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SSPEED

The Ike Dike debate continues

There’s more than one way to mitigate against flooding, and it may be best to adopt more than one of them.

For about a decade, two of Texas’ top universities have pushed dueling plans to protect the Houston-Galveston region from hurricanes.

A concept championed by Texas A&M University at Galveston appears to be winning out as the federal and state governments pursue a plan similar to one proposed by A&M oceanographer Bill Merrell in early 2009, months after Hurricane Ike smashed ashore at Galveston Island.

But that project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas General Land Office, which calls for the installation of beachfront sand dunes and massive storm surge barrier gates, won’t become reality for at least 15 years — and probably much longer. That leaves plenty of time for a worst-case hurricane to devastate the densely populated, highly industrialized region — a reality that’s coming into sharper focus as sea levels rise and the ocean warms.

The so-called coastal barrier system also carries a significant price tag — as much as $20 billion — and a significant part of the system may guard against only a modest 100-year storm.

In the meantime, Rice University is pushing a plan that it says could become a reality faster and more cheaply than the coastal barrier system. While the Galveston Bay Park Plan isn’t designed to protect as much land as the coastal barrier system, the chief spokesperson for the university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center — known as SSPEED — says it would offer a significantly higher level of protection than the coastal barrier system for the most populated and industrialized areas in Houston and Galveston.

The park plan, conceived in 2015, calls for the use of clay dredged from the Houston Ship Channel, where a $1 billion deepening and widening project is in the works to accommodate more and larger ships, to create a 25-foot-tall levee along the shipping lane, which is the nation’s busiest. Additional dredged material would be piled behind it to form parkland. The dike would connect to an existing levee at Texas City, which would be raised to 25 feet from 17 feet.

A significant amount of dredged material has already been disposed of along the channel, forming marshy islands and a wildlife management area. That means it would not have to be built entirely from scratch.

A large storm surge gate — much like ones called for in the coastal barrier system — also would be installed and would be closed only when big storms threatened the area. Like the coastal barrier system, the park plan also calls for a “ring” levee around the city of Galveston to protect it from incoming and outgoing storm surges, the deadliest effects of hurricanes. The new north-south levee, which would cut through Galveston Bay, would be punctuated by smaller gates to allow boats to pass through.

See here for some background on the SSPEED plan, and here for more on the plan that has been selected as the preferred plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The SSPEED alternative is touted by Jim Blackburn, who has been a critic of the Corps’ Ike Dike study. Blackburn says this plan could be done as early as 2027 for $3 billion to $6 billion, which means it could be locally funded; that would also speed up the process, as it would not need to go through so much federal review. It could also be done as a complement to the Ike Dike. The Corps disputes SSPEED’s cost estimate and argues their plan would have a significant environmental impact. I’m not qualified to sort that out, but I do like the idea of having a more nimble plan in place that could get some mitigation going right now, rather than a decade or more from now. Read the story and see what you think.

The Dutch way to mitigate against floods

We can learn a lot from this largely-below-sea-level country.

David Zacek for The Texas Tribune

On a sunny Friday in late May, a jubilant wedding party scrambled to the top of a colossal sand dune in this tiny Dutch beach town for a photoshoot, bridesmaids’ arms flailing as their high heels sunk in. The wedding ceremony had just ended at an outdoor venue nestled behind the six-story mountain of sand, which blocked the view of the North Sea.

At the town’s main strip nearby, a mostly older crowd sipped beers and wine and nibbled on ice cream cones. No one seemed to mind that they couldn’t see the water.

Unlike in the United States, such obscured ocean views are common in the Netherlands, where people aren’t allowed to build homes or businesses directly on the coast — and for good reason. Three of Europe’s major rivers run through the compact country on their way to the ocean, and almost one-third of it lies below sea level, making it extremely vulnerable to deadly storm tides.

The dunes in Noordwijk are part of a world-renowned storm defense system that covers the entirety of the Netherlands’ coastline — much of it hefty enough to protect against a monster, 10,000-year storm. The system has become a beacon for Texas as it looks to guard the eastern flank of the low-lying Houston-Galveston region — home to millions of people and the nation’s largest petrochemical complex — from hurricanes. Despite its vulnerability to deadly storm surges, the upper Texas coast has no comprehensive storm protection system.

That vulnerability became apparent after Hurricane Ike in 2008, when scientists warned that the storm — the costliest to ever hit Texas at the time — could have been much worse for the Houston-Galveston region if it hadn’t changed course at the last minute. And although 2017’s Hurricane Harvey made landfall much farther down the coast, its torrential rains put large swaths of Houston underwater and drove home the widespread damage a hurricane could inflict on the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The Netherlands experienced a similar reckoning after a freak storm in 1953.

That North Sea flood, which the Dutch simply call “the disaster,” breached neglected and war-battered dikes, inundated an area bigger than the city of Houston and drowned more than 1,800 people — a death toll nearly identical to that of Hurricane Katrina after it swamped New Orleans and parts of Mississippi. Within weeks, a special Dutch commission initiated a sweeping public works program that it vowed would keep the country dry forever.

“The 1953 flood was a wake-up call,” said Marcel Stive, a hydraulic engineering professor at the Delft University of Technology. “While the economy was resurrecting and doing well [after World War II], the public and politicians realized our vulnerability.”

The Delta Works, later declared one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, surrounded a fifth of the country’s population with an ingenious combination of dams, dikes, locks and first-of-their-kind storm surge barriers. It took decades to finish it all — much longer than expected — but the first project was complete just five years after the storm.

In the 66 years since the disaster, no Dutch citizen has died in a flood. In Texas, hundreds of citizens have perished in floods and hurricanes just in the past two decades.

Flood risk has remained so low in the Netherlands that homeowners don’t buy flood insurance and building codes behind the flood barriers are virtually nonexistent.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? The Ike Dike is based on the Dutch storm surge system. Go read the rest of the story and see what that means.

We’re still figuring out how to do development in a floodplain

From the inbox:

The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium has released dual research reports that examine current standards in the area’s drainage, detention, and development regulations. The reports also include findings that encourage implementation of new and updated flood management infrastructure approaches and regulations to mitigate the risk of future flooding.

According to Consortium Project Manager Christof Spieler, “This research is intended to inform and unite our city and county leadership, development community and residents in planning for our region’s future. Some of the current regulations are not sufficient to address current flood risk and are further compounded by our region’s growth. Taking time to consider how we could benefit from updated regulations isn’t trying to limit that growth, but would set into motion the research and creative solutions required for growing in more resilient ways.”

Research Paper 1: Detention & Drainage Regulations:

According to researchers from Rice University’s SSPEED Center and report contributors Houston Advanced Research Center, as more and more land in and around Houston is developed, runoff and an inability for the land to absorb water from heavy rain events become contributing factors to flooding. The report goes on to identify areas where current detention regulations, which are in place to prevent those negative impacts, may in some situations be allowing new development to increase downstream flooding.

Specifically, the report findings state current regulations, with the biggest impact being from projects of 50 acres or less on greenfield sites:

  • Overestimate the runoff from some undeveloped sites and, as a result, underestimate detention required to maintain current conditions;
  • Use one-size-fits-all drainage formulas that do not reflect the variation in soils, vegetation and topography across the county; and
  • Only address maximum flow rate, not total runoff volume, meaning the cumulative effect of multiple developments can still increase flood levels. Further, downstream flooding can last longer while multi-day events can have a greater impact even if current requirements are met.

Suggestions to improve current regulations:

  • Increase the default minimum detention requirements set by the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District for development sites of all sizes to be a more conservative figure.
  • Allow developers / property owners with sites of any size to provide less than the default minimum detention requirements, provided there is an engineering study, based on field operations, that quantifies pre-development runoff.
  • Install gauges to collect measurable data on runoff in a variety of undeveloped watersheds.
  • Commission engineering studies for the undeveloped portions of Harris County’s major watersheds to understand cumulative effects and determine appropriate parameters.
  • Based on the studies, set specific criteria for the watershed, which could be coordinated across multiple jurisdictions in the watershed.
  • Require evaluation of cumulative effects across entire watersheds.
  • Require evaluation of multi-day events (three, five or seven days) as well as storms lasting a day or less.

Research Paper 2: Development Regulations:

According to the researchers from Kinder Institute for Urban Research Rice UniversityTexas Southern University, and Houston Advanced Research Center, the region can embrace a form of growth and innovation that sees opportunities in rules and systems that encourage resilient growth to avoid placing people and property in harm’s way.

Suggested approach for considering new regulations and policies:

  • Create regulations and policies to ensure both residents and officials understand that there is a range of flood risks both in and outside of current mapped floodplains.
  • Create systems that utilize both green and gray infrastructure elements for public and private infrastructure to maximize our ability to mitigate flooding.
  • Create land use and development policies that minimize future risk and address existing issues rather than relying too much on expensive infrastructure projects.

