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Army Corps of Engineers

House committee passes Ike Dike bill

Another step forward.

A House committee on Wednesday approved legislation that gives the go-ahead to the so-called Ike Dike project, a massive $31 billion proposal that includes building giant gates across the mouth of Galveston Bay with the goal of stopping hurricane storm surge.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure voted to move the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 toward the full House for a floor vote. This follows a vote two weeks ago by a similar committee in the Senate, which also included language in its bill approving the project.

Getting the sign-off from key committees in both chambers of Congress marks a significant step forward for a plan that has been spiritedly debated since Hurricane Ike hit with devastating force in 2008. Both bills must be approved by their respective bodies, then merged for a final bicameral vote.

“The Water Resources Development Act is our legislative commitment to investing in and protecting our communities from flooding events, restoring our environment and ecosystems and keeping our nation’s competitiveness by supporting our ports and harbors,” said U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-California, chair of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

Her comments prior to the vote addressed the big picture: “Through the biannual enactment of WRDA, this committee has addressed local, regional, national needs through the authorization of the new US Army Corps of Engineers projects, studies and policies that benefit every corner of the nation.”

The Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study, as the federal version of the Ike Dike plan is formally known, is the largest engineering recommendation of its kind that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ever proposed. It was one of 16 finalized projects included in the House bill.

See here for the background. I still need to see it pass a cloture vote and not get doomed to procedural hell by the likes of Rand Paul, but for now it is moving forward. For now.

A tour of the future Ike Dike

Fascinating stuff.

Federal engineers envisioned a massive version of the “Ike Dike” plan to protect the region from hurricane storm surge. It’s currently sitting with lawmakers, who have to decide whether to pay their share of the $29 billion proposal and move the years-long project ahead.

Those weighing these ideas must consider a granular level of detail, block-by-block, as a recent bus tour of the concept with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made clear. Every component of the new infrastructure stands to change the landscape for people, wildlife and businesses. Each small choice for the huge project matters, such as which homes get left unprotected and what color sand is used to build dunes.

Three main components make up the bulk of the planned work around Galveston Island, where the Gulf Coast Protection District members made a series of stops, each with unique concerns. A series of towering gates will cross the mouth of Galveston Bay. Two lines of dunes will span the island’s west end. What’s known as a ring barrier will encircle the most concentrated part of the city.

Advocates have criticized the plan’s myriad possible environmental impacts, including turtles potentially being crushed by the gates and restricted water flow into and out of the bay. They’ve called for more nature-based solutions and emphasized that no silver bullet will protect people from every storm.

But political support appears to be building for the project, as each hurricane season brings fear of significant damage to the energy capital of the world. The state legislature created the protection district to begin preparing for the project. Members of this group rode the bus last Wednesday with Corps’ outreach specialist Kelly Burks-Copes.

What follows is a story with a ton of photos describing where Ike Dike construction will be, some of the things it will and won’t protect, compromises already made, and more. One detail that I marveled at:

The west end of the island will get two rows of dunes. Burks-Copes described them as “somewhat sacrificial,” meaning they will erode away with time and will need to be built back. There will be drive-overs and walk-overs so people can still access the beach. People swam in the ocean as the tour group disembarked. A bird stuck its beak in the sand.

Building back the dunes isn’t as simple as it sounds. The color of the sand dictates temperature, which in turn influences the gender of newborn turtles, Burks-Copes said, so engineers plan to carefully match the natural hues. The previously-built dunes that day at the end of the seawall were so small that the walkover to get over them basically rose high over flat sand.

Now I need to go down a Google rabbit hole to learn more about the correlation between sand color and turtle gender. You can go read the rest of this story.

Federal funding for the Ike Dike

This would be a big step forward.

Congressional members this week are moving one step closer to authorizing a massive, $31-billion-dollar system to block storm surge along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula and at the mouth of Galveston Bay.

A proposed draft of the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 released Friday suggests the U.S. should carry out the Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study, informally known as the “Ike Dike.”

If approved, the federal government would pick up $19.2 billion of the cost of the multifaceted project that would mean building dunes, flood walls and giant gates to try to protect the most populous stretch of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Texas legislators already created a local government district that is able to impose taxes to help pay for the non-federal share of the cost, which is $11.7 billion.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will review the text of the draft bill on Wednesday. Legislation for these types of projects is written at regular intervals so that work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can get off the ground.

The U.S. House of Representatives version of the bill hasn’t been released. Both measures will need approval from their congressional chambers. Then they will be combined into one bill and put up for a final vote.

There are eight million ways for a bill to die in the Senate, so it’s best to think of this as vaporware up until it’s actually on President Biden’s desk. The reporting on this makes it sound routine, and maybe it would be in less stupid times than these, but we’re not fooled. Let me know how the cloture vote goes, and then we can talk.

The New Orleans perspective on the Ike Dike

Of interest.

Kelly Burks-Copes braces herself against the wind and marches past the ruins of Fort San Jacinto, a strategic spot on a sandy, wave-battered point where Spain, France, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy and the United States have all taken turns building coastal defenses to protect Galveston Bay.

Now it’s Burks-Copes’ turn. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager is leading an ambitious effort to build the “Ike Dike,” a $30 billion storm protection project that’s been in the works since its namesake hurricane roared through the bay almost 14 years ago. The project will dwarf the one built around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and perhaps even the immense coastal barriers in the Netherlands that inspired both Gulf Coast projects.

“If it’s not the largest surge barrier in the world, it’s certainly the world’s longest,” Burks-Copes said, pointing at the 2.5-mile-wide channel between the old fort site on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

By comparison, the Lake Borgne surge barrier between New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish, once considered the world’s largest, is 1.8 miles long. Had the New Orleans system been built today, it’d cost about 70% as much as the Houston system.

“It’ll be like a 10-story building all the way across,” Burks-Copes said of the Galveston Bay surge barrier. “It’s something that you can barely imagine. But what do they say in Texas? ‘Go big or go home.’”

The project aims to harden 70 miles of coastline with artificial dunes, sea walls and vast steel gates, making the bay a veritable fortress that could be sealed when hurricanes threaten.

It’s ambitious and expensive, but it still may be woefully inadequate — just like New Orleans’ system.

Neither project is likely to hold up against the worst hurricanes. The New Orleans collection of levees and floodwalls is designed to withstand storm surges with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year, a so-called 100-year storm. The Ike Dike may not even meet that level of protection, the Corps admits.

Climate change is increasing the likelihood that 100-year storms and floods could occur every few years, with monster 500-year storms popping up every 50 to 100 years. The Houston area has seen no fewer than three such events, including Hurricane Harvey, between 2015 and 2018.

“Look, (the Ike Dike) needs to be built,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer who teaches at Rice University in Houston. “But it needs to be built for the bigger storms to come. It will be way outdated once it’s constructed.”

See here and here for the most recent updates. I know we’re in for a long haul here, but I hadn’t thought of it before in the terms Blackburn expresses, that we’re going to have to keep going, and maybe even start over at the drawing board, when this thing is built. That’s more than a little daunting, and maybe a bit discouraging, but we can’t let up. Even an outdated Ike Dike is going to be better than no Ike Dike, and it will serve as the starting point for Ike Dike II: The Next Generation. What other choice do we have? Read the rest, there’s a lot more.

Let’s pay some attention to the Gulf Coast Protection District

They may raise some tax revenue to help pay for the Ike Dike, so best to know what’s happening with it. Especially since they didn’t exactly go out of their way to make it easy to do that.

Danielle Goshen spent months trying to figure out when and where the new group that will work on funding the so-called Ike Dike was meeting. The environmental advocate was eager to know how the Gulf Coast Protection District would cover the local cost if Congress approves the sweeping coastal barrier project.

Goshen is a policy specialist and counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. She’s concerned about pursuing a $29 billion dollar plan, with the prospect that the project could cost even more. The proposal calls for building a massive series of gates across the mouth of Galveston Bay to stop hurricane storm surges from pushing up the industry-lined ship channel.

The legislature created the protection district to find local funding for 35 percent of the portion of the project built here — perhaps by levying taxes. Supporters say the concept is necessary as climate change will likely strengthen the winds and rains of future storms. Advocates such as Goshen caution it will take at least 12 years to design and build. Non-federal funding needed for the barrier system is about $10 billion.

