By Scott Jones | Director of Advocacy, Galveston Bay Foundation
Our area has been blessed with Galveston Bay, one the most productive estuaries in the country and the most productive in Texas. From its waters, a full third of the state’s commercial seafood harvests and recreational fish are landed, creating an economic engine of related businesses and quality of life for area citizens. The Bay is renowned for its oysters, shrimp, crab, redfish, flounder and speckled trout. The Bay ecosystem also supports a thriving ecotourism industry and people travel from all over the world to witness the resident and migratory birds that grace our shores.
The Bay area is also the home of hundreds of thousands of people, one of the busiest ports in the nation, one of the biggest petrochemical complexes on the world, wonderful medical centers and, of course, NASA. After the damage and loss of life wrought by Hurricane Ike in 2008, it only makes sense that residents, academic institutions, and government is looking for ways to lower the risk from future hurricane storm surges. The Galveston Bay Foundation supports such efforts, as long as all of the potential benefits and costs are fully known and all environmental impacts are openly discussed and addressed through a robust scientific investigation and review process, and the impacts are ultimately avoided or minimized.
GBF’s mission is to preserve and enhance Galveston Bay as a healthy and productive place for generations to come. Just looking at things from a purely environmental damage standpoint, we recognize that if a major storm surge were to strike our industrial complexes there could be a disastrous release of petroleum and other petrochemicals that could lead to an ecological disaster. So, we agree that there needs to be system(s) in place to prevent that occurrence, whether it’s proper management practices and protective levees at individual plants to levees that protect a whole industrial complex, e.g. the Texas City Levee System or Freeport Levee System, to a larger regional protection system such as the Texas A&M at Galveston’s Ike Dike concept. In short, there are ways to prevent those releases on multiple scales.
However, we are also a part of the local community, living and making our living on or near the Bay, and want to be a positive voice in the discussion on how best to protect not only the environment, but also people and infrastructure. As with mitigating damages to the environment from storm surge, there are also multiple ways to protect people, homes, and businesses, both structurally and non-structurally at a range of scales. The biggest question is just what is it we need to protect from storm surges. It is a fair question to ask if we need to install a coastal spine like Ike Dike the whole length of the Upper Coast to try to protect every shoreline structure from High Island to Freeport when many are already elevated and many others could be brought up to standard. Maybe a coastal spine will end up being the best answer, but all of the alternatives need to be discussed and debated in an open, transparent manner.
Getting back to environmental impacts from structural solutions, we must be aware of unintended yet irreversible damages that can be done to Galveston Bay and all it provides unless we proceed carefully, be it the Ike Dike concept, SSPEED Center’s Houston-Galveston Area Protection System concept, or the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District’s Phase 3 Recommended Actions. GBF is concerned about both direct and indirect impacts to the Bay and its habitats, but what concerns us most is the proposed massive gate structures at Bolivar Roads and, in the case of the Ike Dike, also San Luis Pass. We should note that SSPEED has also included a middle Bay gate as an option to the Bolivar Roads gate. That gate, too, also raises concerns.
Besides the release of oil and petrochemicals, the only other possible major ecological damage to the Bay related to hurricane surge will be indirect effects from the installation of these gates to water circulation, salinity, sediment transport and the movement of larval and post-larval shrimp, crabs and fish. Environmental lift gates and navigational gates at Bolivar would be open 99.9% of the time, but based on the information we have seen, the passes’ natural width would be permanently reduced by 40-50% to accommodate the footings and other structures that house the gates themselves. Thus, they would always restrict the flow and greatly increase velocities.
At this time, we do not know what effect these gate structures will have on the movement of our critically important recreational and commercial species. If we are not careful, we could lose those fisheries and the businesses that depend upon them, and that would be an unacceptable huge blow from an ecological, economic and quality of life standpoint.
To prevent such negative impacts, GBF is asking is that all possible structural and non-structural options are truly debated and that rigorous environmental research and studies be completed upfront on the structural options that can permanently alter the Bay’s natural processes. We need complete information to make a good decision, because once huge structures are built there is no going back.