US House approves massive $31 billion 'Ike Dike' project to protect Texas coast from hurricanes

ByErin Douglas, The Texas Tribune
Thursday, June 9, 2022
Residents debate if coastal barrier will help in hurricane protection
Those who live along the coast are fearful of storm damage, but hopeful a new proposal will help them stay safe during the next hurricane.

The U.S. House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would authorize federal agencies to begin planning for an estimated $31 billion coastal barrier project that would affect hundreds of miles of Texas coast.

The video above is from a previous report.

The biggest chunk of the project is known as the "Ike Dike," named after the destructive hurricane that rocked Galveston Island in 2008, a massive concrete gate system that would span a nearly two-mile gap from Galveston Island to Bolivar Peninsula. The gate project alone would account for at least $16 billion and require 18 years to build, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates. The bill still needs Senate approval.

More than a decade of planning and hundreds of millions of state dollars have already gone into studying the idea to build the Ike Dike along with a series of other Texas coastal infrastructure and environmental projects - from artificial barriers to beach and dune restoration - that would help harden Texas' shoreline against hurricane storm surge and rising sea levels.

With its bays and estuaries, the Texas coast has thousands of miles of shoreline with beach and dune systems, lagoons, seagrass beds, oyster reefs and tidal marshes.

The Texas coastal project is included in both the Senate and House versions of the Water Resources Development Act, which contains various federal water, coast, and flooding projects that require congressional approval to move forward.

Only five Texans, all Republicans, voted against the bill: U.S. Reps. Pat Fallon of Sherman, Lance Gooden of Terrell, Troy Nehls of Richmond, Chip Roy of Austin and Van Taylor of Plano.

U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, said the next big issue is securing the money for the project.

"It's important for Texans to come together around supporting this project," Fletcher said.

The bill doesn't include funding, which will require a separate request to Congress from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Fletcher and others expect Congress to fund it in smaller appropriations rather than all at once.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers already has a massive backlog of projects - worth more than $100 billion - that have been authorized by Congress but lack federal and local funding to begin construction.

The Texas coastal project would be the largest civil engineering project ever proposed in the U.S., and it will likely be competing for money with many other coastal projects.

"Once this project is authorized, nobody knows how it's going to be funded," said Amanda Fuller, director of the Texas Coast and Water Program at the National Wildlife Federation.

Fuller and others from environmental groups have requested more information about the project's potential environmental impacts and want the plan to include measures to lessen the damage to coastal water flows and wetlands.

"The Texas coast is going to change as we know it forever from this project, if it's implemented," Fuller said. "I don't know that folks have really grasped the scale of the change that they're going to see."

Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, a conservation nonprofit, said he's wary of how the massive project has moved through the process without, in his view, figuring out all the details of its environmental impacts, such as what reducing the flow of water in and out of Galveston Bay could do to the environment.

"(The corps) is saying, 'Trust us and we'll figure it out down the road,'" Stokes said. "The proponents of the barrier have done a good job of selling a general proposal, but it's a lot more complicated than that."

Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, the chief of engineers for the corps, prepared a report on the project that was considered by Congress and predicted that more than 1,500 acres of wetlands and oyster reefs will be affected by the project and require mitigation efforts to reduce harm. About 1,400 acres of habitat will be created or restored to offset the negative environmental impacts of the project, the report said.

Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, who has long advocated for the coastal barrier, said he thinks the project is necessary not just for coastal Texans but for the Texas and U.S. economy.

"This is a national issue, this is not just a Galveston issue," said Mitchell, who was recently appointed to the newly created Gulf Coast Protection District, which will manage local financing for the project.

As for the potential damage to natural water flows, wildlife and fish, Mitchell said he trusts the corps. "This will be an environmentally sensitive project," he said.

Fletcher and other members of the Texas congressional delegation have worked to convince their colleagues in Congress of the project's national significance, arguing that it's crucial to protect the nation's biggest concentration of oil, gas and petrochemical facilities. Texas accounts for about 30% of the nation's oil-refining capacity.

"Given Texas' critical role in powering our country and facilitating trade, protecting our coast isn't just a state or local priority - it's a national imperative," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a written statement in December advocating for the legislation's passage.

Gov. Greg Abbott has also voiced strong support for the project: Last June he said it would "go down in history" as one of the most significant coastal protection projects ever done in Texas.

Blueprint for the Ike Dike

The Ike Dike is the brainchild of Bill Merrell, a marine sciences professor at Texas A&M University in Galveston who studied ways of protecting the ship channel after witnessing the damage caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008. The current corps plan imagines artificial islands anchoring huge floating gates more than 80 feet tall that could close as water levels rise during a storm.

On each side of the floating gates, concrete towers would rise more than 100 feet in the air to hold more vertical gates that could lower into the water during a storm.

When closed, the gates are expected to reduce surge into Galveston Bay by 30% to 60%, according to the corps analysis, depending on the hurricane's track and intensity.

Beyond the gate system, Galveston Island would get a taller seawall and bigger and expanded sand dunes. Beaches on the Bolivar Peninsula would be expanded and more dunes added. Farther into the bay, Clear Lake and Dickinson Bay would both get pump stations and assorted barrier structures.

Farther south along the coast, more than 100 miles of breakwaters, or artificial barriers to protect against storm surges, would be added. Ecosystem restoration projects are planned on more than 2,000 acres of marsh.

In Orange County, John Gothia, the county judge, said that most people he's spoken to about the project are eager to have extra flooding protection. A levee system in the area is included in the corps' plan.

"I would say there's overwhelming support for this project," Gothia said. "We're going to have something to protect our citizens, to protect industry and to protect the way we live, (so) most people were pretty excited about that."

Still, he said there are tradeoffs: Some landowners in Orange County - and others along the Texas coast - will have their land taken by the government through eminent domain if it's in the path of the project. An earlier version of the plan would have seized property from more than 250 landowners in Orange County for a levee system. The current plan would affect fewer than 20, Gothia said.

Texas will need to provide local funds

If, or when, Congress does appropriate money, the state and local governments will be on the hook for a local match, which could total at least $10 billion, but estimates vary due to rising inflation and changes in building costs over the 20-year timeline. Traditionally, such projects require a 65/35 percentage split in federal and non-federal funding.

In 2021, state lawmakers approved $200 million for administrative costs to help build the Ike Dike: Lawyers, salaries, and more were needed to start the Gulf Coast Protection District, a governmental entity with the sole purpose of operating and managing local funds to build parts of the coastal Texas projects in the upper Texas coast (including in Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties). The projects farther south would be spearheaded by the General Land Office.

Yet if all goes according to plan, several billion dollars more will be necessary from the state or local governments, according to corps estimates. The Gulf Coast Protection District's portion is likely to add up to about $10 billion, according to Nicole Sunstrum, the district's executive director.

The district is authorized to impose taxes - if voters in the five counties within the district approve - and issue bonds, but Sunstrum said a local tax is not currently being considered to fund the Ike Dike.

Mitchell, the president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, added that the district's board wants to pursue other revenue streams such as resilience bonds and state money before considering new local taxes.

"It's not like we can just go out and start taxing everybody," Mitchell said. "That's not what we intend on doing. We intend on coming up with alternative funding."

Clarification, June 9, 2022: A previous version of this story said that the coastal barrier project would span thousands of miles of Texas Coast. The Texas coast is 367 miles long, and has 3,300 miles of estuarine shoreline, which includes bays and estuaries.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans - and engages with them - about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues