine up and running. Some have estimated it will actually cost twice that to build it, not including the money necessary for continued maintenance and operation of the barrier system.

We know what Trump’s promises are worth, so take that “pledge” with an appropriate amount of sea salt. That said, there’s no real precedent for this as noted in the story, and it’s not like the Republican Congress is inclined to spend money on anything but the Pentagon and tax cuts for the rich. So yeah, go ahead and ask – it costs nothing to ask – but don’t get your hopes up. The Chron has more.

What is the environmental impact of building an Ike Dike?

Maybe we should try to figure that out.

Plans for building a massive storm-surge protection system for the Houston area are rushing ahead before officials determine whether the project could harm Galveston Bay, environmental groups say.

The Sierra Club and the Galveston Bay Foundation, the environmental groups most closely watching the planning process, worry that there’s been too much focus on how to build the so-called Ike Dike and not enough on its impact on the bay.

“The Ike Dike has gained traction and local government support,” said Scott Jones, spokesman for the Galveston Bay Foundation. “We understand that, but we don’t think the environmental questions have been answered.”

Brandt Mannchen, spokesman for the Sierra Club’s Houston Regional Group, agreed. “We really need to look at the environmental impacts and, from our standpoint, should have looked at them first. We are kind of doing this backward.”

[…]

The groups are concerned that political momentum for the existing proposal may be so strong by then that the study results will have little influence.

“Maybe the Ike Dike is the best thing since Wonder Bread, but right now we don’t know because we haven’t looked at it,” Mannchen said.

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. I guess we need someone to create some models of the various proposals, to simulate what the effects of building them are, as well as the effect of having them or not having them in place when a big storm hits. It may be that even with some negative effects from the construction, the mitigation in the event of nightmare hurricane is more than enough to make it worthwhile. Or not. Who knows? It sure would be nice if we did.

Galveston wants a bag ban

Good luck.

Reacting to a groundswell of concern about the effect of plastic bags on the environment, Galveston is on the forefront of a statewide controversy over cities’ ability to ban plastic bags that are killing turtles, birds and fouling beaches.

A proposed ordinance with unanimous City Council support and strong community backing faces fierce opposition from outside forces, including conservative think tanks and plastic bag manufacturers who have already sent threatening letters.

[…]

Not all businesses support the ban, but it has the backing of the influential Galveston Hotel and Lodging Association. “As business operators we typically don’t like this type of business regulation,” said Steve Cunningham, association president and manager of the Hotel Galvez. “But being on the Gulf, this one is necessary because of the damage to the wildlife and the environment.”

City Attorney Don Glywasky drafted the Galveston ordinance to avoid the legal pitfalls encountered by cities such as Laredo. The Laredo bag ban was challenged under the 1993 Solid Waste Disposal law that bars local governments from adopting regulations to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

Glywasky believes Galveston is unique. “I don’t really see that this is a solid waste management issue,” he said. “If we can cut down on some of the plastic bags that go into the marine environment, that is not something for the purpose of solid waste, it is for the protection of the marine environment on which we depend.”

That argument drew no sympathy from an influential conservative organization, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. James Quintero, director of the foundation’s Center for Local Governance and Think Local Liberty, said Galveston’s proposed ordinance conflicts with state law.

“Our position would be that Galveston’s ordinance, no matter what the stated reason would be, is still prohibiting containers,” said Bryan Mathew, policy analyst for Texas Public Policy Foundation. “In our view, a lot of local governments have been attempting to regulate out of bounds by hiding under the term of local control.”

Mathew called anything that smacks of what Gov. Greg Abbott lamented were attempts to make Texas more like California “out of bounds.”

“Texas is being California-ized and you may not even be noticing it,” Abbott said last year during remarks at a Public Policy Foundation gathering, where he warned of “a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

That erosion would include anything that hinders “people from being able to sell and buy with minimal government regulation and a low tax burden,” Mathew said.

Mathew saw no contradiction with the traditional conservative support for local control, arguing that local control refers to legislatures, not local governments.

“Utter hogwash,” said Zach Trahan, spokesman for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “They made it up this last year to justify their abandonment of local control.”

Yeah, let’s be clear that the “conservative” principle at work here is “because we said so”. Local control is great up to the point where localities do things that displeases authoritarians like Greg Abbott and the TPPF, thus requiring they be brought to heel. I think Galveston has perfectly good reasons for wanting to regulate plastic bags, but the court ruling against Laredo’s bag ordinance does not bode well for its future.

Two Ike Dike updates

Ike Dike could be hidden by dunes:

The “Ike Dike” that is being proposed to protect the Galveston-Houston area from a potentially catastrophic hurricane storm surge could take the form of undulating sand dunes hiding a steel or concrete core.

The proposal to craft a storm barrier that would blend in with the environment and potentially strengthen beaches against erosion is one of three proposals for where and how to build a surge barrier, an idea that has gained considerable political momentum and is likely to be the subject of some form of action when the Legislature convenes next year.

The six-county Gulf Coast Protection and Recovery District, known as the storm surge district, has looked at placing the surge barrier landward of the highways that run along the coast on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula. Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (or SSPEED) has recommended raising the highways as the most economical way to build a surge barrier and still ensure an evacuation route as storm water rises. Several people died during Hurricane Ike in 2008 as rising tides isolated them on the highway.

Placing the surge barrier on the beach, as has been done successfully in the Netherlands, is a proposal being pushed by the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University at Galveston. Engineering the storm barrier to be part of the natural landscape would create habitat for plants and animals and protect homes between the beach and the highway that otherwise would be left to the mercy of the storm, said Sam Brody, who teaches marine science at the center.

Brody conceded that it will be more expensive to build the barrier along the beach and will increase the estimated $5.8 billion cost. “The added cost of restoring and enhancing the environment is worth it over the long term,” Brody said.

The idea is getting no resistance from the SSPEED Center and the storm surge district. “We don’t have a strong position one way or the other,” SSPEED Center Co-director Jim Blackburn said. Chris Sallese, program manager for the storm surge district, said his agency looked at building the barrier landward of the highway because SSPEED and Texas A&M were looking at the other alternatives and the district wanted to make sure all possibilities were examined.

Coastal barrier plan ‘Ike Dike’ draws support, needs funding:

If there is a lesson from the devastation of Hurricane Ike eight years ago, it is that the Houston-Galveston region is extremely vulnerable to a catastrophic storm surge, and the next hurricane could send the regional economy into a deep tailspin.

But plans to protect the region from such a storm surge have lagged as officials and experts argued about whether to build a major coastal barrier called the “Ike Dike” or a series of smaller projects that could be completed more quickly.

Now, there is strong support for building the $11.6 billion Ike Dike plan, designed to keep a massive storm surge from rushing into developed areas. A six-county storm surge district recently recommended a plan that calls for 277 miles of coastal barriers, including raised seawalls, levees and surge gates.

[…]

Planners have completed studies showing that the Ike Dike could prevent $38 billion in losses and save 151,000 jobs over a 50-year lifespan.

Unlike earlier proposals, the plan now backed by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, also known as the storm surge district, recommends raising the Galveston seawall by 4 feet, building a levee on the bay side of Galveston and a gate at Clear Lake. A proposed gate at San Luis Pass on the west end of Galveston Island was eliminated.

Differences remain over how to block a storm surge inside Galveston Bay and how close to the beach to build the surge barrier. Some also worry about the environmental effect of a proposed surge gate between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

Larry Dunbar, project manager for Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center, told legislators that it was better to move ahead with smaller projects, such as the center’s proposal for a gate inside Galveston Bay, that could be financed locally.

“Are we going to sit back and wait for the federal government to give us the $10 billion we need?” Dunbar asked. “We believe … it can be built in pieces if necessary.”

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. I don’t have a point to make, I just wanted to note this stuff before it got completely lost in the 2016 election hole. Actually, I will say that if Sen. John Cornyn wanted to propose some kind of funding mechanism for this, I’d bet President Hillary Clinton would be amenable to working with him on it. Just a thought.

Turner endorses Ike Dike

Interesting.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has endorsed the “Ike Dike” storm surge protection proposal, raising the possibility that Houston could be one of the last cities in the Galveston Bay area to endorse the $6 billion project.

If the Houston City Council passes a resolution endorsing the Ike Dike concept, the Bayou City would become the 27th municipality in the region to back the plan aimed at protecting Harris, Galveston and Chambers counties.

A Houston City Council resolution supporting the plan would give important political momentum to the Ike Dike concept, which would need federal money to be undertaken.

“I look forward to advancing this effort with my colleagues on the Houston City Council,” Turner wrote in his Aug. 5 letter to state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, and state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Port Arthur, the co-chairman of the Texas Joint Interim Committee to Study a Coastal Barrier System.

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. There have been two main hangups to getting something done for hurricane mitigation – agreeing on a single plan, and funding it. Mayor Turner’s endorsement of the Ike Dike consolidates support for that particular idea, and consolidating political support behind one plan makes it more likely that Congress will eventually be persuaded to cough up some money to pay for it. Getting the Lege behind that plan, which is what the Mayor’s letter alludes to, would help with that as well. Another thing to keep an eye on next spring.

Cornyn files bill to speed up floodgate construction process

Credit where credit is due.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed legislation Wednesday that he says would expedite the long process of constructing a hurricane protection system for the Texas coast, including the particularly vulnerable Houston region.

But while local officials cheered the high-profile support, it’s unclear how much the measure would actually speed anything up.

Most agree on the need to build a project known as the “coastal spine” — a massive floodgate and barrier system — to protect the Houston region from a devastating hurricane that could kill thousands and cripple the national economy. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that construction on any such system for Texas couldn’t begin until 2024 at the earliest.

Cornyn’s bill is intended to hurry things along by requiring the Corps to take local studies into account and by eliminating the need for Congress to authorize construction of whatever project the Corps recommends.

The Corps has already said it would consider locally done studies, however. And while getting rid of the need for Congressional authorization could shave off a small amount of time, the real hurdle will be getting Congress to help fund what is sure to be a multi-billion-dollar project.

“The devil’s in the details, right?” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. “But I will tell you that for the senator to step up and start this process is very positive, and it can’t do anything but help … the positive is Senator Cornyn has done something, and we’ve got to build on it.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Shortly thereafter, Cornyn’s bill had a House companion.

Two days after U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed legislation seeking to expedite a hurricane protection plan for Texas, U.S. Rep. Randy Weber said he expects to introduce a companion bill in the U.S. House in the coming weeks.

The two Republicans hope their efforts will speed up the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ long process of studying, approving and building a hurricane protection system for the Texas coast. (The Army Corps has estimated that under a normal timeline, construction on such a system could not start until 2024 at the earliest.)

“We’re heightening awareness, we’re trying to get this ratcheted up as quickly as we can, so that when appropriations do come into play, we can say, ‘OK, here’s the project we’ve been talking about, here’s why it’s important, and we’re just one step closer to getting funding for it,'” Weber said Friday in a phone interview.

As you know, I have zero faith that Congress will pay for any of this. I think Cornyn will have a hard enough time just getting his bill to a vote in the Senate, and I have less faith that Weber can do the same in the dismal catastrophe that is the Republican-controlled House. Nonetheless, someone still has to file a bill like this, so kudos to Sen. Cornyn and Rep. Weber for taking the first step. They has their work cut out for them from here, and they are both a part of the reason why it’s basically impossible to get stuff like this done nowadays, but they did file their bills, so good on them for that. The Press has more.

Don’t expect Congress to pay for a Gulf Coast floodgate system

I sure don’t.

After nearly a decade of bickering and finger pointing, Texas scientists and lawmakers finally seem to agree that building some version of a “coastal spine” — a massive seawall and floodgate system — would best help protect the Houston region from a devastating hurricane.

But with a price tag sure to reach into the billions, the spine will almost certainly require a massive infusion of federal money, state officials agree. Whether Texas’ congressional delegation has the political backbone to deliver the cash remains to be seen.

While state officials say the project enjoys the full support of Texans in Congress, almost every member has been silent on the issue, including those who hold the most sway.

“Everything depends on how long it takes us to get Congress,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, a local economic development organization. “We could have a hurricane in three months.”

In March, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica published an extensive look at what Houston’s perfect storm would look like. Scientists, experts, and public officials say that such a hurricane would kill thousands and cripple the national economy.

Building some sort of coastal barrier system around Galveston and Houston would rank as one of the nation’s most ambitious public works projects and would be unlikely to succeed without champions in Washington. State leaders and Houston-area congressmen cited U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Kevin Brady of Houston as those most likely to fill the role of standard bearer.

Cornyn and Brady, both Republicans, declined repeated interview requests about the coastal project over a period of months. The state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, is busy running for president, and his staff has said he is waiting results of further studies. Of the 36 members representing Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives, only five agreed to interviews on the subject.

At the state level, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who has made coastal protection one of his top priorities, said he hopes for support from Brady, who chairs one of the most powerful committees in the U.S. House. He also mentioned Cornyn.

Congressman Randy Weber, a Republican from Friendswood, said he is already pushing the issue, but added that a senator’s support will be critical.