Environmental advocates have expressed wide-ranging concerns about the proposal, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finalized last fall. They’ve pressed for more information about how the foundations of the gates will restrict water flow between Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, potentially impacting water quality and marine life. The barrier also won’t stop the worst of storms and it will still leave the region especially vulnerable during the years it takes to build.

Harris County is the most populous of the five counties the district represents, and residents could be responsible for some 85 percent of the local tax share for the proposal, making for about a 20 percent tax increase, Harris County Administrator David Berry said in December. Galveston, Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties are also in the district’s jurisdiction.

The costly burden makes it all the more pressing for stakeholders and residents to be tuned into the decision making, Goshen said.

“The real concern is that they’re not doing enough to make these meetings accessible to the public and to really get the word out that they’re having these meetings in the first place,” Goshen said, adding, “We really think that it’s imperative that this district has public engagement at the top of mind.”

Goshen kept searching online for months for information about the meetings, she said, and found nothing. It wasn’t until near the end of 2021 that someone forwarded her an agenda.

It turned out Gov. Greg Abbott had appointed six board members in June. Each county’s commissioners court picked one additional board member. The group had been getting together since August. The meetings were open to all, and met legal requirements, whether or not they’d been thoroughly advertised, according to those in charge.

[…]

The newly formed district now has a website and email distribution list but as the pandemic stretches on, the group still offers no way for the public to watch meetings online. It also has pages on FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter. Goshen, as well as a Houston Chronicle environment reporter and an environmental advocate, Bayou City Waterkeeper’s legal director Kristen Schlemmer, were its only three Twitter followers before the Chronicle covered the group Wednesday.

See here and here for the background. I confess I had totally forgotten about this – it’s not like we’ve been in a low-news environment lately, but still – but I am now a Twitter follower of the GCPD, whose count was up to 119 including me as of Monday evening. I hope that whatever business the conduct going forward, it’s better publicized and better covered. This is a big deal, and we deserve to know what they’re up to.

Vote No and take the dough

It’s as Republican as insurrection and hydroxychloroquine.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, last year left little doubt why she was voting against a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure measure, calling it nothing more than a “socialist plan full of crushing taxes and radical spending.”

Yet, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on Wednesday that very same infrastructure bill would be funding a $403-million flood control project in her district in the Fort Worth area, Granger wasted no time in hailing the effort.

“This is a great day for Fort Worth,” she said in a statement. She did not mention where the Army Corps was getting the money but thanked the agency for its “hard work and tireless commitment” to making her community safer.

Granger is not the only Republican cheering on projects generated by a bill that she voted to kill. In recent days, at least four other Republican members of Congress have praised initiatives made possible by the infrastructure law they opposed. Political analysts say they are not likely to be the last.

“Infrastructure remains a relatively nonpartisan issue, so even though those lawmakers may have not voted for the bill, they still have to answer to their constituents, and they want to align themselves with things that are popular,” said Cynthia Peacock, a professor of political communications at the University of Alabama.

[…]

Granger, the Texas Republican who commended the Army Corps of Engineers for addressing flooding problems, defended her vote against the legislation, saying she “wasn’t against this project.”

“I was against some of the other parts of that bill,” Granger said in a Thursday news conference.

I mean, sure, that’s one way to go about it. There’s also the Gene Wu approach, which gives you legitimate input into the process and enables you to secure at least some of your priorities, even if they come wrapped in a bill you otherwise don’t like. Lord knows, the Dems would have welcomed that collaboration, which they did manage to get in the Senate. To be sure, that route will not be popular with the seething masses of Republican primary voters, but that’s a much bigger problem within the Republican Party, and I can’t help you with it. If you are going to do it this way, you can and should be criticized for it.

And just to prove that this kind of hypocrisy is endemic:

Yes, what Rep. Crenshaw is doing here is perfectly legal. It makes absolutely no sense to ban elections administrators from doing this same exact thing, but that never stopped the vote suppressors. “It’s fine when I do it and it’s a travesty when you do it” is the logic here, and as you can see it’s pretty much impossible to argue with.

UPDATE: Crenshaw has gotten pilloried for this, not that it matters. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing.

Maybe flood tunnels really are the answer

Time for another study.

Japanese flood tunnel

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is revisiting the idea of constructing a large, underground tunnel beneath the city of Houston — part of its efforts since Hurricane Harvey to alleviate the potential for flooding around the Addicks and Barker reservoirs and along Buffalo Bayou.

Engineers plan to spend two more years studying the possibility and other alternatives, the agency announced Wednesday. It will use $1.8 million in federal funds to do so; an additional $3.4 million from two Harris County county commissioners will further local study of the concept, which community advocates have supported.

The project extension and potential re-imagining of how flood control works here comes after earlier possibilities that the Corps proposed elicited major public backlash. Engineers in an interim report last year suggested digging Buffalo Bayou wider and deeper, or building a third dam and reservoir on the Katy Prairie.

Local advocates have long fought to protect the bayou in its natural form. And environmentalists rallied around the prairie, which supporters consider a necessary, natural way to address flooding and improve water quality.

The agency announced Wednesday that engineers will spend two more years analyzing the tunnel option and other alternatives. The Corps will use $1.8 million in federal funds to continue the study.

An additional $3.4 million from two Harris County commissioners will support complementary research at the county level.

The Corps previously considered tunneling floodwater under the city to be too expensive, with an estimated cost of $6.5 to $12 billion. Engineers envisioned a tunnel some 150 feet below ground, starting at the reservoirs to the west and perhaps following the bayou’s path to the Houston Ship Channel.

Yet the agency noted Wednesday that it had received “substantial” community input. The Corps now hopes to release a draft report and environmental impact statement for what it calls the Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study next fall. It would then accept more input and issue a final report, aiming to complete the study by December 2023.

“We are very committed to this important, monumental project,” Commander Col. Tim Vail of the Galveston District said in a prepared statement, “and we have heard the public’s feedback.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. As the story notes, and which I don’t think I realized, Austin and San Antonio have similar tunnels, though they are much shorter than Houston’s would be. Look at the map in the story – these suckers would go all the way from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs to either Buffalo Bayou or the Ship Channel. Honestly, that price tag is not really that high, if there’s federal investment in the project. I say study away and let’s see where it takes us.

The Ike Dike is still a work in progress

I’ll be honest, I thought we were further along than this.

Members of Texas’ congressional delegation are gearing up for a “marathon” effort to secure funding for a long-sought barrier to protect the Texas Gulf Coast from catastrophic storm surge.

That’s because it’s unlikely much, if any, of the resiliency funding in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law this month will go toward the $29 billion project.

The effort will begin in earnest next year, when Texans in both chambers will push to include federal authorization for the so-called “Ike Dike” in a massive water resources bill that Congress passes every two years. But members of the delegation are bracing for what will likely be a long, difficult push for as much as $18 billion in federal funding.

“This is going to develop over a number of years,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, told Hearst Newspapers. “This is going to be a marathon.”

Cornyn said he doesn’t anticipate trouble getting the federal OK for the project in the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, a biennial, typically bipartisan bill that helps pay for flood mitigation infrastructure across the country.

But the water bill typically doesn’t pass Congress until fall or winter, and it isn’t expected to include funding for the coastal spine.

“That’s going to be a heavy lift because, unfortunately, it’s easier to get money after a natural disaster than it is to prevent one,” Cornyn said.

[…]

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget is preparing to present the project to Congress for authorization and appropriations, said Lynda Yezzi, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps.

Members of the Texas delegation earlier this year had hoped to get a jump on funding as they pushed to include a dedicated stream of money for coastal resiliency measures like the Ike Dike in the infrastructure bill.

“Now is the time to be innovative and strategic and to spend our resources preparing, in partnership with our local stakeholders and capable federal partners,” Texas members of Congress led by U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat, wrote to leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in May.

That didn’t happen. Instead the package included funding for $47 billion for a wide range of resiliency projects, including coastal projects, but also to help brace against flooding, droughts and wildfires and bolster cybersecurity.

