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Houston Ship Channel

Feds approve $5 billion in Harvey aid

Good.

Photo by Yi-Chin Lee

Almost a year after Hurricane Harvey dumped historic rains on Texas, the state will receive more than $5 billion for a range of flood control projects, repairs and studies, the Trump administration announced Thursday.

[…]

[About $1 billion] will pay for the completion of flood control projects in the Houston area that were already underway — some of them for more than two decades because of the Harris County Flood Control District’s pay-as-you-go approach — and to repair damages that those projects suffered during Harvey.

A reworked flood control project on Clear Creek in southeast Harris County, the origins of which date back to the 1980s, will receive $295.2 million. Three major bayou-widening projects will receive a combined $185 million.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined how much to allocate to each project, factoring in guidance from members of the Texas congressional delegation.

Several flood- and disaster-related studies will also be funded; The Army Corps will receive $3 million to launch an unprecedented study of the Houston region’s watersheds. Another $6 million will go toward a study that will explore how to reduce flooding in Buffalo Bayou, including when the Army Corps releases water from Addicks and Barker dams. And the Port of Houston will get $30 million to dredge the perpetually-silty Houston Ship Channel. The Army Corps also will receive nearly $1.5 million to complete a safety project to shore up Addicks and Barker dams, which have been considered at risk of failure for years.

Most of the rest will be used to build coastal levees. I’m pretty sure this is a separate pot of money than the one the city will draw from for long term housing aid. Which is fine; we can use all the resources we can get, the more the better. If you want a reminder of what the priorities should be for Harvey recovery and future flood mitigation, I refer you back to the Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium report. The Chron has more.

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.

Another floodgate proposed

Third time’s the charm, right?

Academic leaders have long beseeched government officials to learn from the damage caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and harden the upper Texas coast against future threats.

Finally, on Monday, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of projects to limit flood and storm surge damage.

“It is time to take action,” said Bush, who came into office in January. “This has been a priority of mine since the campaign.”

That effort will build upon several previous studies, including one to be released Tuesday, which have found that a gate system in Galveston Bay, costing less than $3 billion, could provide protection from future hurricanes for $37 billion in chemical and other facilities along the Houston Ship Channel, as well as$9 billion in residential property.

These academic studies, funded by the Houston Endowment and managed by academic leaders from Rice University, the University of Houston, Texas A&M University at Galveston and other institutions, have presented a range of options to protect the coast.

The latest possibility calls for building a floodgate across the Ship Channel near San Leon.

This “mid-bay” gate would be tied to an extensive network of man-made reefs and island berms, most of which already exist, to safeguard not only industry along the Ship Channel but also homes in rapidly developing areas such as League City along the west side of Galveston Bay.

See here, here, and here for the background. Credit where credit is due, Bush is the first public official to get behind this idea, and if he can take it somewhere it will be a good thing. Cost has always been the main obstacle, but as the Trib reminds us, it’s not the only one.

Everything about the $2.8 billion plan from the Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED, screams compromise.

The proposed location is roughly halfway between the upper-bay Centennial Gate and the lower-bay Ike Dike — and borrows certain features from the latter, including some new levees and elevated roadways. Its estimated price tag also falls somewhere in the middle, but closer to the $1.5 billion Centennial Gate than the $4 billion to $8 billion estimate for the Ike Dike.

The “mid-bay” plan — contained in the first of three annual reports from the center, and so far lacking a catchy moniker — calls for installing a storm surge-deterring gate as tall as 25 feet across the nearly 700-foot-wide Houston Ship Channel near the community of San Leon. The manmade channel connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Houston, the busiest seaport in the U.S. by some measurements.

SSPEED Center officials say sophisticated storm modeling shows the structure would — in a Category 3 hurricane with wind speeds about 15 percent higher than those during Ike — “significantly reduce storm-surge flooding in both the Houston Ship Channel and in the heavily populated west Galveston Bay communities that are difficult to evacuate.”

That’s a direct response to the main criticism levied against the Centennial Gate, which coastal residents argued shielded the refineries along the ship channel at the expense of surrounding neighborhoods. (As for the Ike Dike, it has been criticized for its high cost and potential environmental impact.)

The mid-bay plan “is a much superior alternative in my mind at least than what we had previously looked at,” said Rice University professor Jim Blackburn, noting that “the consensus was that the Centennial Gate did not offer sufficient protection to the public and so we went back to the drawing board.”

Sometimes compromises satisfy everyone, and sometimes they piss everyone off. If this is more the former than the latter, then there ought to be some consensus to move forward, however slowly, towards a funding mechanism. If not, I figure we’ll see another story about another floodgate being proposed sometime next year. We’ll see how it goes.