“John Cornyn, of course, a senior senator, majority whip over on the Senate side, would be a great one to champion the cause,” he said.

[…]

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also just started studying the issue, and Cornyn’s office emphasized that he signed a letter last October in support of that effort. But the study will take at least five years.

In another letter sent last November, 32 members of the House delegation urged the Army Corps to speed up the process even though it is at the mercy of funding from Congress.

Meanwhile, the next hurricane season is just two months away.

“Don’t just write a letter and think that you’re done with it,” said Michel Bechtel, the mayor of Morgan’s Point, an industrial town on the Houston Ship Channel that was nearly wiped out during Hurricane Ike in 2008. “Let’s get some dollars flowing down here and let’s build it.”

Republican Congressman Pete Olson said the Corps is taking too long and should have started its efforts earlier. But for years it didn’t have the money to study hurricane protection for the Houston region. The agency was able to start last fall only because the Texas General Land Office agreed to pay for half the $20 million study at the insistence of Bush.

Congress is supposed to provide the rest, but the Army Corps will have to ask for it every year until the study is complete.

Asked if he thinks Congress will commit to the $10 million, Olson said the Corps had never given him that dollar figure. “They told you that, but not me that,” he said.

[…]

Weber said he thinks the federal government should help pay for a hurricane protection barrier, but he wouldn’t comment on whether his colleagues in Congress agree with him.

“I don’t know, well, maybe,” he said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I say the odds of Congress agreeing to pony up some $10 billion or so for a coastal floodgate system are pretty damn low. I cannot imagine Randy Weber’s nihilistic teabagger caucus members going along with it. Hell, I’d bet money right now that the Texas Republican Congressional caucus is not all on board with the idea, and I’ll even exclude Ted Cruz from consideration. Look at the recent track record of Congressional Republicans not wanting to appropriate funds to places that had been hit by actual disasters (two words: Superstorm Sandy) and ask yourself why they would vote to spend money on a disaster that hasn’t happened and may never do so in their lifetime. All spending is political now, and the death of earmarks makes dealmaking a lot harder. The fact that there isn’t unanimity about the best kind of flood mitigation system doesn’t help, either. Maybe someday, in a different political climate, but not now. Don’t be surprised if you see another article like this being written a couple of years from now.

Not everyone likes the latest hurricane surge protection plan

Yet another obstacle.

A new proposal to protect the Houston area from hurricanes is reigniting controversy, and potentially diminishing the odds that a consensus will emerge anytime soon on the best plan to safeguard the nation’s fifth-largest metropolitan area.

Since Hurricane Ike in 2008, Texas scientists have pushed several different plans to shield the region, home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, from devastating storm surge.

Some accord emerged in recent years around a $6 billion-to-$8 billion Dutch-inspired concept called the “coastal spine,” creating some hope that state and federal lawmakers may have a single proposal to champion before the next big hurricane hits. The concept — an expanded version of another, dubbed the “Ike Dike” — is designed to impede storm surge right at the coast with a 60-mile seawall along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula. A massive floodgate between the two landmasses would be closed ahead of a storm. Several dozen communities have endorsed the coastal spine — conceived at Texas A&M University at Galveston — along with some state lawmakers, the Texas Municipal League and at least one major industry group.

But a six-county coalition studying how best to proceed now says a 56-mile, mostly mainland levee system — several components of which have been proposed before by other entities — would provide a nearly equivalent level of protection while costing several billion dollars less. The catch: several Houston-area communities on the west side of Galveston Bay, including Kemah, La Porte, Seabrook, Morgan’s Point and San Leon, would be left outside the dike.

And officials from those communities say that is unacceptable.

“Just the fact that it’s mentioned — I take it as a serious threat,” Seabrook Mayor Glenn Royal said.

The $3.5 billion proposal by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, unveiled in a report last week, calls for expanding and extending an existing levee around Texas City northward along State Highway 146 and westward to the community of Santa Fe. The recovery district’s plan also calls for placing a “ring” levee around the entire city of Galveston to protect it from storm surge. (During hurricanes, the island gets hit by surge once from the front and a second time from the back when surge that reaches the mainland recedes.)

The part of the proposed levee closest to Texas City — home to three major refineries — sits right on Galveston Bay, but most of it is set back from the water, meaning the communities between it and the bay are left unprotected.

See here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. I’m not sufficiently informed to have an opinion about what the best option is, I’m just trying to stay on top of what’s out there.

Storm protection is expensive

But then so would be getting hit by a truly bad storm.