The bill also included about $9.6 billion in funding for the Army Corps, which is overseeing the project. But the Army Corps has a deep backlog that currently includes more than $100 billion worth of work.

“This is why we need to continue to advocate for more opportunities,” Fletcher said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers.

Fletcher said the resiliency funding in the $1 trillion infrastructure package — some of which is targeted to states that have been affected by federally declared disasters, including Texas — is a “good start.” But she said the delegation needs to continue to push for a dedicated funding stream for coastal resiliency projects.

Looking at my last post, I see that we were just at the “presentation of the finalized plan” part of the process, and that getting funding was next. Which is where we are, and at least there appears to be a pathway from here. But we’re still years out from any reasonable expectation that construction will begin, and that’s an awful lot of risk to bear in the meantime. Sure hope our luck holds out.

The final Ike Dike plan

It’s taken a long time to get to this point.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released the final version of its Coastal Texas Study, which examines a proposed coastal barrier to protect the Houston region against storm surge. The report’s completion marks a significant step for a concept that has taken years to develop. It began with the early imaginings of a Texas A&M professor, who designed a so-called “Ike Dike” to protect against devastating surge such as that seen on Bolivar Peninsula from Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Environmental advocates, regional planners and concerned residents are among those who have offered feedback on various project drafts. The details and big picture have been argued every which way. Now begins a years-long process before it can be built, leaving the region and the Houston Ship Channel still vulnerable to hurricanes as the design is sorted out and funding secured.

Here’s what you need to know now:

You can click over to read the report itself and the Chron summary. A few things have changed along the way, but the basics are still all there. The study also includes a final environmental impact statement, if you want to know more about that. The Army Corps of Engineers will sign off on the plan and send it on to Congress on or before October 12, at which point the question of funding this project, which has a $29 billion price tag, can begin in earnest. I have no idea at this point if Ike Dike funding will be part of the budget reconciliation process – I don’t think it was in the Senate’s infrastructure bill, but I could be wrong about that. I can’t wait to hear what excuse Ted Cruz will come up with to vote against this.

More than one way to fund the Ike Dike

As long as it gets funded, that’s what matters.

When President Joe Biden proposed a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure bill, some Texas officials had high hopes that it might include funding for the long-awaited “Ike Dike” project to protect the Houston-Galveston region from catastrophic storm surge.

However, the Army Corps of Engineers is pursuing another funding route for the $26 billion project.

Col. Timothy Vail, commander for the Corps’ Galveston district, said the agency is adhering to a methodical federal process as it works toward completing the chief engineer’s report on the massive coastal barrier, siloed from Washington’s political headwinds.

The goal, Vail said, is for that report to be ready for funding through the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, a biennial, typically bipartisan bill that helps pay for flood mitigation infrastructure across the country.

“Congress would have a substantial amount of time to review this report, potentially have hearings on this report, ask questions on their report, both formally and informally before the Water Resource Development Act (of 2022)” was drafted, Vail said in an interview at the Corps’ Galveston headquarters.

Members of Texas’ congressional delegation are exploring whether the infrastructure bill could at least partially fund the project, but time is a factor with Biden aiming to get a bill passed by this summer. The Corps is still months away from officially putting the project on the table for congressional funding.

Corps officials said they are sorting through a final round of public comments as they target late August or early September for release of the final report. The agency will first submit the project for review to the governor’s office and federal and state officials. Then it goes to Congress for consideration.

[…]

Vail did not dismiss the possibility that Congress could choose to fund the barrier through other forms of legislation, but he said “largely, Congress needs a (chief engineer’s) report to authorize” funding.

“The important thing is the due process,” Vail said. “It’s not for me to tell Congress what they can or can’t do. Clearly, it’s within their authority to authorize (funding for the coastal barrier) outside of a Water Resource Development Act.”

Rocio Cruz, a spokeswoman for [Rep. Lizzie] Fletcher, clarified that she is pushing to create a funding stream for coastal resiliency projects such as the Ike Dike.

“She’s aware that the (Ike Dike) final report isn’t going to be ready for the American Jobs Plan, but we wanted to make sure that there’s a federal funding mechanism in place for when that is available,” Cruz said.

See here for some background. The reference to Rep. Fletcher is about her statement that she will push for Ike Dike funding in the infrastructure bill. I will admit, I did not know about the Water Resource Development Act, and I do not know why there was no action to leverage that before now. Maybe the plan just wasn’t ready yet, I don’t know. Whatever the case, it makes sense to pursue both options. We’ve come this far, let’s not leave anything on the table.

Which reminds me, there’s also a third option:

SB1660 is noted in that first link above. Like I said, pursue every option.

The infrastructure bill and the Ike Dike

This is encouraging.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan sure seems to be considering building the Ike Dike.

His $2 trillion plan includes improving and strengthening infrastructure in coastal areas most vulnerable during hurricane season.

Biden pitched part of the American Jobs Plan on Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

The Biden Administration’s plan includes investing in improving “coastal resilience to sea-level rise and hurricanes.” While specific projects were not named in the plan, the Biden administration says the American Jobs Plan will “protect and, where necessary, restore nature-based infrastructure,” which could include funding the Ike Dike.

[…]

State Rep. Gene Wu, who represents part of Houston, circulated a letter to Biden last week requesting federal support for the Ike Dike. Mayor Sylvester Turner and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee have also expressed support for the coastal spine.

The Houston Chronicle’s Benjamin Wermund reports that Biden’s plan also includes $50 billion to improve infrastructure strength against hurricanes and other natural disasters, especially in lower-income areas. Biden’s administration used the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey as an example of the need for increased federal support and infrastructure development.

“People of color and low-income people are more likely to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other climate change-related weather events. They also are less likely to have the funds to prepare for and recover from extreme weather events,” a statement from the White House says. “In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely as white residents to report experiencing an income shock with no recovery support.”

I’ll have more to say about the infrastructure plan, which is not yet a bill but an outline and a list of priorities right now, because if it is realized in its full form it would truly do a lot for Texas. That definitely includes the Ike Dike, mostly because it would solve how to pay for it, which I noted a few weeks ago.

To its credit, the Lege is at least thinking about that issue.

A proposed bill in the Texas Legislature would create a regional district with the authority to tax and issue bonds to raise money to build and maintain a $26 billion storm surge barrier on the southeast Texas coast.

The bill, SB1160, is sponsored by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, with a companion bill in the state House sponsored by Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston. The bills would establish the Gulf Coast Protection District, an entity comprised of members from Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties.

The district would be empowered to operate the long-proposed coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” as well as issue bonds and impose taxes to maintain the project. It would also have eminent domain power to seize property or land “for the exercise of the district’s functions,” according to the bill’s text.

During a Monday meeting of the Senate Water, Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee, Taylor noted that the bill is vital to the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed coastal barrier project, which aims to protect the region from the kind of catastrophic storm surge experienced during Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“This is a very important bill, and not just not just for the state of Texas, but for our country,” Taylor said. “The number one supplier of military aviation fuel is in this area. So if you’re talking about national security, this area gets wiped out and we don’t have the aviation fuel, that would be a security problem. It’s our number one military port. And it’s our number one petrochemical complex.”

[…]

A final report on the coastal barrier study will be completed in April, according to the Texas General Land Office, which is co-sponsoring the study. The report will released to the public in September and submitted to Congress for final approval.

The Gulf Coast Protection District would be governed by a board of 11 directors appointed by the governor in consultation with the respective commissioners courts from each county. Each of the five counties would have one representative except for Harris County, which, because of its larger population, would have two. The district would also include one representative for the regional ports; one representative for the environmental sector; one representative for the regional industrial complex; and one representative for the cities within the five counties.

The district would have to hold a vote among its member counties before it began collecting property taxes, but will be able to issue bonds.

I don’t know how likely this bill is to pass, but I tend to agree with Campos that this is at best an unwieldy mechanism for funding it. Read that last paragraph and ask yourself how likely it is that the member counties of this district are actually able to raise property taxes for this purpose. For more on what’s in the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, see Slate and the Trib.

Flood funding shortfall

Still trying to understand this.

Harris County on Tuesday revealed a $1.4 billion shortfall in funding for flood control projects under the bond program voters approved in 2018, a massive miscalculation that threatens to cause construction delays and cost taxpayers more than expected.