The report points out that these regulations are instituted and enforced by a variety of jurisdictions and operate within a legal framework set by the Texas Legislature. Changing the framework can require actions at many levels, and no one entity is solely responsible. Keeping the above points in mind and considering best practice research, key report takeaways include:

  • Tailor new developments to avoid at-risk areas in such a way as to keep people and structures from harm’s way and to reduce the number of existing vulnerable residents and structures.
  • Adopt regulations that inform residents about their flood risks and their options to mitigate those risks. This information should be proactively accessible to homeowners and renters both in and out of the mapped floodplains.
  • Provide public funding and programming to assist low-income residents in bringing their older, flood-prone homes up to new standards.
  • Require design standards and development permitting to incorporate broader resilience goals to help facilitate a more resilient region.
  • Implement regulations and design standards to encourage both green and gray infrastructure solutions to maximize our ability to reduce flooding. In order to see their use increased, green infrastructure efforts should be incentivized or even required, as the City of Houston is now studying.
  • Successful stormwater and floodplain management needs to be implemented at the regional level with the cooperation of city, county and regional institutions. Stormwater and floodplain management professionals within these institutions are best suited to put into place new and emerging best practices.
  • Balancing economic goals with regulatory reform can be a struggle. As new data and technology reveal a new picture of flood risks for the Houston region, this balance will likely shift, resulting in the need for a new set of regulatory practices. This report summarizes best practices that are potentially relevant for the Houston region.

A link to both reports can be found at  houstonconsortium.org.

flooding, harvey
See here and here for previous research, and here for the Chron story. I don’t have anything to add, I just hope Commissioners Court and the Lege are paying attention.

Flood tunnel study funds

Could be cool.

Japanese flood tunnel

The Harris County Flood Control District is set to receive a $320,000 federal grant to study the feasibility of constructing deep underground tunnels to move stormwater to the Houston Ship Channel without overburdening the area’s bayous.

The grant, from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, will fund a four-month investigation to determine whether such tunnels would be a practical and cost-effective addition to the county’s long-term flood protection strategy. The flood control district has begun work on scores of projects funded by the $2.5 billion flood bond approved last summer, though none to date include underground tunnels.

“The study is basically to look at our ground conditions, including our groundwater table, and compare that to existing technology in the tunnel industry to see if there’s a match,” said Russ Poppe, executive director of the flood control district. “If that’s true, then we can start looking at costs, routes and opportunities we can potentially pursue.”

[…]

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, raised no objection to studying the tunnel idea but said he worries that pursuing the proposal could become a boondoggle that siphons money from other, more urgent priorities.

“It’s one of those big dream projects that may take us away from much more reasonable short-term projects,” Blackburn said. “I doubt the feasibility of it.”

See here and here for the background. Looks like we were originally going to get that study last year, but for whatever the reason it didn’t happen. If it’s going to happen this time, it will be after the next Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, when they will vote on approving the study and ponying up $80K in matching funds. I’ll check back with it afterward.

Will we build the right Ike Dike?

Not everyone thinks the best design was chosen.

Jim Blackburn, a Rice professor and co-director of [Rice] university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, says the Corps’ initial Ike Dike study was incomplete because it did not account for the more powerful storms that have swept through the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean in recent years. The Corps’ coastal plan, called the Ike Dike, is named for the 2008 hurricane that caused more than $30 billion in damages to the Houston-Galveston region.

Hurricanes more powerful than Ike, including Harvey, Irma and Maria all in 2017, had unique characteristics rarely seen in major storms, Blackburn said.

“The storms that are being analyzed by the Corps are, in my opinion, too small,” Blackburn said. “They’re just not making landfall at the worst locations, with the type of wind fields and characteristics we’re seeing. I can’t remember if it was (Hurricanes) Irma or Maria, it was an Ike-like storm with Category 5 winds. That’s not supposed to happen.”

Larry Dunbar, a project manager at the SSPEED Center, added that the modeling system the Corps used to predict the effects of storms on its proposed barrier was outdated and that the study did not account for the worst possible storm tracts that could hit the Houston area.

“We said we’re using the updated information because that’s what we do, and (the Army Corps of Engineers) said, ‘That’s fine, we’re gonna use the old model because that’s what the flood insurance study work was based on and we want to be consistent with that,’” Dunbar said. “I can’t argue with that, but we at least now know what’s the difference between the two models, what effect it has, its effect on larger storms, you know it, I know it.”