Building a storm surge protection system along the Texas Gulf Coast could cost between $7.9 billion and $11 billion, and likely would not be completed for about two decades, according to a new study.

The report by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, which includes six counties along the upper Texas coast, comes after years of urging by academics to take action to prevent a massive storm surge like the one spawned by Hurricane Ike.

The study analyzed the costs and benefits of a range of major infrastructure projects – from systems of levees to a giant gate in the Houston Ship Channel.

Robert Eckels, the district president, said even with the highest cost estimate of $11 billion, paying for surge protection is still far cheaper than the aftermath of Ike, which caused more than $30 billion in damage when it hit in 2008.

“Just the damage from Ike is more than double even what the most expensive alternatives are,” Eckels said.

But the study is likely to reignite a debate over how to best balance protecting the coast with the potential harm to the environment posed by artificial barriers.

[…]

The most expensive proposal, with a construction cost of $5.8 billion, involves building a 55-mile storm surge protection system that includes a massive navigation gate across the Houston Ship Channel. The alternative, at $3.5 billion, involves a series of separate systems that would not provide direct protection to the upper reaches of the ship channel.

We’ve been talking about this for years now, and while there’s no consensus on what the best course of remediation is, there’s definitely a consensus that a worst-case storm is a real if small possibility, and its effects would be devastating. Take a look at the Hell and High Water interactive slideshow put together by the Trib and ProPublica if you want to freak out a little. Of course, the first problem that has to be solved for this is how to pay for whatever we decide to do. I personally think that a combination of federal and state funds should be the source, but we can quibble over who pays how much for what. But first, we need to agree to Do Something. The rest can work itself out once we take that step. Swamplot has more.

A better year for seaweed

Good news for Galveston beachgoers.

In a lucky break for Galveston beachgoers and the Gulf Coast’s tourism industry, the masses of seaweed that plagued the area last summer seem to be turning toward the Caribbean and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

The mats of Sargassum, now carefully tracked by a NASA app unveiled Thursday, drift in from the Atlantic on Gulf currents. At a crossroads near the Yucatan Peninsula, the seaweed either turns toward the Texas Coast or is swept back to the Atlantic Ocean, Robert Webster, a marine science researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston, said at the 2015 Gulf Coast Sargassum Symposium.

“Most of the Sargassum has made that right turn,” Webster said. “They are getting killed in the Yucatan.”

Last year the seaweed took the Texas route, landing in volumes believed to be the largest inundation in history, possibly because massive flooding from Venezuela’s Orinoco River swept so many nutrients from floodwaters into the Gulf that it caused the Sargassum to flourish. The Orinoco is one of South America’s largest rivers and its mouth, although flowing into the Atlantic, is close to the Caribbean.

[…]

Although it may have its good attributes, cities want to get as much warning as possible to prepare for Sargassum landings. A new app developed by NASA, also unveiled at the symposium, uses satellites to spot seaweed and predict where and when it will land. Anybody who wants to know how much seaweed is on its way to Galveston beaches and when it will arrive can go to sargassum.tamug.edu to see orange dots representing seaweed floating across a satellite map of the Gulf of Mexico.

The automated system will replace a manual system, called the Sargassum Early Advisory System, developed by Texas A&M University at Galveston and maintained by students, said Duane Armstrong, chief of the applied science and technology products office at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center.

The original SEAS website is here. It points to a new website here, which is where I found that embedded image. The sargassum.tamug.edu didn’t have anything on it but a license agreement when I looked at it, but it may not be fully ready yet. In any event, I just thought this was cool.

Reusing wastewater

Get used to it.

Reclaimed wastewater soon will irrigate the trim lawns and wooded parks of some Houston suburbs. Instead of being dumped into the bayous, some of it might even undergo more extensive treatment in order to flow from kitchen taps.

Economics is starting to trump the yuck factor of reusing water flushed down toilets and drained from sinks.

“It’s becoming more real than theoretical,” said Mark Latham, who oversees Houston’s two “reuse” agreements with golf courses and the growing number of queries to contract for city wastewater.

As suburban water providers aim to meet state benchmarks for reducing reliance on groundwater, they have cringed at undertaking costly expansions to draw more water from Lake Houston via the city system. With the 2011 drought still fresh in the minds of many, treating wastewater for landscaping has advanced beyond mere discussion in many Houston suburbs. Unlike other water sources, the availability of wastewater grows with the population.