Budget Officer David Berry told Commissioners Court that projected funding from state and federal partners, which was supposed to supplement the $2.5 billion investment by county taxpayers, has not materialized. As a result, the county has committed to doing more work than it currently can afford to do.

“The hope after Hurricane Harvey that federal and state partners would really be focused on Harris County, where we saw the worst damage, has not altogether turned out to be true,” Berry said.

Berry said the county believes it can secure an additional $100 to $500 million from the state and federal governments, but that still leaves “a substantial gap.”

Projects in several watersheds are close to fully funded, though planned improvements in three — Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River — have less than half the necessary dollars. Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe said no projects will be delayed so long as the funding gap is closed by the end of this year.

The bond program currently is projected to be completed around 2028. The flood control district has spent money to design some projects in anticipation of receiving matching funds to begin construction.

[…]

Poppe said the shortfall dates back to early 2018, when Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act. The measure provided a collective $66 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA to help the country recover from the previous year’s destructive storm season, which included hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Harris County and the city of Houston in 2019 received $1 billion each from HUD to repair and rebuild Harvey-damaged homes; the county received an additional $225 million from FEMA for buyouts.

Poppe said the county planned on receiving an additional $1 billion from HUD for flood control projects.

“The logic was … the federal government can get a level of protection on that investment they just made,” Poppe said.

That funding flowed from Washington through the state General Land Office, however, which decided instead to ask Texas cities and counties to apply for individual grants. Poppe said his office has made $900 million in requests, which he hoped would be decided later in the spring.

What’s not clear to me from this is how much of it was an over-estimation on the part of Harris County in putting together the 2018 referendum how much money from the feds and the state would be available, how much is money that we should have reasonably expected that wasn’t appropriated by the feds, and how much is just sitting there in the Land Commissioner’s office waiting to be handed out to cities and counties. All three can be addressed in one way or another, but getting the Land Commissioner to get off his ass and give us the money we’ve applied for would be the most direct. I fully expect there to be a massive infrastructure bill taken up (and hopefully passed) by Congress later this year, which can certainly include more funds for flooding projects (and maybe even the ever-elusive Ike Dike), but that depends on things that are out of our control right now. Commissioners Court has directed th flood control district to come up with a plan to secure more funds by June 30, and the commitment is there to complete the project list one way or another, which is what the voters were promised. Whatever the underlying issue is, let’s figure this out and get this moving forward.

Who cares how much it will cost to build the Ike Dike?

Imagine how much it will cost to recover from a catastrophic hurricane whose storm surge could have been mitigated by the Ike Dike. You know, like that hurricane from earlier this year that would have done exactly that had it hit 150 miles or so west of where it did hit.

The Army Corps of Engineers has revised its plan for a coastal barrier that would fundamentally alter the southeast Texas coastline, with massive sea gates across the Houston Ship Channel and 43 miles of dunes and renourished beaches spanning Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston.

The newest version of the coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” was released Tuesday by the Corps and Texas General Land Office. While initial estimates said the project would cost as much as $32 billion, officials now peg the cost as $26.2 billion.

The plan incorporates feedback received during a contentious round of public meetings after the original plan was released in October 2018. Many coastal residents and environmentalists balked at a structure that they said could harm ecology and wildlife and tank property values.

But with three major hurricanes narrowly skirting the Houston-Galveston region this year during a particularly active season — 27 named storms — state officials noted that a project on the scale of the coastal barrier would protect the region for decades to come as the climate gets warmer and more volatile.

“The Corps of Engineers recognizes the coast as a extremely vibrant place to live and recognizes, and our metrics in the army show, that the Texas coast is leading economic growth for the nation,” said Mark Havens, deputy land commissioner for the General Land Office. “This hurricane season has given us pause because it’s given us too many close calls not to heed this warning.”

The Corps plans to convene three days of virtual public meetings, beginning Nov. 16. The public comment period will end on Dec. 14, and feedback will be incorporated into the final feasibility report, which the Corps plans to publish in May 2021. The Corps also emphasized interactive web features for the public such as 3-D virtual tours of some of the project’s features and flood impact maps.

Once the study is complete it will be proposed for congressional authorization and funding. If approved, it is expected to take 12 to 20 years to design and construct.

See here for the previous update. We are virtually certain to get a big honking infrastructure/stimulus bill from the Biden administration in its early days, and this project would fit nicely within it. All we need is for the Texas Congressional delegation to do its part. This will take a long time to build, as noted, so the less screwing around we do, the sooner we can get it started. In conclusion:

Indeed.

No, seriously, what are we going to do to prepare for the next Hurricane Laura?

I mean, the next one is coming whether we’re ready or not. We just don’t know when it will be here.

Though the storm ultimately tracked east, sparing Houston, the problem remains: The region is disastrously unready to handle any of the three main threats of an intense hurricane: a high surge, damaging winds and — even three years after Hurricane Harvey — flooding.

While Harvey’s devastating stall over the Houston area has resulted in billions of dollars of investment in flood control infrastructure and new regulations, Laura reminded the region of what a different kind of storm could do.

In its wake, leaders have made impassioned pleas about preparing for when — not if — that storm does arrive. Most notably, they have ramped up calls for federal funding on a so-called “coastal spine,” a system of levees, gates and dunes first proposed after Hurricane Ike in 2008, to protect the region from a storm surge.

Those plans, though, remain mired in the slog of the federal approval process. The kind of political will and cohesion needed to fast-track such infrastructure typically only forms after disasters, not before.

[…]

There are signs the region has reached an inflection point on the need to protect against that threat. A growing consensus among local officials around the effects of climate change has shifted the public policy debate to figuring out which infrastructure projects will help stave off its worst effects, and at what cost.

The proposed coastal spine, a 71-mile-long barrier system to protect the southeast Texas coast, has received the most attention since it was taken up by the Army Corps of Engineers in October 2018.

The plan is an outgrowth of the “Ike Dike” concept first pitched more than a decade ago by William Merrell, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston. It includes a series of gates that stretch the two-mile length of Bolivar Road, twin rows of 14-foot-high sand dunes across Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, a ring levee around Galveston’s city center and investments in ecosystem restoration.

The price tag has been put at $23 billion to $32 billion, with the dunes and sea gate at the ship channel alone costing up to $18 billion of that. It is in the midst of a five-year design and study process and is on track to be sent to Congress for final approval in May 2021.

“Quite frankly, we need it yesterday,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week. “We’re running out of lives, so to speak.”

Even on the most optimistic timeline, the coastal barrier is 10 to 15 years from becoming a reality. With the Houston-Galveston region a perennial target during the Atlantic hurricane season, there is a growing urgency to find a more expedient, cheaper solution.

The Galveston Bay Park Plan, first proposed by the Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the coastal spine, but adds a mid-bay barrier island system with a 25-foot wall that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney and co-director of the SSPEED Center, says the plan could provide vital protection a lot sooner than the coastal spine, but that it also could complement that barrier. He estimates that if allowed to use dredging spoils from the planned widening of the Houston Ship Channel to build the barrier islands, the project could be completed by 2027 at a fraction of the cost of the coastal spine — an estimated $5 billion to $7 billion.

“You have a coastal defense and that’s your first line of defense and then you come in with your in-bay defense, that is really the one that can protect against your bigger storms,” Blackburn said. “It’s very much almost like thinking in a military sense of how do you defend against an enemy invasion?”

See here and here for some background. I’m of the opinion that we just need to start building something, and that the price tag is a mirage, because the federal government can absolutely afford this. What we can’t afford is to sit around on our asses until the devastating storm we’ve been warned about for years comes and wipes our unprepared selves right off the map.

Just build the effing Ike Dike already

Enough waiting around.

As twin hurricanes converge on the Gulf Coast this week, including one with a decent chance of affecting the Houston-Galveston region, a highly ambitious proposal for protecting the area from a massive storm continues to slowly grind its way through the federal approval process.

Twelve years after Hurricane Ike leveled much of the Upper Texas Coast, federal officials are still studying the effects of a proposed coastal barrier and looking for ways to pay for a project now estimated to cost $31 billion. The next draft of a plan is due out in October.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ current plan to build a 71-mile barrier system to protect the southeast Texas coast has changed significantly since the Corps’ first proposal in October 2018. That proposal — a system of levees and gates stretching from High Island to San Luis Pass — was a close approximation of the “Ike Dike” concept first touted by William Merrell, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston, more than a decade ago.

That original plan called for the construction of levees that would run parallel to FM 3005 on Galveston Island and Texas 87 on Bolivar Peninsula but behind the dune line. This plan for harder barrier would have left thousands of homes adjacent to the beach exposed to flooding and likely required extensive eminent domain buyouts.

The backlash to that original proposal sent the Corps back to the drawing board. By late 2019, the Corps had settled on a double dune system — a field of 12- and 14-foot dunes, approximately 185 feet wide, with a runway of 250 feet of renourished beach leading to the Gulf of Mexico.

[…]

Kelly Burks-Copes, the Army Corps’ project manager for the coastal barrier proposal, emphasized the agency is working with the data that the federal budget allows for at this time. She noted the Army Corps is still studying how ship traffic would navigate proposed sea gates crossing Galveston Bay and whether the gates would allow for minimal tidal flow between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. All of that information will be in the next draft of the barrier plan.

“We still have to finish the environmental impact analysis, and the (barrier) footprints are gonna change slightly as the real estate gross appraisal finishes,” Burks-Copes said in February, referring to eminent domain buyouts that could be required to build the dunes.

See here for the background. I agree there has been a long debate about how to build an Ike Dike, with a number of possible variations and some passionate advocacy on all sides. I do want to make sure we do not have a negative effect on the environment in building it. But at some point we gotta start building. And for crying out loud, don’t come at me with concerns about cost, not after the Republicans spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for the rich and however many trillions on (very necessary and still insufficient) COVID recovery. The Ike Dike is peanuts next to that, and it’s vitally necessary. When the draft plan is submitted to Congress next May, there needs to be a funding bill attached to it. Get this done.

Army Corps held liable for Harvey reservoir flooding

A big deal.

Thousands of Houston area residents and property owners landed a historic win against the U.S. government on Tuesday when a federal judge found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is liable for damage caused when it used homes and businesses to retain floodwater upstream of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs during Hurricane Harvey.

The judge ruled the government’s actions led to a violation of civilians’ rights, finding that officials intentionally stored rising floodwaters on private property. He determined — based on complicated data, testimony, evidence and an in-person tour of test properties — that people whose homes and businesses flooded should be permitted to seek compensation for what happened. The residents and business owners successfully made the case that the government knew for decades that the reservoirs would likely not retain floodwaters in a deluge and they did nothing to prevent it.

“We are extraordinarily pleased for the upstream flood victims and honored that the court found that the government was liable for the damage they suffered,” said Daniel Charest, one of the lead lawyers for the group of flood victims. “While we have a lot of work to do for damages this is a massive step toward making these victims whole.”

[…]

Property owners may file suit for six years from the time of the flooding.

Charest said he encourages people in the upstream area who haven’t submitted a claim to do so.

“The window remains open for people the join the litigation and I encourage them to do so to bring justice to the flood victims,” he said.

According to the Trib, there’s a second lawsuit that is still in litigation; this may refer to it, I’m not 100% sure. Be that as it may, this could represent a lot of money to the affected homeowners, which would be a very big deal for them. There’s no indication at this time if this ruling will be appealed, but it’s hard to imagine otherwise.

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.

Another big flood would be bad

Breaking news, but this is worth paying attention to.

Housing sales would drop, gasoline prices would increase and Texas would lose hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output if a major storm struck an unprotected coastline, according to a new study.

The joint study by Texas A&M University at Galveston and the Texas General Land Office assesses the storm surge impacts on the three counties along Galveston Bay — Galveston, Harris, and Chambers — and explores how flooding from a severe storm would impact different sectors of the local and national economies.

The study finds that a 500-year storm would result in an 8 percent decrease in Gross State Product by 2066, an $853 billion loss. (A 500-year flood has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a given year. Hurricane Harvey was the third such event in the Houston area in three years.)

With a coastal barrier in place, the study found, economic losses would be significantly less harmful. Gross State Product would still decline after a 500-year storm, but only by 2 percent. Housing sales would decrease by 2 percent, while petroleum and chemical output would decline by 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

[…]

The economic outlook for an unprotected Houston-Galveston region ravaged by a storm surge is bleak, the report shows.

Housing sales would decline by nearly 8 percent, a $39.5 billion loss. Revenues in the petrochemical sector would decline by 19 percent, a $175.4 billion loss, while prices on petroleum products would increase by 13 percent.

Nationally, following an unprotected, 500-year surge event in Galveston Bay, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product would be 1.1 percent lower by the end of the 50-year period, an estimated $863 billion dollar economic decline.

The GLO press release is here, and the website showing the result of various scenarios is here. The Army Corps has recommended a particular plan for a coastal barrier, though some people disagree with the option that was selected. Be that as it may, the point here is that however expensive an Ike Dike may be, the cost of doing nothing is potentially much greater, with long-lasting effects. We have seen very clearly that the “500 year” part of “500 year storm” doesn’t mean what it once did. How much are we willing to risk remaining unprotected when the next one hits?

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 [email protected], 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 details on the flood bond referendum

Early voting starts today.

The Harris County Flood Control District on Monday released its complete list of projects that would be funded by the county’s $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond proposal, two days before early voting on the measure begins.

The 237 projects include $1.2 billion for channel improvements, $401 million for detention basins, $242 million for floodplain land acquisition, $12.5 million for new floodplain mapping and $1.25 million for an improved early flood warning system.

Matt Zeve, the flood control district’s operations director, said the vast majority of projects will address problems engineers identified years or decades ago but lacked the funding to tackle. The flood control district’s budget totals just $120 million annually.

“It’s always been OK, how do we afford to solve these problems?” Zeve said. “With the bond, we’ll have funds to solve some of these drainage and flooding issues.

[…]

The bond also would put $184 million, coupled with more than $500 million in outside funding, to purchase around 3,600 buildings in the floodplain. It would not pay for a third reservoir to complement the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in west Houston, but would chip in $750,000 to help the Army Corps of Engineers study the idea.

Thirty-eight projects were added based on ideas from residents at more than two-dozen public meetings this summer. These include $6 million to improve flow in Horsepen Bayou, $15 million to do the same in Brays Bayou and $30 million to design and build new bridges over Buffalo Bayou.

Here’s the updated projects list. I’m sure there will be more added as we go along. I don’t have a lot to add at this time, as I haven’t had a chance to read through it all. The main thing you need to know right now is that early voting for the referendum begins today and runs through the 21st. Hours are a bit odd, so check the map and schedule before you head out.

Two views of the flood bond referendum

View One, from Joe B. Allen and Jim Blackburn: Vote for it because there’s no real alternative.

Proposition A — the proposal to allow Harris County to issue $2.5 billion in flood control bonds — will be on the ballot in Harris County on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. We agree that this bond issue is essential to the future of our community.

[…]

With the passage of $2.5 billion in bonds and an estimated $7.5 billion in matching federal funds, HCFCD would be able to spend $1 billion per year for the next 10 years on flood management. This will not solve all of our drainage problems, but it would represent a dramatic improvement.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced funding for four federally approved and permitted projects: Brays Bayou, Clear Creek, Hunting Bayou and White Oak Bayou. All four projects have a significant local match requirement. If the bonds are approved, these projects could start immediately.

[…]

There is no Plan B. Either this bond election passes or the current flooding conditions continue. The world watched as we came together to help one another in the aftermath of Harvey. Now is the time to come together to show the world that we are willing and able to solve major problems to ensure the long-term success of the place we proudly call home.

We plan to vote FOR Prop. A, and we urge you to do the same. Early voting begins Aug. 8.

Jim Blackburn is a well-respected and very outspoken authority on flooding and related environmental matters, so his endorsement of the referendum carries a lot of weight.

View Two, from Roger Gingell: More flood detention basins, please!

If voters approve Harris County’s proposed $2.5 billion flood control bonds, the County Flood Control District will have more than 41 times its annual budget to spend on flood mitigation. That’s great news if the money is used wisely.

