The Galveston Bay Park Plan

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Rapid Hurricane Protection and Long-Term Economic Stability for Galveston Bay

Photo courtesy of Rogers Partners.

It has been 15 years since Hurricane Ike narrowly missed the Houston region, and we must act now to protect us in the future. The Galveston Bay Park Plan is an in-bay multi-use hurricane surge flooding protection barrier designed by the Severe Storm ("SSPEED") Center at Rice University that combines flood protection with navigation improvements.  It is estimated to cost from $3 billion to $6 billion and can be constructed in about five to seven years.  It is compatible with the larger coastal barrier plan being developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ("the Corps").

This exploratory work was completed by SSPEED Center from funding provided by the City of Houston, Harris County, Port Houston and private entrepreneur Joe Swinbank.  It offers the swiftest opportunity for protecting the most people and our national economic resources in the shortest amount of time while the Corps works to bring about comprehensive protection with the barrier plan.

The basic concept of the Park Plan is to initiate implementation of Project 12 to deepen the Houston Ship Channel and use the dredged material from that project to build a hurricane surge protection levee. Dredging will begin in the upper portion of Galveston Bay and the virgin clay that is dug up for the channel deepening will be used to construct a 25-foot-high levee that will run from Chambers County on the northern end of the project to the Texas City levee on the southern end.  Additionally, the Texas City levee is proposed to be raised from its current 17 feet to about 25 feet and is also proposed to be extended westward to address back side vulnerability from surge flooding crossing Galveston Island. 

A diagram of the first phase of the park plan is shown in Figure 1 and the use of dredged material is shown in Figure 2.  Additionally, park space and environmental enhancement are world-class design attributes for everyday use by the public that would be phased in over time as maintenance dredging contributes sediment to be beneficially used for park and wetland creation purposes. 

Figure 1. Layout of 25-foot barrier adjacent to the Houston Ship Channel. Image by Rogers Partners Architects for SSPEED Center.

Figure 2. Diagram illustrating use of Houston Ship Channel dredged material for levee construction. Image by Rogers Partners Architects for SSPEED Center.

The purpose of this barrier is to provide in-bay surge protection from category 3, 4 and 5 storms that are larger than the Corps’ design for the coastal barrier.  Over time as the federal procurement process evolves, the coastal barrier can be completed to provide more comprehensive protection for the entire bay system.  But in the short-term, the park plan can provide significant reduction in surge vulnerability at a very high rate of return on the investment and can also propel forward our next required navigation improvements. 

As part of this system, a new gate structure will have to be built for the mid-portion of Galveston Bay where the levee switches from the east side of the channel to the western side in order to make the connection into the Texas City levee.  The engineering firm of Walter P. Moore and Associates, Inc. has created an elegant and relatively inexpensive gate design that is deployed from either side of the channel and connects to make an arc that will more naturally withstand hurricane surge.   This structure is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. The gate deploys from dry docks at either side of the channel and floats to the center of the channel where the arc is connected and lowered to the bottom to block the oncoming hurricane surge. Image by Walter P. Moore for SSPEED Center.

And make no mistake about it. The Ship Channel and Bayport industrial complexes have significant vulnerability.  At the current time, a category 3 or larger storm would generate well over $100 billion in industrial damage and would destroy much of the LaPorte, Seabrook, Clear Lake, Kemah and Texas City communities.  It would likely be the worst human, economic and environmental disaster in United States history.  The extent of current vulnerability of the Galveston Bay region is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Computer simulation of small category 4 storm (FEMA Storm 36) coming ashore near San Luis Pass. Flood elevations are shown in feet. Image by Dr. Clint Dawson and Dr. Avi Gori for SSPEED Center.

A clear path forward exists here. The Corps of Engineers’ coastal surge barrier project has been assessed in an overall environmental impact statement that set up a process called a “tiered” environmental impact analysis.  Under the Corps proposal, there are several elements:

  • A coastal sand dune barrier system on West Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula
  • A gate structure across Bolivar Roads which is the pass between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula
  • A levee system and seawall heightening project for the City of Galveston
  • An in-bay component involving two flood protection gates, one on Dickinson Bayou and another on Clear Lake

Under the “tiered” system, each of these four projects will have their own EIS and no work can be undertaken until the individual project’s second tier EIS documents are completed and approved. 

The basic implementation concept is to accelerate the timing of the in-bay “tiered” analysis to include consideration of the Galveston Bay Park Plan initial dredging and levee construction proposal.  This in-bay analysis could also be generated by a permit application to construct this project and the completion of a stand-alone EIS.  Either way, the first phase of the Galveston Bay Park Plan could be under construction as soon as two to three years.  This is both very timely and relatively inexpensive when compared to the $50 billion price tag for the coastal barrier.

The bottom line is that there is pathway forward for the region that advances both navigation and coastal surge protection goals while protecting the long-term integrity of the Corps of Engineers’ coastal spine project.  Our vulnerability to a major hurricane is very real.  Our economic future, and the bay’s ecological future, depend on our acting quickly and positively. 

It is important for our region to coalesce around this important first step.  This goes beyond any area’s individual interests about short- and longer-term gains.  This project is about protecting the core economic engine of our national economy as well as the Texas and regional economy and the folks living on Galveston Bay.  The time has come for the region to come together for the benefit of all.

About the Author

Jim Blackburn

Director, SSPEED Center