“We’ve had clients look at reuse for a long time,” said David Oliver, a public law attorney who works with several utility districts. “As the price of water has gone up, people are realizing the economics of the projects that may have been unreasonable 10 or 20 years ago now are feasible from a cost standpoint.”

[…]

Most water in the Houston area is pumped from underground aquifers or piped in from Lake Houston to treatment plants before flowing out of home faucets and sprinkler systems. After toilets are flushed, wastewater is sent to plants where it is minimally treated before being dumped into bayous along with rainwater, much of which eventually flows into Galveston Bay. Similarly, most of the water pumped from Lake Houston is treated wastewater that flowed downstream from Dallas and other cities.

Although reclaiming wastewater – also called recycling or reusing – remains rare in Texas, it has become more popular in recent years as drought-stricken towns have tried to meet local water needs. Wichita Falls was the second in the state to construct a costly treatment plant that takes waste­water “from toilet to tap.” Defying doubters, the city’s utility manager drank a full, clear glass while giving reporters a tour. San Antonio pioneered indirect reuse of wastewater decades ago, treating it for a variety of nonconsumptive uses.

I’ve discussed this before, and I think there’s a lot of merit to this approach. Certainly, it makes no sense to use clean, drinkable water on watering lawns and other similar uses. The main argument against wastewater reuse seems to be that it provides disincentives to conserve water. Be that as it may, this is a cheaper and surely more sustainable option than building a lot more water infrastructure for our region’s (and our state’s) growing population.

Who wants to live in Galveston?

Galveston would like to know.

Although the city is still rebuilding with new private investment and hundreds of millions in federal disaster money, Galveston finds itself at a crossroads and confronting fundamental questions: Will its population continue to shrink until it becomes nothing more than a husk of tourist attractions? Will the city attract new industry?

The city’s population was declining for decades before Ike reduced it from 57,000 to about 48,000. Restoring the city’s population is crucial to establishing a stable tax base, especially as the University of Texas Medical Branch and Texas A&M-Galveston pay no property taxes on the large tracts they occupy.

“The biggest problem is not the creation of industry, it’s getting people who work here to come back to live here,” said Harris “Shrub” Kempner, head of Kempner Capital Management and a member of the city finance advisory committee.

Although the Island’s 8.1 percent unemployment rate mirrors the nation’s, it’s higher than Houston’s at 6.5 percent and masks an unusually high ratio of population to jobs because so many people who work in Galveston live off the island, Kempner said.

[…]

The city needs a population of at least 50,000 to continue getting the level of federal aid it received before the storm. Restoring the population is a priority for both of the mayoral candidates preparing for a June 23 runoff, incumbent Joe Jaworski and challenger Lewis Rosen. Both say they want the population eventually to grow to 70,000.

A perception of low-performing schools once contributed to flight from the island, but that perception has changed, said Galveston school district Superintendent Larry Nichols. Discipline and test scores have improved, he said, and affluent residents like [UTMB president Dr. David] Callender are sending their children to public schools despite the availability of two charter academies and a Catholic school.

To entice people to live on the island, the city must overcome significant hurdles.

The scattered lots available for building don’t lend themselves to the same cost efficiencies developers can realize on the mainland, where large tracts are available. The potential for hurricanes is frightening to some. High insurance costs and stricter building codes on the coast make housing more expensive. Galveston lacks large retail outlets, forcing residents to leave the island to shop.

And the island, despite its natural attractions of sun, sand and surf, has a reputation for shabbiness.

Barton Smith, a University of Houston economics professor emeritus, said efforts to attract population and new business won’t be successful until Galveston overcomes the blight that motorists see coming in on Broadway Boulevard, and the industrial ambience of Harborside Drive that greets cruise ship passengers.

Really, this is a marketing question. What is it about Galveston that would make someone want to live there? That’s what they need to figure out. Is there an Island version of ttweak that can come up with a snappy catch phrase and a campaign to back it up? I know what draws people to a city like Houston, and I know what draws people to the various suburbs, and I know what draws people to small towns and the country. What is it about Galveston that makes people want to live there? Not everyone, of course, just that subset of people who would live there if given a reason that made sense to them. I wish them the best in figuring it out.

The Ike Floodgate

We have a recommendation for how to prepare for a future Hurricane Ike.

A giant floodgate at the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel, coupled with a 130-mile wetlands recreation area, should be built to protect Houston from hurricane storm surges, a research team from five Texas universities recommended Monday.

The two-year study led by the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED, at Rice University also recommends a 20-mile levee along Texas 146 and another to protect the bay side on the eastern end of Galveston, already protected on the Gulf side by a sea wall.

