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To Get Best Coastal Spine for Texas - Develop a Locally-Preferred Alternative to the Proposed USACE Tentatively Selected Plan
by Dr. Bill Merrell
Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Dr. William (Bill) Merrell, president emeritus, regents professor and Mitchell chair: Center for Texas Beaches and Shores, Texas A&M University at Galveston urges crucial changes for consideration prior to going forward with the USACE plan for optimal coastal surge protection. 

This is a longer, more complete version of articles on this subject that have appeared elsewhere.  Guidry News is unique in that, in the spirit of its founder Jim Guidry, it is dedicated to presenting more complete analysis of the news than others.  A decade ago, Guidry was the first outlet to publish the Ike Dike concept, a seemingly radical idea at the time. To achieve a better understanding of the concept, Jim and Lynda Guidry traveled to the Netherlands to observe firsthand the coastal defenses there.  I know they were impressed by how the Dutch worked with nature, especially the engineered dunes that appear so natural.  My thanks to Lynda for publishing this article and my eternal appreciation to Jim, who I suspect is still intently following our progress from Newsman’s heaven.

Change # 1 Move the USACE-proposed levee and floodwall land barriers from behind the coastal highways to the coast and construct the protection needed as natural appearing fortified dunes

On October 26th 2018, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) released their report entitled “Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study.”  This report was the result of a joint effort between the USACE and the Texas General Land Office (GLO) that began in November 2015 and examined the feasibility of alternatives that enhance, restore, and sustain the environment, economy, and culture along the Texas Coast. The report recommends a number of ecosystem restoration (ER) projects along the coast and a system of coastal storm risk management (CSRM) features to protect the upper Texas coast.  With the report’s release, the USACE began a 75-day comment period, which ends January 9, 2019, specifically designed to solicit public comment on the Tentatively Selected Plan (TSP).  This article and other OPEDS as well as more detailed work on the TAMUG Ike Dike website is designed to be a part of the public comments on the report as well as a means to inform the public on relevant issues so they will be better prepared to express their views directly to the USACE.

As the basis for its TSP, the USACE and GLO examined five CSRM alternatives and chose the option that has, as its principal protection feature, a coastal spine that extends the protection of the Galveston Seawall east and west through a system of levies, floodwalls and gates. The alternative chosen is very similar to the Ike Dike concept first proposed by researchers at Texas A&M University at Galveston over a decade ago. So our support of the USACE’s basic protection strategy, a coastal spine, should come as no surprise. However, Texas A&M and its partner research organizations, Delft Technical University and Jackson State University, have studied and refined the Ike Dike concept for a number of years, so there is a rich store of knowledge available for developing beneficial modifications to the USACE TSP.  These modifications would result in a coastal spine design better suited to protect and enhance the Texas Coast – a locally-preferred option that would blend protection into a spine design that fits better into the economic, environmental, social and recreational fabric of our coastal communities. Our aim is to convince the USACE to seriously consider and adopt our proposed changes and urge other stakeholders to do the same with the shared goal of making our coastal protection the best possible.

The coastal spine as proposed by the USACE starts at San Luis Pass in the west and proceeds eastward along Galveston Island as a line of levees or floodwalls just behind the coastal highway until it reaches a ring levy around the eastern part of the City of Galveston now protected by the Seawall.  The Seawall extends to Bolivar Roads, where a series of environmental gates and a large navigation gate provide a sea barrier.  On the Bolivar side levee and floodwall protection again extends eastward just behind the coastal highway until it reaches an eastern section that heads northward with a small gate at the GIWW.  In addition to the Galveston Ring levee, supplements to the basic coastal spine protection are proposed for the west side of Galveston Bay including gates at Clear Creek and Dickinson Bayou.

The USACE concept is a sound start in that it provides protection by stopping surge near the coast and keeping most water out of Galveston Bay. But we at Texas A&M’s Center for Texas Beaches and Shores believe that it can be improved and will provide a number of ideas for consideration.  This article concentrates on the placement of the land barriers on Bolivar and west Galveston Island. In future articles and work on our website, we will address gating San Luis pass, water level management in Galveston Bay, the size and configuration of the Bolivar Roads water barrier, the need and sizing of the Galveston ring barrier, gates at Kemah and Dickinson Bayou and the North-South far eastern section, and the USACE’s estimated costs.

But today’s subject and our proposed Change # 1 is “Move the USACE-proposed levee and floodwall land barriers from behind the coastal highways to the coast and construct the protection needed as natural appearing fortified dunes.”

The present plan of placing the land barrier as a levee or floodwall right behind the coastal highways has properly caused a number of people to be upset. It is an example of making an unnecessary “Devil’s choice” of who is put behind and who is put in front of the protective barrier. The barrier would cause takings of property to build and place even more properties on the seaward side of the barrier subject to increased surge, thereby lowering property values and increasing insurance rates.  The “Ike Dike” coastal spine concept can be the only surge protection option that avoids the Devil’s Choice of protecting some while harming others. Why not protect everyone by moving the protection as far forward as possible – to the beach – and placing everyone behind it.

It is interesting that, on its page 14, the USACE report states, “For planning purposes for the DIFR-EIS, the team evaluated a levee/floodwall system across Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island; however, the team recognizes that there are opportunities to optimize the design and alignment to minimize impacts to existing structures and the environment on the peninsula and island. Future design efforts would focus on where engineered dune systems may be appropriate versus levees and floodwalls.” 

We agree and think the future design efforts on engineered dune approaches should be mandatory. Engineered dune systems such as those now existing in the Netherlands would be a much more appropriate solution to a land barrier than walls and levees near the coastal highways of Bolivar and west Galveston Island.  Dr. Jens Figlus, a coastal engineer is designing and laboratory testing hybrid structures appropriate for the Texas coast. Information on Dr. Figlus’ work is on the TAMUG Ike Dike website.  We are in discussions with the City of Galveston to conduct field tests of some of Dr. Figlus’ designs.

Surge protection using dune technology is proven and visually attractive, allows for recreation opportunities and provides a natural environment for dune ecosystems. Strategically, it allows all residences and businesses to be behind the barrier not in front of it, exposed to additional risks because of the barriers presence. Also, because it is located on the public beach no property owners are displaced and no wetlands are disturbed.

On the other hand, it does mean that we would have to deal with stopping erosion now. But, if not now, when?  Allowing erosion to run free without dune and beach maintenance allows the coast to retreat to hard surfaces such as the coastal highways. The ultimate result is seawall-like structures covering the entire coast of upper Texas – an outcome none of us wants.  We applaud the USACE for its inclusion of beach and dune nourishment on Bolivar, Galveston Island and Follet’s Island in its TSP. We further note that the USACE’s ERDC has also produced a comprehensive report on beach nourishment opportunities on Galveston Island.  We urge the USACE to carefully consider the use of natural appearing engineered dune systems near or on the beach as the primary land barriers and to include beach and dune maintenance in the final plan.  

Remembering Jim Guidry

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