Blackburn also believes the Corps’ proposed barrier leave parts of Harris County — most notably the Port of Houston and the sprawling industrial and petrochemical facilities along Galveston Bay — vulnerable.

“We think that there is too much remaining surge exposure, and it’s a valid concern, both with regard to the ship channel, to the Bayport Industrial Complex and with regard to the Clear Lake area,” Blackburn said.

The Corps’ alternative proposal includes a navigation gate placed along the Houston Ship Channel and smaller gates built near Clear Creek and Dickinson Bayou, but does not go as far as the SSPEED Center’s proposal for a mid-bay gate to protect Galveston Bay.

The Galveston Bay Park plan, first proposed by the SSPEED Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the Corps proposal for protecting Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston, but adds a vital component: a 25-foot, mid-bay barrier system that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Blackburn views the mid-bay gate as part of a bifurcated system — an internal barrier and a coastal barrier — that would not preclude the Ike Dike concept favored by the Corps and political leadership on the local, state and federal levels. He called the gate a “highly complementary” feature to the extensive barrier the Corps put forth, but one that could be built in half the time at a fraction of the cost — estimated from $3 billion to $5 billion.

“We think this alternative needs to be permitted,” Blackburn said. “We’re going to be urging Harris County to investigate filing a permit application. We are going to argue that to any governmental entity that is interested. I think we need options. If all of our eggs are in a $30 billion federal appropriation, that just sounds too risky to me.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the documents that are up for public review. There are a series of public meetings scheduled for this, and you can offer your own feedback at one of them, via email to CoastalTexas@usace.army.mil, or via good old fashioned snail mail to:

USACE, Galveston District, Attn: Ms. Jennifer Morgan, Environmental Compliance Branch, Regional Planning and Environmental Center, P.O. Box 1229, Galveston, TX 77553-1229

Deadline for snail mail is January 9. Whatever the best solution is, I hope everyone who wants to have a say does so, and that the Army Corps listens to Professors Blackburn and Dunbar.

We have an Ike Dike plan

Now we need a plan to pay for it.

A decade after Hurricane Ike devastated the Texas Gulf Coast, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday that a more ambitious version of the proposed “Ike Dike” — a 70-mile-long coastal barrier that could cost as much as $31 billion — is the preferred choice for protecting the state’s coastline from future storm surges.

The decision moves the project closer to ultimately being built, but leaves unanswered how to pay for it, especially with the estimated cost skyrocketing to between $23 billion and $31 billion — two to three times above original estimates.

The option backed by the Army Corps and the Texas General Land Office is similar to the original “Ike Dike” proposal developed by researchers at Texas A&M University in Galveston after Ike hammered southeast Texas in 2008, with some subtle differences.

“This study actually incorporates both coastal storm risk management features and ecosystem restoration features up and down the coast and some coastal storm risk management down on South Padre (Island),” said Kelly Burks-Copes, the project manager for the Army Corps’ study. “It’s a comprehensive study so it’s looking at the entire coast of Texas, much bigger than the Ike Dike per se.”

[…]

The coastal barrier would be a system of levees and sea gates beginning on high ground north of High Island and running the length of the Bolivar Peninsula. It would then cross the entrance of Galveston Bay and extend the length of Galveston Island, incorporating the existing seawall. It would end at San Luis Pass.

At the entrance to Galveston Bay, a system of storm surge gates would be constructed to protect the coastline during storm events but otherwise allow for navigation to the ports of Galveston, Texas City and Houston. A large navigation gate would also be placed along the ship channel. These gates are modeled after similar structures in London on the River Thames and on the coast of the Netherlands.

A “ring levee” would also be placed around Galveston to protect the bayside of the island, a densely populated area, from surge and flood waters. Gates and other barriers would be built near Clear Creek as well as Dickinson, Offatts and Highland bayous.

The plan also includes beach and dune restoration along the lower Texas coast, and nine ecosystem restoration projects to increase resilience.

Bill Merrell, a Texas A&M University Galveston professor who proposed the Ike Dike concept more than nine years ago, noted some minor differences between his original plan and the one backed by the two agencies.

Merrell’s plan included a gate at San Luis Pass, which is south of Galveston, and a mix of gray and green infrastructure along the coast, most notably a series of 17-foot high dunes on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston in lieu of a seawall. Built after the catastrophic 1900 Galveston hurricane, the 17-foot-high seawall spared the island from many storms but was overtopped by Ike’s storm surge and waves.

He also did not include any protection for High Island, nor a ring levee around Galveston, which he called an “extreme” measure that would require a sophisticated pumping system in the event of heavy rains.