The proposals are on a much smaller scale than the Ike Dike concept, which envisions a storm gate between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula coupled with a massive levee protecting both barrier islands.

“We have looked very carefully at the Ike Dike proposals,” said Philip Bedient, a professor of engineering at Rice University. “We at the SSPEED Center don’t think it has a chance of getting built in our lifetime.

“We’ve gone with four proposals that we think have a better chance of being funded and built in a much shorter period of time.”

Jim Blackburn, environmental law professor at Rice University, said each proposal can be undertaken separately.

The full report is here, and you can see some background on this here and here. The real question is not whether this is the best or the most cost-effective solution. The question is whether this or any solution can be funded by our dysfunctional Legislature and Congress. If we believe those who claim there isn’t the money to build some mitigation now, what will we believe when we need to rebuild everything after a catastrophic storm? Swamplot has more.

Time for the annual “Are we ready for a big storm?” story

The answer, of course, is no, not really.

After Tropical Storm Allison’s devastating floods, the Houston area widened its bayous and hardened its infra­structure. After Hurricane Rita’s deadly gridlock, the state revamped storm communications and evacuation plans.

Yet since Hurricane Ike’s enormous surge wiped out coastal communities and its $30 billion in damages dwarfed those of the other two storms, not much has happened.

Which is to say that [Wednesday] — the first day of a new hurricane season that’s expected to be quite active, and nearly three years after the costliest storm in Houston history — the region remains as vulnerable as ever to storm surge.

In Ike’s wake the state formed the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, which includes Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties, to study storm surge remedies and possibly put them into effect.

But so far, the district has no federal or state funding.

State funding? Don’t make me laugh. Rick Perry has actually been using the prospect of a hurricane as a justification for not using more of the Rainy Day fund, even though that’s never been the fund’s intended use. As for federal money, there was probably a brief moment in 2009 when something like that could have been part of the stimulus package – Lord knows, we should have aimed to spend a ton more on infrastructure projects. That moment is long gone, and even if our ridiculous Republican members of Congress wanted to push for this, the only way the rest of the Republican majority would let it happen would be if the Democrats would agree to pay for it by cutting services elsewhere, much as they insisted on doing so for tornado relief. Meanwhile, a bunch of white swans are swimming by, but no one is paying attention to them.

As for what could be done, we’re familiar with the Ike Dike, but there’s another possibility out there.

“An environmental and industrial disaster that will put the Ship Channel down for months is my biggest fear,” [Phil Bedient, a Rice University civil engineer who studies flooding] said.

He said most facilities in the port area are protected from about a 14-foot surge, with some facilities a bit higher. Had Ike come ashore 25 miles down the coast, at the west rather than the east end of Galveston Island, it would have pushed a surge of up to 19 feet up the Ship Channel, Bedient said.

As a result of these concerns, Bedient and colleagues plan to propose putting a large gate at the entrance to the Ship Channel.

Such a gate would cost far less than the so-called “Ike Dike” proposal, and would cause less concern among environmentalists.

As it happens, Prof. Bediant had an op-ed in the Chron on the same day, also sounding the alarm about storm preparedness. Unfortunately, he didn’t go into any detail about the Ship Channel gate. I suspect it’s laid out in detail in this report on Hurricane Ike, which is on the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center‘s website. Read it and be prepared to take a short quiz on it for next week.

Two environmental issues for your attention

Are you familiar with tar sands? The Sierra Club would like to acquaint you with them this Thursday, December 16, on its Houston Frontlines tour.

Elected officials and community members will gather at Hartmann Community Center on Thursday, December 16th for a tour of industrial facilities along the Houston Ship Channel and the communities they pollute. A press conference will follow the tour, but members of the press are welcome to join the tour as well.

Juan Parras, Director of t.e.j.a.s. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services) will be leading the East End tour that will focus on the health threats low-income Houstonians face from refining pollution and the dire consequences of increasing pollution from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would drive a significant increase in refining of Alberta’s tar sands in the Ship Channel area. Tar sands oil contains, among other toxic metals, an average of 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen, and five times more lead than conventional crude oil. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in charge of permitting the pipeline.

After the tour, local Officials will publicly call on Secretary Clinton and the State Department to conduct a full examination of the pipeline’s impact on Houston’s air quality in the form of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement before granting approval for the project.