A wise use of the bond money would include water detention basins in neighborhoods that flood, built on land already owned by the public.

Recently, myself and a few others had a private showing of the flood bond proposals for our older neighborhoods in Spring Branch. A friendly gentleman from Flood Control showed us a map with purple circles and green triangles representing projects. If you are lucky, your neighborhood is awarded a purple circle which represents a bigger project. A green triangle on the other hand could be just a tiny, micro-project like fixing some unspecified damage to a drain. None of the projects, however, are set in stone. That is how the bond is being sold — citizens can influence or even add projects.

During that hour intensely staring at a map of triangles and circles, it became clear that the biggest thing missing from the bond proposal was water detention basins actually being located inside the neighborhoods that have flooding problems. There wasn’t a single proposed water detention basin inside the neighborhoods surrounding Memorial City, which flood heavily.

[…]

Having a budget 41 times your existing yearly budget means that new responsibilities will follow. With a bond of this size, Flood Control can’t just be in charge of the bayou while a financially distressed city of Houston is in charge of drainage to the bayou. Thinking must be done outside the box. The institutional mindset of Flood Control must change and grow for the better.

To serve all tax payers who would potentially be paying for the $2.5 billion bond, county planners must take the innovative approach and look for publicly owned land inside neighborhoods that flood. These are the places that water detention basins must be built to save neighborhoods inside the city.

Gingell is the general counsel for Residents Against Flooding, a nonprofit that filed suit against the city in 2016 for approving commercial development in the Memorial City area without requiring adequate storm water mitigation. He doesn’t explicitly say he’s against the bond, but you can see he has reservations. I don’t have anything to add to these, I just wanted to flag them for those of you who still want to know more about this referendum. I’ll have a couple of interviews next week to add on.

Feds approve $5 billion in Harvey aid

Good.

Photo by Yi-Chin Lee

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

More details on the flood bond referendum

This is the longer version of the original story.

Through at least two-dozen public meetings across the county’s watersheds, County Judge Ed Emmett said residents have a crucial role to play as they provide feedback for the projects they think most will benefit their neighborhoods.

“As that comes in, Flood Control can make adjustments,” Emmett said. “You could have some projects just completely dropped. You could have some projects added we hadn’t thought about.”

The bond vote is an all-or-nothing gamble by Commissioners Court, whose members hope residents will commit to strengthening flood infrastructure after Harvey flooded 11 percent of the county’s housing stock this past August. If the bond passes, Harris County will have access to as much as $2.5 billion to make, over the next 10 to 15 years, the largest local investment in flood infrasctructure in the county’s history. If the bond fails, engineers will be limited to the flood control district’s annual operations and capital budgets, which total a paltry $120 million in comparison.

“This is the most important local vote I can remember in my lifetime,” Emmett said. “We either step up as a community and say we are going to address flooding and make our community resilient, or we kind of drib and drabble on, and it wouldn’t end well for anyone.”

A preliminary list of projects includes $919 million for channel improvements, $386 million for detention basins, $220 million for floodplain land acquisition, $12.5 million for new floodplain mapping and $1.25 million for an improved early flood warning system.

Also included is $184 million, coupled with $552 million in outside funding, to purchase around 3,600 buildings in the floodplain – more than the flood control district’s buyout program has bought in its entire 33-year history.

The draft list includes $430 million — nearly a fifth of the total — for contingency funding and “opportunities identified through public input.”

[…]

The bond would not finance the construction of a third reservoir in west Houston, but does include $750,000 to study, with the Army Corps of Engineers, whether another reservoir is necessary.

Other line items call for de-silting channels that lead into Addicks and Barker reservoirs, or possibly providing funding to the Army Corps to remove silt and vegetation from the reservoirs. Addicks and Barker are managed by the Army Corps, not Harris County, leaving any decisions about the future of those basins in the hands of the federal government.

The flood control district plans to work through the summer on the list of projects the bond would fund, and Emmett has pledged to publish a complete list by the time early voting begins in August. Until then, Emmett said plans may continue to change based on input from residents.

See here for the background. The county has a lot of work to do to finalize what the to-do list is, and to educate voters about it. Of course, first they have to make sure that the voters even know this is on the ballot in the first place, in August, at a time when no one has cast a vote in recent memory. I’m going to keep harping on this, because while I understand the reasons for expediting the election, I remain skeptical that it was a wise idea. I just don’t know, and neither does anyone else. It’s going to be fun trying to guess what turnout will be, I’ll say that much.

The Cornyn Ike Dike bill

Credit where credit is due.

With hurricane season right around the corner, Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said Wednesday he is introducing legislation to expedite a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study on a coastal barrier to mitigate storm damage along the Texas coast.

The measure, the Coastal Texas Protection Act, is directed at advancing the construction of a long-awaited “Ike Dike” or Coastal Spine – proposed after Hurricane Ike in 2008 – to better protect the Gulf Coast from storm damage.

“We’ve been working with local stakeholders as well as state officials to try to encourage this process to move along quickly,” Cornyn said. “The Corps of Engineers is an instrumental part of this, and we want them to finish these studies and come up with a plan that the stakeholders and the state can agree upon, and then we will work hard to make sure that coastal protection plan is funded.”

[…]

In 2016, Cornyn advanced legislation signed by then President Barack Obama to streamline the Army Corps engineering studies.

According to a Cornyn aide, the 2016 bill prevented the Corps from duplicating efforts by requiring them to take into account studies that had already been conducted by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District (GCCPRD).

The new bill would direct the Corps to expedite the completion of the Coastal Texas Study. It also provides a necessary exception for the project under the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA). Currently, the CBRA restricts the expenditure of federal funds associated with coastal barriers to avoid encouraging development of such barriers.

Kudos to Cornyn, who is capable of getting stuff done when he wants to. Of course, introducing a bill is not the same as passing it, and the Republican Congress has a crappy track record by any measure. You have to start somewhere, and this is it. Check again in a couple months and see if it’s gone anywhere.

We’ll be voting on flood control bonds in August

Not my first choice, but it is what it is.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to seek a special election on Aug. 25 for what likely will be a multi-billion-dollar bond package that, if approved by voters, would be the largest local investment in the region’s flood control system after Hurricane Harvey.

The move comes a month before the start of the 2018 hurricane season and more than seven months after Hurricane Harvey, with the election timed to coincide with the storm’s one-year anniversary. County officials have spent months wrangling over when best to schedule the election, lest the measure fail and scuttle efforts to overhaul the area’s flood control efforts after one of the biggest rain storms in United States history.

“Why August 25?” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “It’s the one year anniversary of Harvey. I don’t think we want to go a year and not be able to say we’re doing something. People who care about mitigation, resilience, flood control, they’ll be energized and they’ll want to go out. Will there be somebody who wants to stand in the face of what we went through during Harvey and say ‘I want to be against it’? I kind of dare them to do it.”

It is not clear yet what the bond referendum will include. The court on Tuesday floated a $2.5 billion price tag — a number that could change as a priority list of flood control projects emerges. Emmett said the number of projects would be in the “hundreds” and likely would include the buy-out of all of the county’s high-priority areas at highest-risk of flooding, approximately 5,500 properties.

A huge chunk of funds, between $500 and $700 million officials estimate, could go toward local matches for federal grants and projects. A match could be required for the completion of four bayou widening and straightening projects underway with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along Hunting, White Oak, Brays Bayou and Clear Creek. Bayou engineering projects on Halls and Greens Bayou — some of the areas in the county most vulnerable to flooding — also likely would be targeted.

Emmett said all of the county’s 22 watersheds would see some sort of investment.

The bond funds also could help finance the construction of an oft-discussed third reservoir northwest of the city to contain storm water from Cypress Creek.

See here for the background. I would have preferred to have this on the November ballot, and from the article most of the Commissioners at least started out with that same preference. County Judge Ed Emmett pushed for the August date, and convinced them to go along. Again, I get the reasoning, but the county is really going to have to sell this. Recent history has shown that even non-controversial bond issues with no organized opposition don’t pass by much. This one will have a big price tag, a (minor) property tax increase, and no obvious benefit for anyone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey, all wrapped up in a weird election date. This should pass – it’s easy to scratch your head and say “how could it not?” – but do not take it for granted. The county still has to get approval from Greg Abbott, which should be straightforward, then formally call the election. I hope they start gearing up the campaign for this in the meantime.