“It’s a fishbowl effect. You have to pump it, and if your pumps work, you’re happy, and if your pumps don’t work, you drown,” Merrell said. “You’d have to pour a lot of maintenance money into it.”

Burks-Copes said that dunes and beach nourishment are “still in play” as options for Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula as opposed to a more hardened barrier.

See here for the background, here for the four alternatives that were under consideration, here for the plan that was chosen, and here for the related documents for public review. I just want to stress that the federal government absolutely, 100%, no questions asked can afford this. We may need to chisel back a tiny portion of the massive giveaway to the rich known as the Trump tax cuts to make us feel like we can afford it, but we can afford it. What we can’t afford is to do nothing.

Army Corps to present Ike Dike options

About time.

Later this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will recommend a multi-billion-dollar plan to help protect the Texas coast — the Houston area in particular — from hurricanes. When it will become a reality, however, is anyone’s guess.

The more than 200-year-old agency — in partnership with the Texas General Land Office — embarked on the largest study in its history in 2014 to determine how best to guard the Bayou City and other coastal communities from devastating storm surge.

Four years later, the agency has devised four proposals for the Houston area; it will announce which one it thinks is best on Oct. 26 and open a 75-day public comment period, according to Kelly Burks-Copes, a project manager at the Army Corps’ Galveston District.

The plans are distinctly different — one of them has an alternate variation — but all include a mixture of new levees, improvements to existing levees and seawalls and the installation of so-called “navigation” gates, which would be closed ahead of storms to protect densely populated areas southeast of Houston and the city’s port — home to the largest refining and petrochemical complex in the nation, which saw significant flooding during Hurricane Harvey — from the deadly swells generated by a hurricane’s strong winds. That storm surge can result in major flooding even before a storm makes landfall.

One of the plans calls for the construction of a 17-foot-high levee along the entirety of Galveston Island, which is about 27 miles long, and the barrier island to its north, Bolivar Peninsula — a concept that has been dubbed the “coastal spine.” Another includes a levee through most of Bolivar but not Galveston. Others call for the construction of new levees and floodwalls further inland. All the plans include the installation of navigation gates in various places and the construction of a so-called “ring levee” around the heart of the Galveston that would protect the island’s backside from retreating storm surge.

Here’s the study. The four proposals are:

Alternative A: Coastal Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Galveston Ring Levee
Alternative B: Coastal Barrier (Modified)
Alternative C: Mid Bay Barrier
Alternative D: Upper Bay Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Bay Rim

Click over to read what they mean. There are also nine Ecosystem Restoration proposals to go along with this. As the story notes, both the original “Ike Dike” idea, proposed in 2008, and the more recent SSPEED Centennial Gate, or maybe the even more recent mid-bay gate, I’m honestly not sure, are in the running. Like I said, go see for yourself what’s on the table. One winner will emerge, and we’ll get a public comment period after that, and then we just need to solve the trivial problem of funding. No big deal, right?

More on the latest Harvey funds

Here’s the full Chron story regarding that allocation of federal Harvey recovery money from Thursday. It wasn’t clear from the Trib story I quoted from, but that levee system is, at least in part, the Ike Dike.

Jim Blackburn of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center said he looked forward to seeing how the $3.9 billion would be appropriated. He said the amount was not nearly enough to fund the “Ike Dike” project, the estimated cost of which runs upwards of $12 billion, but he said the money could be used to build levees on Galveston and Bolivar islands. The corps has not yet approved a design for the coastal spine. A preliminary proposal is expected in the coming months.

“It is irregular to appropriate funds before the internal Corps review is completed,” Blackburn said. “With the amount of money at about $4 billion, that is not enough to build the gates across Bolivar Roads, but you could build the levees with that amount of money. However, no one knows where the levee is to be placed — on the beach? Raising the roads? Behind the roads on Galveston and Bolivar? Usually there is not such uncertainty.”

There remained a lot of uncertainty about the Houston area’s preparedness for the next big storm after 7 inches of rain fell on parts of Harris County on Wednesday before tapering off in the early afternoon. The 6 inches recorded at Hobby airport set a record for the July 4th holiday, putting nerves on edge in a region still recovering from Harvey’s catastrophic flooding.

Those totals fell short of the rainfall during the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods of 2015 and 2016, which each dumped more than a dozen inches on the area, and well short of Harvey’s 30 to 50 inches. Still, the rain fell hard and quickly Wednesday morning, flooding streets, stranding motorists, spurring Harris County to open its emergency operations center and forcing Houston to cancel its Freedom Over Texas celebration for the first time ever. Skies did clear in time for an evening fireworks show near downtown Houston.