Lunch will be provided during the Tar Sands and Keystone XL educational seminar that begins at 12 Noon. Panelists include Clean Air Director Neil Carman, Director of t.e.j.a.s. Juan Parras, and Sierra Club Dirty Fuels Director Kate Colarulli.

HOUSTON FRONTLINES TOUR
Keystone XL Pipeline & Houston’s Air Quality Future
Thursday, December 16
Hartmann Community Center at Hartmann Park in Manchester
9311 E. Avenue P, 77012

The goal of this is to request a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which will guarantee that an analysis of the project’s impact on public health is completed, and that there is time for the public to respond to this new information. To learn more, go to Toxic Tar Sands: Profiles From The Front Lines. To join the tour, respond to the Facebook event.

Also of local interest this week is a TCEQ draft rule that could have a bad effect on Galveston Bay. From Texas Water Matters:

In 2007, the Texas Legislature created a process to determine how much water is needed to protect rivers and bays across the state while allowing for increased water use due to population growth. The law was hailed by environmental groups and many in the water development community as a step forward on a long-contentious issue.

Unfortunately, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality appears poised to waste this opportunity to protect our rivers and bays. TCEQ recently released a rule proposal that would allow the rivers to be reduced to a trickle and leave Galveston Bay without meaningful protection.

At risk: Galveston Bay and the Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers

In most places, TCEQ’s recommended levels would allow Trinity River flows to be reduced to levels seen only about 5% of the time in the last 50+ years. This could harm water quality and could affect the ongoing plans for restoring the Trinity in the DFW area. Low water levels could impact fish and wildlife up and down the river basins.

The shallow waters covering Galveston Bay’s 600 square miles have historically produced as much as 80% of the oysters harvested in the state. The area’s blue crab and shrimp harvests are also some of the largest in Texas. Galveston Bay is loved by recreational anglers and its shallow waters are home to Atlantic croaker, flounder, spotted seatrout, and many other species of fish. Nearly three hundred different kinds of birds have been seen in the area around Galveston Bay.

Galveston Bay’s 600 square miles is one of the most biologically diverse places in the state. Nearly three hundred different kinds of birds have been seen in the area around Galveston Bay. This natural diversity is due in large part to the freshwater flowing into Galveston Bay from the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers. If the rivers are allowed to dwindle to a trickle, Galveston Bay would be deprived of freshwater and would become increasinly salty and less hospitable to wildlife.

What You Can Do

The standards need to be strengthened in accordance with an alternate proposal submitted by the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. This alternate approach is based on the work of the majority of the regional Expert Science Team, but simplified to minimize potential water supply impacts and make it easier to implement.

This alternate rule protects the rivers and bay by proposing reasonable flows of water for people and the environment.

YOU CAN HELP MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Help protect the Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers and Galveston Bay by telling TCEQ to strengthen the proposed rule by the December 20th deadline.

Comments may be submitted online here or faxed to (512) 239-4808. All comments should reference Rule Project Number 2007-049-298-OW.

There will also be a public hearing on this in Austin on the 16th at 10 AM at TCEQ headquarters, Building E, Room 201S. This is on I-35 between Braker and Yager Lanes – see here for a map and directions. For more information on this issue, see this Chron story, this Galveston Daily News editorial, and this National Wildlife Federation fact sheet. You can also easily leave your public comment online. Please do so by the 20th if you want to be heard by the TCEQ.

Cleaning up the bay

There’s been plenty of action on land cleaning up after Hurricane Ike. Now there’s going to be a similar amount of action in the water.

The Texas General Land Office, which is responsible for protecting the coast, has pinpointed nearly 600 large pieces of underwater debris after surveying about one-fifth of the bay.

The sonar scans will continue through February, but the cleanup could begin as soon as this week, with the goal of finishing before the next hurricane season begins, on June 1.

Texas has set aside $39 million for the cleanup, the largest of its kind in the state’s history. Officials said they expect reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“On the plus side, the bay will be cleaner than before,” said Jim Suydam, spokesman for the General Land Office.

For years, hundreds of abandoned barges, shrimp boats and recreational vessels have cluttered the bayous, bays and shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

Ike’s surge deposited even more debris into the shallow waters of Galveston Bay, one of the nation’s largest and most productive estuaries.

The debris is a hazard to navigation and a potential problem for the environment. For example, the storm-tossed debris has helped destroy half of the bay’s oyster reefs, officials say.

Makes you wonder why we’d never done this before. Well, no, this is Texas – I know exactly why this was never done before (hint: $$$). But hey, I’ll take what I can get.