How about we excavate those reservoirs?

Okay by me.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is quietly exploring the possibility of excavating dirt from Addicks and Barker reservoirs, reviving an oft-discussed proposal that would allow the reservoirs to hold more storm water and keep it out of nearby Houston neighborhoods.

Depending on the scope of the project, removing silt and dirt could increase the reservoirs’ capacity significantly, perhaps even doubling it, by one Corps official’s rough estimate. Whether the agency moves forward could depend in part on whether it can find someone to take all the dirt.

[…]

The idea of excavating the reservoirs has been a fixture of official reports and politicians’ to-do lists for more than 20 years. Thanks to Harvey, its time may finally have arrived.

In a notice posted on the Internet, the Army Corps said it “is evaluating the level of interest from government, industry, and others parties for the excavation and removal of alluvial soils deposited within” the reservoirs.

“The concept of the potential project is to allow for the beneficial use of material by interested parties while increasing capacity” at Addicks and Barker, the notice said.

It appeared Jan. 24, with no public announcement, on a website that advertises business opportunities with the federal government.

Corps officials won’t say anything further about their plans, including how much soil would be excavated, how much it would cost or who would pay.

Read on to learn more about the dirt, which is actually kind of interesting. The question of how much this would cost and who would pay for it seems to me to be the more fundamental issue. A third reservoir is still a good idea, but increasing the capacity of the existing reservoirs would be wise as well. Probably cheaper, and faster to accomplish, too. I doubt anyone is opposed to this, so what do we need to do to get this started?

City buys out some flooded homes

Expect to see more of this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council on Wednesday approved funding nearly 60 home buyouts across three flood-prone neighborhoods, the first such step from City Hall in recent memory.

The city typically leaves buyouts to the Harris County Flood Control District and, in fact, the measure approved by the council would send $10.7 million to the district to pay for the purchases, estimated at about $175,000 per property.

Houston has not had any in-house staff devoted to the issue in recent memory, but Hurricane Harvey has spurred city officials to acknowledge the need to remove more flood-prone residences from harm’s way, leading to Wednesday’s vote to fund voluntary buyouts in three working-class neighborhoods. Harris County Commissioners Court approved the deal earlier this month.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he “absolutely” expects the city to fund additional buyouts in the months to come but that the strategy must be paired with channel improvements, new reservoirs or detention basins and other flood mitigation efforts.

“There are thousands more homes that are subject to buyouts,” he said. “We need to handle it in a very strategic fashion. We need to factor in all of the strategies that will be required to make the city more resilient.”

In fact, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Wednesday unveiled 15 recommendations to combat flooding on a regional basis, calling for, among other things, more buyouts, cooperation across city and county lines, an expansion of county floodplains, and the immediate funding needed to complete several flood control projects along area waterways.

The dollars approved by the council Wednesday are federal funds the city received after two floods in 2015, and are earmarked for areas that suffered in those storms, Turner said. City data show each area also suffered significant damage during Harvey.

As Mayor Turner says, this is one piece of a very large puzzle. Among other things, you want to avoid creating a smattering of abandoned properties in the middle of neighborhoods. Locations for buyouts are going to have to be chosen very carefully.

As for those recommendations from Judge Emmett, here’s a summary:

  • Creating a regional flood control organization that can coordinate water management across county lines. Releases from Lake Conroe in Montgomery County have been fiercely criticized by Harris County residents.
  • Increasing regulations on development in flood prone areas, including rethinking floodplains. The county is currently conducting a reevaluation.
  • Developing an improved flood control system and localized evacuation plan that could utilize volunteer organizations to help first responders, as well as how to coordinate high-water vehicles and private boats. Residents in the areas around Addicks and Barker dams have called for a better warning system, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, considered such a system before dropping the idea two decades ago.
  • Installing automatic barriers at flood-prone underpasses and developing a plan for closing such underpasses. After the Tax Day floods, Emmett said he would lead such an effort.
  • Buying out all homes located in the 100-year floodplain or that have flooded repeatedly. The County has several disparate buyout efforts ongoing, but a larger scale program will probably cost billions of dollars.

The Press has the full list. I basically agree with most of it, but there are a couple of items I want to comment on:

9. Expanding the role of municipal utility districts. If your local MUD isn’t doing much about preventing flooding, Emmett thinks that needs to change, that their responsibilities should include both storm water management and flood control in cooperation with the flood control district.

15. Giving Harris County ordinance-making power. Even though if unincorporated Harris County were a city it would be the fifth-largest in the country, Harris County doesn’t have ordinance-making power. Also, Emmett said county government should receive some of the collected sales tax rather than just relying on property tax. “To continue to exclusively rely on the property tax is fundamentally unfair and unsustainable,” he said. This is much more of a long-term shift, however, Emmett said.

The governance of MUDs is definitely an issue, but I think this is the wrong approach. Especially since we need to get a handle on the kind of build-everywhere growth that MUDs promote, I say we should at the least encourage, if not outright coerce, existing and proposed MUDs to incorporate or be annexed. MUDs may have served a purpose in the past, but it’s a model we should not seek to perpetuate. It’s time for a different approach. Space City Weather has more.

What the Harvey needs are from the state

It’s not just about recovery. The long term needs, including mitigation against future events like Harvey, is where the real money will need to be spent.

More than one month after Harvey’s deluge hit, local officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, testified at a state House of Representatives Appropriations Committee hearing that more than $370 million worth of debris removal and repair work on more than 50 government buildings has strained local coffers, necessitating quick aid and reimbursement from the federal or state government.

They also emphasized what likely will greatly exceed the costs of immediate recovery: how to prepare for the next storm. That could include billions of dollars for large-scale buyouts, a third reservoir on Houston’s west side, a reservoir on the Brazos River in Fort Bend County and hundreds of millions of dollars to jump start bayou improvement projects that have slowed in recent years without federal funding.

“There’s going to come a time where we have taken all the money from the feds, we have gotten all the money we’re going to get from the state, and we’re going to have to decide: What kind of community do we want to be?” Emmett said at the hearing.

Harvey’s record-smashing rainfall and floods damaged more than 136,000 homes and other buildings in Harris County and killed nearly 80 people across the state.

The Texas House Appropriations Committee and Urban Affairs Committee met at the University of Houston on Monday to understand public costs and where reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. Congressional appropriations were being directed in the storm’s wake.

Emmett, Turner and Fort Bend County officials testified, as did Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp, who is coordinating the state’s recovery efforts. The heads of several other state agencies also testified.

The hearing came just three days after Gov. Greg Abbott visited Houston and presented Turner with a check for $50 million. The check almost immediately was spoken for, Turner said, mostly for debris removal and insurance costs.

Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Houston, said Harvey, in theory, qualified as the “perfect reason” to use the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund,” a savings account comprised of billions in excess oil and gas taxes.

Abbott had indicated as much last week but said he would tap existing state emergency funds and reimburse them from the Rainy Day Fund when the Legislature next meets in 2019.

“Before the Legislature acts, we need to ensure what the expenses are that the state is responsible for,” Zerwas said.

Yes, that would be nice to know. There were other hearings this week as well.

The first order of business, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the House Natural Resources Committee, needs to be a flood control plan for the entire state — and the Gulf Coast in particular.

The Texas Water Development Board is already in the process of crafting a statewide flood plan, with the help of $600,000 state lawmakers gave them earlier this year. Lawmakers haven’t yet promised to back any of the projects that end up in the plan.

Emmett, a Republican and former state lawmaker, said Harris County intends to put together its own flood control plan in the meantime, add up the costs of its recommended projects, then see how much the federal and state government want to contribute. He said he’ll be the first to push for a local bond package to make up the difference.

Property taxes are “the most miserable tax created,” Emmett said. “But it’s what we’ve been given to work with so we don’t have a choice.”

Emmett said Harris County’s plan likely will include another major dam to catch runoff during storms and relieve pressure on two existing reservoirs, Addicks and Barker. Those reservoirs, which filled to historic levels during Harvey, flooded thousands of homes that may not have been inundated with additional protections.