“This was a relatively minor storm that almost reached catastrophic proportions,” Blackburn said. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in that these types of storms will occur more and more often.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the July 4th flooding, from a mere 4 to 6 hours of rain, highlighted the need for a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond that will go before voters on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Harvey making landfall. Some of the bond proceeds would go toward reducing street flooding in extreme rain events, according to the Harris County Flood Control District’s website.

Officials from Houston and Harris County said Wednesday that the preparedness level of first responders is the same or better than when Harvey hit, thanks to the addition of rescue boats and high-water vehicles to several agencies. But most of the flood infrastructure damaged by that historic storm has yet to be repaired, and it weakens each time a new system batters the region.

“I would expect to see that where there were previous damages, they probably start to get incrementally worse,” said Alan Black, director of engineering for the flood control district. “Anytime you’ve got exposed slopes, the erosion just keeps on going.”

Blackburn said just 5 percent of the $150 million in needed infrastructure repairs has been completed. He estimated that crews will need until the end of 2019 to complete the rest. The projects that the flood control district has completed so far, at a cost of $6 million, have focused on damaged infrastructure that posed the greatest risk to public safety.

See here for the background. I think of the Ike Dike as mostly protection for Galveston and the Port of Houston, but it is intended to extend down the coast. As Jim Blackburn notes, there are still many questions about the Ike Dike, which is why there are still bills to study it rattling around in Congress. We’ll see what happens with this. As for how the rest stacks up with the county bond referendum, I imagine they’re complementary, which is how it should be.

Let’s review those flood control regulations

Seems like a good idea, wouldn’t you say?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to review Harris County’s flood control regulations to gauge whether they sufficiently neutralize the flood risk posed by the region’s booming development, a question that has drawn increasing scrutiny after a series of storms in recent years, capped by Hurricane Harvey, have devastated the region.

The Harris County Flood Control District already had begun a review of the regulations and asked in August for a third-party re-examination by the Corps. The district expects preliminary results at the end of October.

“We are looking at where development is going, is there any trend that we are seeing,” said Ataul Hannan, planning division director for the flood control district. “We might have to go in and fine-tune areas.”

The county’s flood control rules largely center around a principle called “detention,” a requirement that any development – subdivision, strip mall, gas station – hold runoff in a basin and release it slowly so as to not increase flooding downstream.

Regulations mandate that the basins, also called detention ponds, hold enough water to mimic the landscape being paved over.

After repeated storms in recent years, a growing chorus of critics has connected the county’s rapid development with its destruction.

Following last year’s Tax Day floods, a Houston Chronicle investigation found that flood control regulations, including detention requirements, routinely were undercut by developers.

[…]

Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney who has sued the Corps and the county over flood control issues, said a Corps review would not be objective, given the ties between the agencies.

“They need an independent assessment because the problem with Harris County’s detention regulations is they are not strict enough,” said Blackburn, a co-director of Rice University’s center for Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters.

The city will be doing its own separate review of its detention requirements in the coming months. Doing the review is one thing, but enforcement is quite another, and ensuring that the review is sufficient and spares no concern about anyone’s feelings is still one more. There’s no room for denial anymore. We’ve been given a very clear demonstration of what the flaws in our current policies are. There’s no excuse for not getting it right this time.

Emmett calls for changes to county’s flood strategy

Good to see.

Judge Ed Emmett

Calling Tropical Storm Harvey’s devastation a “game-changer,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Monday called for a sweeping reexamination of the region’s flood control strategy, a process that could include billions of dollars to upgrade aging dams, building a new storm water reservoir and ramping up regulations to tamp down booming development in flood-prone areas.

The set of options outlined by Emmett on Monday, if implemented, would be the biggest change in decades to how the Houston region protects against its perennial rains and floods. Emmett said everything would be on the table, including large-scale buyouts, banding with surrounding counties to create a regional flood control district and seeking authority from the state to levy a sales tax to pay for what likely would be a massive initiative.

Emmett, a Republican who has served as county judge since 2007 and largely is seen as a pragmatist, likened the changes to a post-flood push in the 1930s that led to the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District and the construction of the Addicks and Barker dams on the city’s west side, which today protect thousands of homes of homes, downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“We can’t continue to say these are anomalies,” Emmett said. “You’ve got to say, ‘We’re in a new normal, so how are we going to react to it?'”

Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and frequent critic of Harris County’s flood control strategy, was encouraged after hearing Emmett’s comments Monday.

“This is the single best piece of news I have heard post-Harvey from any elected official,” said Blackburn, who has sued the county on several occasions and co-directs Rice University’s center on Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters. “I would like to hear every one of them say that.”

[…]

Included in the options Emmett outlined Monday were buyouts, not just of individual homes, but whole tracts of land. He said a wish-list of homes that are not already being targeted by projects, such as the upgrades on Brays Bayou, could cost $2.5 billion.

A regional flood control district could be modeled after the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, created in 1975 to oversee the conversion from well water to surface water after sinking ground alarmed residents and public officials.

Emmett said given the repetitive flooding, the 100-year standard the county uses to design projects and regulate development, would need to be reexamined.

“We basically had three 500-year events in two years,’ he said.

An additional reservoir and a levee in the northwest part of the county to back floodwaters from Cypress Creek – both part of the options Emmett outlined – had been part of an original U.S. Army Corps plan when it built the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Those projects failed to materialize, however, and land costs became prohibitive as people moved in.

As we now know, this includes a bond issue of up to $1 billion. On top of that, Commissioners Court has filed an application with FEMA to buy out some houses in high risk areas. Emmett has also mentioned federal funds for some projects, which state officials are also seeking, reallocating the county budget to put more of an emphasis on flood mitigation, and maybe asking the Lege to provide another revenue stream such as a sales tax. Some of this may now be mooted by the bond issue, and some of it may be discarded for lack of support. The important thing is to get the conversation started, so kudos to the county for that.

“We must find a way to co-exist with the bayou ecosystem”

Offcite points to a way forward.

We must find a way to co-exist with the bayou ecosystem, not get in its way. As Albert Pope, a professor at Rice Architecture, has pointed out in a series of proposals, most of Houston’s housing stock will be rebuilt over the next fifty years. It would make the most sense to plan that development outside floodplains. It’s a simple idea that requires a big shift in how we insure, subsidize, finance, and govern ourselves. We have to rethink our economy the way Jim Blackburn, Rice Professor in Practice and co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED), has come to understand it: ¨‘economy’ as a flood mitigation alternative.¨

We should push for collaborative regional planning entities in lieu of independent fiefdoms of utility districts. Texas has produced innovative approaches in the past. Galveston reinvented municipal government to raise the entire city up after the Great Storm of 1900. When subsidence started swallowing up whole neighborhoods, the entire region worked together to transition from ground to surface water. Bayou Greenways 2020 is creating the beginnings of a new backbone that marries flood mitigation, parks, transportation, ecosystems, and economic development. The proposed Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area would provide a tourism infrastructure for private landowners and institutions that agree to preserve the natural buffers that protects our coast. Likewise, the dikes, floodgates, and seawalls we need to protect lives and industry from storm surges and rising sea levels can be designed to help not hurt wildlife and improve rather than impede public access to our bays and beaches. We should look to the lessons learned from New Orleans, where the response to Katrina exacerbated inequalities, and from the Dutch, who have developed a holistic approach to water management.

Also offering constructive suggestions – twelve of them – is Jim Blackburn:

2) We must get a handle on the projected rainfall from big storms such as Harvey as well as the simpler frontal movements such as those that generated the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods. Our current concepts of the 100-year and 500-year floods and flood plains are obsolete. We have to stop denying that our climate is changing. We have had too many big storms over the last few years to simply write them off as aberrant. They are part of a new pattern of severe storm events that will plague us for decades to come, according to climate change experts. We need to understand what we are dealing with and start giving our citizens first-class information about these issues. State and local government employees are afraid even to mention climate change because of the politics – because of fear of losing their jobs. Well, the politics need to be damned if they refuse to recognize a key element of protecting our citizens from current and future flood problems.

3) Addicks and Barker reservoirs are the best flood control investment ever made in the Houston region, combining large land areas and high levees to impound water upstream of the heart of the city. But these dams are currently in bad shape and are rated as two of the six most dangerous dams in the United States due to structural issues that are compounded by the large population protected by them. The protection and restoration of these dams is a major priority that must be taken forward. Even more important is the fact that over the 60 or more years that they have been protecting us, they have slowly been filling with dirt and sediment from stored storm water. The capacity of these reservoirs could be increased substantially by removing this accumulation, and we should do it. There is at least one new reservoir that should be constructed in northwest Harris County that can help on flooding along Cypress Creek, Bear Creek and Buffalo Bayou. It should be pursued as soon as possible, and other upstream locations should be found on virtually every stream in our region.