On the environmental challenges to the Houston region

I turn the mic over to Jim Blackburn, in a reprint of an article he wrote for Offcite in 2014.

The future of the City of Houston might be more affected by extreme weather events than by any other factor. The impacts of these extremes are well known but not well addressed. Our ability to compete and survive in the harsh natural environment and competitive economic climate of the 21st century will rest on how we address these challenges.

As we learned in 2011, drought is a serious worry. Though we should plan for and anticipate constricted water supply and availability, we are not as vulnerable as many other areas of Texas. Our Achilles heel is flooding.

Flooding in our part of the world comes from two major sources: major rainstorms associated with tropical storms or cold fronts, and the surge tide associated with hurricanes. These two sources of water—one coming from the sky and the other from the Gulf—are major threats to our well-being.

Houston will be severely and perhaps permanently affected if we don’t address our known problems. All of the issues discussed below have solutions, but these solutions require that action be taken—that things be done differently. Some of the incentive for these changes will have to come through litigation simply because responsible officials will not otherwise step up and do what needs to be done.

It’s a long and detailed article, and well worth your time to read. Some of the topics it covers are the inadequacy of the 100 year flood map, the Centennial Gate, the value of undeveloped land like the Katy Prairie, and more. Check it out, then ask the nearest Mayoral candidate what he thinks about it.

How the East End got its rail line

A great overview of how we got here with the Harrisburg and Southeast lines, the genesis of which go back a lot farther than the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum.

The working- and middle-class Mexican-American residents of the East End lacked political power in Houston prior to the 1960s and 1970s and their communities received little in the way of public resources.

Among those limited resources was a lack transit options once the streetcars on Harrisburg Boulevard and Navigation Boulevard, the community’s two main corridors, were removed prior to World War II. The private bus companies that sought to fill the void ran few and infrequent routes to the East End. Connecting to the rest of Houston from the East End – especially for those without a car – was a challenge.

At the same time, the community’s proximity to the Port of Houston and the Ship Channel meant that truck and freight train traffic dominated local streets and crisscrossed the area. Roads crumbled under the weight of semi-trucks, fumes from idling vehicles filled the air, freight trains blocked intersections for hours at a time, and both systems made life for pedestrians stressful.

During the 1960s and 1970s, as one aspect of a broader push for political, social, and economic rights, Mexican-American residents in the East End routinely spoke before the Houston City Council to complain about the adverse toll this heavy traffic took on their neighborhoods. Their predominately white neighbors in Lawndale and Eastwood, two communities within the East End, often joined to express the same grievances.

Instead of listening to community concerns, however, the City of Houston and the Texas Highway Department aimed to broaden the area’s use as an industrial traffic corridor with plans to build the Harrisburg Freeway, an extension of State Highway 225, through the heart of the East End.

This road was not the form of improved transportation that residents had in mind.

The Mexican-American community’s consistent resistance – through independent planning efforts, community protests, and the use of administrative technicalities to stall the project – combined with a state-level budget crunch to halt the road plan by the mid-1970s.

The highway fight in the East End was a major marker of the growing political power of Mexican-American Houstonians. It also demonstrated to local officials that East Enders cared a great deal about the integrity of their community, how they traveled within their neighborhoods, and how they connected to the city at-large.

Community journalist Maggie Landron, writing in the Spanish-language paper Papel Chicano in 1970, argued that many East End residents resisted the highway because they were “fed up choking on our own exhaust fumes; fed up looking at cement ribbons crisscrossing our cities; fed up with homes and people being destroyed to build more and more freeways; and fed up with others determining what is good for us.”

Landron’s words and the highway protest of East Enders reverberated in subsequent mass transit debates, where the city’s Mexican-American population, concentrated heavily in the East End, represented linchpin voting blocs.

I had no idea there had once been a serious proposal to extend SH 225 into downtown. What a disaster that would have been. The story continues through the creation of Metro, the 2003 referendum, and the fight over the overpass on Harrisburg. Check it out.

Ike Dike versus Centennial Gate

It’s an academic storm surge mitigation smackdown!

Lawmakers on Monday told representatives of two of Texas’ most distinguished universities to stop feuding and come together on a plan for protecting the Houston region from a storm surge similar to the one spawned by Hurricane Ike six years ago.

At a hearing at Texas A&M University Galveston, members of the Joint Committee on a Coastal Barrier System expressed frustration that the universities who took the initiative to devise a storm protection plan – Texas A&M Galveston and a Rice University-based center – were still arguing over the best approach.

“The fact is that Hurricane Ike was six years ago and we are still talking about how to come to a consensus,” said Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood and the co-chairman of the joint committee. “We’ve got to move forward.”

Legislators said they wanted a proposal they could turn into legislation soon. “You have to come up with a plan that can be passed,” said committee Co-Chairman Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont.

If the two sides fail to come together by the time the committee reconvenes in September, legislators said, they will take steps to bring about an agreement. “We’ll do something to encourage them,” Taylor said, adding that it could include picking a person or a committee to work out a deal.

“We have ways of making you achieve consensus,” Sen. Taylor did not say, definitely not twirling his mustache while not saying it. Sorry, got carried away for a minute there. Won’t happen again, I promise.

Texas A&M is backing a storm protection barrier proposal known as the Ike Dike, which would stretch from San Luis Pass at the western end of Galveston Island to High Island on the eastern end of the Bolivar Peninsula. Skeptics have said the idea is too costly.

Texas A&M marine scientist William Merrell proposed the concept soon after Ike caused an estimated $25 billion in damage to the Houston area, making it the costliest storm in Texas history.

The SSPEED Center, which draws on ideas from all over Texas, originated the proposal for the Centennial Gate at the head of the Houston Ship Channel. That plan calls for a ring barrier around the populated portion of Galveston Island, and a storm levee along Texas 146 to protect the western edge of Galveston Bay.

After the hearing, Jim Blackburn, a professor at the SSPEED Center, said he was confident that an agreement could be reached. But when Merrell was asked if there was a chance of a compromise, he responded, “No.”

“We’ve got a concept, we think it’s a good one and we are going to keep doing it,” Merrell said. “The Centennial Gate never did hunt.”

Merrell said he would welcome the backing of the SSPEED Center.

“Save time, see it my way,” Merrell did not say. Yeah, I know I said I wouldn’t do that again, but sometimes it’s just too easy.

See here and here for some background. I don’t know what the “right” answer is here. It’s a matter of how you calculate the risk and how much you’re willing to pay to mitigate that risk. There is such a thing as too much insurance, but there’s also such a thing as too little. What’s it worth to you? How will you pay for it? Answer those questions and you’ll answer the other one. Lisa Gray is right, that’s the Legislature’s call.

The Galveston oil spill

This is just awful.

While the oil spill resulting from Saturday’s collision between a ship and barge was small by global standards – less than a third of what it would take to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool – the local impact is proving far more than a nuisance.

The heavy marine fuel oil is washing up on nearby beaches, killing or injuring waterfowl that come into contact with it, and keeping commercial traffic bound for local ports at a standstill.

The commercial ships should get relief soon as a fleet of oil-skimming vessels continues to scoop up what remains of the estimated 168,000 gallons of oil from the waters near the southern mouth of the Houston Ship Channel. Shipping operations were suspended immediately after the accident to prevent vessels from spreading the oil and getting it stuck to their hulls.

By late Monday, some of the oil could be seen floating in patches in Galveston Bay. But a large portion of the spill was driven by wind, waves and currents into the Gulf of Mexico and was headed southwest, Coast Guard Capt. Brian Penoyer, captain of the port, said at a Monday news conference. An aerial survey will determine where and how far the oil had spread, he said.

[…]

The waterfront oil made its way from the Texas City Dike to the eastern end of Galveston Island, and a small amount reached beaches frequented by tourists on the Gulf side of the Island, said Charlie Kelly, Galveston emergency management director.

Kelly said a number of tar balls had washed ashore between 29th Street and eastern end of the island, but the amount was so small that it was easily picked up. No tar balls could be seen on the beaches Monday afternoon.

“I’m not worried about anything,” Galveston Mayor Lewis Rosen said.

Less sanguine were environmentalists who noticed oil covering a section of island beach that fronts the Ship Channel. Mort Voller, who heads the Galveston Island Tourism and Nature Council, said several oiled birds, all dead, were seen on an area near the Galveston jetty known as Big Reef.

“Big reef is hugely natural, a wonderful collection of salt water lagoons, sand flats and intertidal marsh and prairie-type uplands,” Voller said. It’s far enough away from the tourism beaches that animals are largely unmolested, he said.

The potential impact on wildlife is tremendous.

The heavy oil spilled into Galveston Bay showed signs Monday of harming one of the nation’s great natural nurseries, with biologists finding dozens of oiled birds on just one part of the Bolivar Peninsula.

Scientists found the birds on a wildlife refuge just two miles from where a partially sunken barge leaked as much as 168,000 gallons of thick bunker fuel oil after colliding with another vessel Saturday.

“We expect this to get much worse,” said Jessica Jubin, a spokeswoman for the Houston Audubon Society, which manages the Bolivar Flats preserve where the birds were found.

The concern comes as tens of thousands of birds are passing through the upper Texas coast on their annual flight north. But the worry also extends to the bay’s oyster reefs and the shrimp, crabs and fish that rely on the coastal marshes for shelter and food.

Scientists said that while the spill’s damage will be magnified by its awful timing, it could take years for a fuller picture of the ecological toll to emerge.

Galveston Bay was under stress from development, drought, pollution and storms. But its oil spills are typically small, averaging about 100 gallons per incident, according to an analysis by the Houston Advanced Research Center. The latest spill is the largest in the Ship Channel since a facility leaked 70,000 gallons of bunker fuel in 2000.

For now, the primary concern is the marshes, which have declined over decades because of sea-level rise, erosion and subsidence, a condition caused by sinking soil.

Here’s the optimistic view.

Officials believe most of the oil that spilled Saturday is drifting out of the Houston Ship Channel into the Gulf of Mexico, which should limit the impact on bird habitats around Galveston Bay as well as beaches and fisheries important to tourists.

“This spill — I think if we keep our fingers crossed — is not going to have the negative impact that it could have had,” said Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, the lead state agency on the response to the spill.

The best-case scenario is for most of the slick to remain in the Gulf for at least several days and congeal into small tar balls that wash up further south on the Texas coast, where they could be picked up and removed, Patterson said. Crews from the General Land Office are monitoring water currents and the movement of the oil, he said.

Let’s hope that it’s not as bad as it could be. There’s a great irony in this happening almost exactly 25 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the effects of which are still being felt today. I pray that isn’t the case with this spill. Statements from the Environmental Defense Fund are beneath the fold.

(more…)

What should we do about hurricane preparedness?

Or, to put the question another way: Ike Dike, Ike Floodgate, something else, or nothing?

In 2009, months after Hurricane Ike devastated the upper Texas coast, Texas A&M-Galveston professor William Merrell unveiled a multibillion-dollar plan – to much skepticism – dubbed the “Ike Dike.”

The proposal calls for extending Galveston’s seawall 15 miles to the island’s West End, building a similar barrier along Bolivar Peninsula and installing massive Dutch-like floodgates at the entrance to Galveston Bay.

Snubbed by some for its price tag – an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion – and potentially detrimental environmental impact, the still-evolving concept since has gained many adherents who believe it would protect coastal communities and refineries near the Houston Ship Channel.

Five-and-a-half years after Ike, though, the true feasibility of Merrell’s proposal remains unknown. The same goes for a competing plan devised by Rice University that would guard the Bayou City’s industrial base – the largest petrochemical complex in the country – by placing a 600- to 800-foot wall across the 52-mile Ship Channel near the Fred Hartman Bridge or Morgan’s Point. The architects of the so-called “Centennial Gate” say the $1.5 billion project is more environmentally friendly than the Ike Dike and cheap enough to be funded without having to ask for federal help, meaning it could be built quicker.

Which way to go? Figuring that out is the aim of a new $4 million study by a six-county coalition that will assess both proposals, gather data and determine what – if any – storm surge remedies should be pursued to protect the Houston area from future hurricanes.

[…]

In the years since Ike, a cadre of local leaders, elected officials and academics have come to the conclusion that some kind of protective measures need to be taken, for safety, economic or environmental reasons.

That, however, is where any consensus ends, said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, chairman of the district.

“Doing nothing has been the option used for the last several thousand years,” he said. “We don’t think it’s the best option.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, re-appointed to the district’s board of directors last month, remains a skeptic.

Industry has not pushed for any kind of protective structure, the county’s top elected official said at a recent Houston Chronicle editorial board meeting. He expressed doubts the state could secure federal funding for such a project under the current administration, noting President Barack Obama never made a post-Ike visit to Texas.

“For many reasons, I am skeptical of both the ‘Ike Dike’ and ‘Centennial Gate,’ ” Emmett wrote in a white paper this year, in part because “no other area has chosen to build such protective structures.”

I’ve blogged about this stuff multiple times – see here, here, and here for the Ike Dike; here and here for the Ike Floodgate. I have no idea what the right answer is. As insurance policies go, these are pretty expensive. Not nearly as expensive as a devastating storm, of course, but it’s hard to gauge the odds of a storm hitting in just the right place to do that kind of damage. I’ll be interested to see what this study says, but I doubt we’ll be any closer to deciding on a course of action, much less acting on it.

Ike floodgate update

Call it Ike Dike 2.0 if you want.

Five years after Hurricane Ike devastated the upper Texas coast, a group of Houston scientists presented details Tuesday about a proposed gate to protect the Houston Ship Channel and much of the Bayou City’s industrial base during another hurricane.

Meeting at Rice University, the scientists generally agreed that a large gate at the entrance to the Ship Channel would provide a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to the Ike Dike.

Preliminary designs suggest the 600- to 800-foot-long gate, located either at the Fred Hartman Bridge or Morgan’s Point, would cost about $1.5 billion.

The question faced by the scientists now is: How best to move the concept of the “Centennial Gate” from academia and into a physical reality?

“We really need to find ourselves a political champion,” said Phil Bedient, a Rice University civil engineer and one of the gate’s chief proponents. “That’s what we’re going to do during the next few months.”

[…]

Hanadi Rifai, a University of Houston environmental engineer, has been studying how chemical industries along the Ship Channel would be affected had a stronger version of Hurricane Ike hit about 25 miles farther south along the coast, which would have pushed a much larger storm surge into Galveston Bay.

She found that if a Hurricane Ike with just 15 percent stronger winds hit near San Luis Pass, it would have devastating effects on the Ship Channel industries.

Tallying up losses to facilities, downtime, productivity and environmental charges, such a storm would produce an estimated $148 billion in economic losses to the Ship Channel.

“The question is not whether we need to do something, the question is what do we do,” Rifai said.

The first mention of this alternate idea was two years ago; see here and here for the previous incarnation. When you put it in the context that Prof. Rifai does, it sure does seem like a worthwhile idea. SciGuy goes further than that.

A gate, frankly, is a no-brainer. It is the lowest of low-hanging fruit for this region when it comes to better preparing ourselves for a large hurricane.

But I’m told by organizers of the Centennial Gate concept that Harris County officials — that would be commissioners and the county judge — have yet to express much interest in a gate.

The implication from this apparent disinterest is that it’s more important to ask the public for $217 million to repair a building whose best days are behind it than addressing the ship channel’s vulnerability. Someone needs to show some leadership and cobble together a coalition of public money, industry investment and federal funds to build a gate that would protect the region’s economy and environment. Such a gate would also very likely increase industrial investment in the ship channel, knowing that facilities built there would be hardened against the region’s sole major natural disaster.

As Ben Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The problem with building the Centennial Gate is that it requires government officials to be proactive, rather than reactive.

To be fair, they have to come up with a way to finance the thing – $1.5 billion is a lot less than $148 billion, but 1) it’s still a lot of money; 2) the risk of a multi-billion dollar loss due to hurricane damage is hard to quantify – it’s not nothing, but it’s hardly inevitable, and; 3) the voters still need to be convinced. This is a process, and these things take time, just as the Astrodome referendum was years in the making. It’s just that in the matter of the Ike floodgate, the question of time is a bet. See the SSPEED homepage and the floodgate brochure for more.

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.

Senate passes clean air bill

This sounds pretty good.

New plants in heavily polluted areas like Houston’s Ship Channel could have a harder time getting state permits under a clean air bill tentatively passed Wednesday by the Texas Senate.

Environmental regulators would have to examine the effect of a new facility on the region’s overall pollution before granting permits. They also could decide that a company has to close an older plant in the same area or otherwise offset the additional pollution caused by a new plant, said Sen. Kip Averitt, author of the bill.

“We’re not just looking at the individual plant all by itself, which is what we do today. We look at all of the effects,” said Averitt, R-Waco.

Averitt denied that the bill represents a “cap and trade” system for companies seeking air pollution permits from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“We’re looking at the big picture and if there is a permit that’s going to create a problem somewhere, the TCEQ going to be able to say, ‘Give us some offsets or a new strategy on how to reduce emissions.’ ” Averitt said.

The bill in question is SB16. It still has to pass on third reading before going to the House, but I’m optimistic about its chances. There hasn’t been enough done recently by the Lege to improve air quality, so this is a big step forward.

The bill, which also includes rebates for buyers of hybrid vehicles, was tentatively passed on a vote of 22-9. Houston-area Republicans Joan Huffman, Mike Jackson and Dan Patrick voted against the bill.

Not that any of that is a surprise, but it’s always good to be reminded who likes pollution around here. I’m glad to see, as Floor Pass makes clear, that Sen. Averitt gets it. Kudos to him for his work on this bill. Postcards has more.