Emmett and the city of Houston’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, suggested the state tap its savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for such a project, estimated to cost at least $300 million. (Gov. Greg Abbott has said lawmakers can tap that fund in 2019 or sooner if they need it for Harvey relief; so far, he has written Houston a $50 million out of a state disaster relief fund.)

Costello said Texas should also consider creating a multi-billion dollar fund to support flood control projects similar to one the state’s voters approved in 2013 for water supply projects.

So far all of the talk is constructive, and even Dan Patrick is doing his part. The real test will be whether we follow up on any of this when the Lege reconvenes. Also, while this doesn’t directly answer my question about the SWIFT fund, but it does clearly suggest that it’s not intended for this kind of infrastructure. Which makes sense, given when it was created, but I had wondered if there was some flexibility built in. I would hope there would be plenty of support for a similar fund for flood mitigation.

What should the people living near the dams have known?

More than they were told, is what they’re saying.

A federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claims government officials knew for years that water impounded behind Addicks and Barker dams would flood thousands of suburban homes during an extreme storm – and yet did nothing to advise or compensate property owners.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Christina Micu, a homeowner in the Canyon Gate neighborhood in Cinco Ranch, a subdivision that essentially became part of the Barker Reservoir during Harvey. The case is pending in the Washington D.C.-based U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Canyon Gate was inundated for more than a week when the Army Corps allowed water impounded behind the dams, called the “flood pool,” to reach record size as more than 50 inches of rain fell between August 25 and 29th.

The suit was filed as a class action on behalf of everyone who owns property that flooded behind both dams. Though other lawsuits have been filed on behalf of those whose properties were flooded by dam releases, this is the first case filed on behalf of those whose property flooded directly from what engineers call “reservoir pools” or “flood pools.”

More than 30,000 people own property and more than 140,000 people live in areas that Harris and Fort Bend county officials have identified as subject to inundation from those flood pools, according to a Chronicle analysis of evacuation orders issued during Harvey.

There’s already one lawsuit over the issue of compensation for the damages caused by the dam releases – basically, that’s a takings claim, like when eminent domain is used. This one has that element and more in it, and there’s still more where those came from.

In the weeks since the storm, a slate of high-powered law firms have coordinated to recruit as many as 10,000 plaintiffs in Houston. Other lawyers — particularly those who specialize in eminent domain and environmental law — are operating independently. Most of them are pursuing cases for downstream residents like Pledger who live along Buffalo Bayou and were impacted by the Army Corps’ controlled releases.

On a recent weeknight, Pledger and dozens of other flood victims packed into a private meeting room at a local Mexican food restaurant to consider a pitch from yet another legal firm over complimentary fajitas. Other than flooding during Harvey — most for the first time — the residents all had one thing in common: They live downstream of two federally owned reservoirs that got so full during the unrelenting rainstorm that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to release an unprecedented amount of accumulated water into a bayou that snakes through their neighborhoods.

[…]

All told, lawyers and legal experts say the spate of lawsuits may become one of the largest inverse condemnation-related legal challenges in U.S. history, driven in part by the high value of the impacted homes, which are all on Houston’s wealthier west side.

But they are mixed in their forecasts of how the cases might play out. Many say the property owners have little chance of winning, citing a variety of state and federal legal opinions; others say property owners have a fighting chance, although many admit it’s not a slam dunk.

They all agree on one thing: It will take years and untold millions of dollars to litigate.

“Generally speaking, I think it’s easy to say the government will win,” said New York University law professor Richard Epstein, who has been called the nation’s leading academic expert on eminent domain and takings law. But, he added, “There’s nothing about this which is straightforward or simple.”

If there are still legal battles being fought over this ten years from now, I won’t be surprised. Neither will I be surprised if there are a flurry of bills in the next legislative session to expand or abridge the rights of those who are suing. Get settled in for the long haul, we’ll be watching this for awhile.

Can our dams handle the load?

Pretty important question, wouldn’t you say?

The state climatologist is warning that Texas dams will become less able to withstand extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey, which are expected to occur more frequently as the earth’s atmosphere and oceans warm in coming years.

Dams are designed with a wide margin of safety and are meant to withstand extreme, worst-case scenarios that are never expected to happen. But what stunned state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon and other weather experts was that Harvey exceeded or matched the preposterous amounts of rainfall that dams in Texas are built to hold back.

“The probable maximum precipitation amount should never be reached,” said Tye Parzybok, the chief meteorologist at MetStat, a Colorado-based company that helped Texas calculate the rainfall amounts. “It should never get close to it.”

After Harvey, dam regulators will have to recalculate the maximum amount of water that dams should be capable of holding back, said Nielsen-Gammon. Climate change means that powerful storms are bringing vastly more rain than they did a century ago, he said.

“I’m not saying they’re unsafe,” said Nielsen-Gammon of Texas’ dams. “They will be less safe than they were designed to be.”

On the one hand, Harvey was an extremely unlikely event; by some estimates, a one in 500,000 year event. Nobody plans for that, and for good reason. On the other hand, if it could happen once it could happen again, and the consequences of a dam failure would be catastrophic. Even before Harvey, it was the case that the capacity of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs was declining due to the buildup of dirt and sediment over the years. Surely this is something that can be addressed.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, is calling for the replacement of the aging Addicks and Barker dams that spilled over during Hurricane Harvey.

“As we recover and rebuild from the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, it is crucial that we also learn from this catastrophic storm and prepare for the next one,” she said in a statement. “A critical takeaway is that our infrastructure is ill-prepared for the ferocity of thousand-year weather events and record-breaking rainfall.”

[…]

Jackson Lee, a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, is pushing provisions in the Energy and Water Appropriations Act that would provide $3 million to fund the Army Corps of Engineers’ Houston Regional Watershed Assessment Flood Risk Management Feasibility study, as well as $100 million for flood control infrastructure.

Seems like a reasonable approach to take. What do other members of Congress that represent the Houston area, as well as our two Senators, think of this? Before you answer that, consider this:

“Addicks and Barker were not designed to impound large pools behind them for an extended period of time,” an Army Corps official wrote in a 2011 email, which was made public through a lawsuit the Sierra Club filed against the Corps over a road project near the reservoirs. “These larger and longer lasting pools … [are] increasing the threat to both dams.”

Another Corps document, this one from 2010, shows that the agency was using terms like “risk of catastrophic failure” for the dams for flood events much smaller than what Houston experienced during Harvey.

That 2010 “interim reservoir control action plan” sets what it calls “maximum pool” levels for Addicks and Barker at elevations well under 100 feet, levels that could be expected during a 25-year storm — which has a 4 percent chance of occurring in any given year. Such a storm is about 30 times smaller than the rains generated by Harvey.

“The purpose of this … is to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure by [releasing water from the dams] quicker and increasing embankment surveillance,” the document says, adding that at 25-year levels, the dams “need to get additional attention.”

The document, which also became part of the 2011 Sierra Club lawsuit against the Army Corps, doesn’t specify what the true risk of dam failure might be at such levels. It also doesn’t say what exact actions the Army Corps would take when water reached that point.

[…]

“I think that the documents, and I think that the issues, are clear,” said Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental lawyer who filed the Sierra Club lawsuit. “The consequences of failure are horrific, and it would be truly frightening to the public if they really knew what the worst-case scenario looked like.”

Blackburn said the failure of the Army Corps to make the 2010 document public is just one example of the agency’s hesitance to address the risk of a dam breach.

“I think they have not wanted to have an honest conversation about it, for some reason.”

Matthew Zeve, the Harris County Flood Control District’s director of operations, said he had not seen the 2010 document before the Tribune sent him a copy. But he said he didn’t think the document expressed concern about the dams actually failing at such low water levels but rather indicated a “trigger” for when the agency should be continuously monitoring the dams and doing whatever it can to diminish risk.

“It’s not, ‘Oh, we think it’s going to fail,’” he said, stressing that he was not speaking for the Corps but offering his personal interpretation of the document.

Yeah, that’s not very reassuring. Let’s start investing in better flood mitigation infrastructure, shall we?

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.