[…]

10) Our pattern of development has been outward from the center of the city up the watersheds of the various bayous and creeks. As such, our new upstream development has dumped increased runoff on our older downstream subdivisions and commercial structures. Inadvertently, we have flooded older neighborhoods while attempting to keep flood-control costs lower in the new ones, effectively subsidizing new development on the backs of the downstream residents. Floodplain maps have grown, and more people are in the 100-year floodplain than in the past. We must ensure policies exist that require no more runoff from new development than was the case before development.

Read the whole thing, both of them. We can choose to do things differently. It will take years to make it happen, but it can happen if we want it to.

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.

Obama signs Cornyn flood mitigation bill

The title to this post is a bit of an overbid, but this is still a good thing.

President Obama on Monday signed into law a bill that could help expedite the long process of constructing a hurricane protection system for the Texas coast, including the particularly vulnerable Houston region.

The “Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation,” or WIIN, Act contains a major provision of another bill U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed in April — the month after The Texas Tribune and ProPublica published an interactive report exploring the dire impacts of a monster storm hitting the nation’s fourth-largest city and its massive petrochemical complex. Scientists are still fine-tuning plans to protect against such an event, which they say could kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people and cripple the economy and environment.

Most agree on the need to build a project known as the “coastal spine,” a massive floodgate and barrier system, but there is no official consensus plan. (State lawmakers have asked scientists to settle on a plan to protect the coast, but they’re still in disagreement.) 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.

The bill Cornyn filed in April, called the “Corps’ Obligation to Assist in Safeguarding Texas,” or COAST, Act, was designed to hurry things along by requiring the Corps to take local studies on the issue into account (one by a six-county coalition, in particular) and by eliminating the need for Congress to authorize construction of whatever project the Corps ends up recommending.

The bipartisan WIIN Act includes only the former provision requiring the Corps to account for local studies, meaning Congress still will have to sign off on any plan. (The COAST Act passed the Senate in September but never passed the House.)

See here for some background. We’re still a long way from something being built, as we lack such minor details as consensus on what to build and a funding mechanism for it. But this is a step forward, so credit to Sen. Cornyn for shepherding the bill through and to President Obama for signing it. The Current and Space City Weather have more.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ike Dike gets a study

The “Ike Dike”, a network of dikes and gates off the coast of Galveston that was first proposed last year by William Merrell as protection against storm surges from future hurricanes, is being discussed more seriously by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District.

Although the Ike Dike may not be the final solution — environmentalists have raised concerns about the effect of gating off Galveston Bay and the project’s potential to spur development in sensitive areas — Merrell is happy there will be a comprehensive study of the issue.

“It will get a fair shake,” Merrell said of the Ike Dike.

“During this process everyone gets a chance to get their two cents in. My goal was to make sure this got on the table and that it got a fair hearing. Now that’s happening and I couldn’t be more pleased.”

A new report released last week by Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center bolsters the case for doing something to mitigate storm surge, said Phil Bedient, the center’s director, who co-authored the report with environmental attorney Jim Blackburn.

“It’s pretty clear that we now really need to have a serious discussion about how to defend and mitigate against surge as best we can. You can’t completely protect an area, but you can reduce the risk,” Bedient said.

The report reinforces the notion that Ike could have been worse. Had it struck 30 miles down the Texas coast, for example, the surge at the Port of Houston would have been 19 feet, instead of just over 13.

It’s scary to think that Ike could have been a lot worse, isn’t it? Blackburn was one of the ones raising environmental concerns about the dike approach, so alternatives will get a fair hearing as well. The website for the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED) is here. You can read their full report here, an overview of some of its findings here, and a brief status report here. To me, the key bit is this from that last link:

Dr. Merrill has estimated the Galveston portion of the Ike Dike to cost roughly $3 billion, or only 5-6 cents of property tax for residents in the affected counties over the next 30 years. Wayne Klotz, president of the Houston engineering firm Klotz Associates Inc., believes the estimate is higher at around $7 billion to $10 billion. Whatever the final cost may be, advocates believe there is a high benefit to cost ratio for such a project when financial consideration is given for the structure’s potentional to prevent future damage.

Even at the high end, $10 billion is a relatively small amount, which would be amortized over decades and which would have long-lasting benefits. Cost is always a consideration, but if that’s the most expensive scenario, it shouldn’t be an obstacle.