City, County, and Port Support Galveston Bay Park Study
Rice’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center proposed the in-bay storm barrier in 2015, and the idea was fully realized in an award-winning design from architecture firm Rogers Partners in 2020. The county, port, and city each contributed $250,000 toward the cost of a detailed engineering study of the park proposal, a critical step in preparing the project for initial environmental permitting. Entrepreneur Joe Swinbank contributed the remainder of the cost for the $1-million study.
“Galveston Bay Park works in concert with the coastal spine, can be constructed without federal funds, and the barrier portion of the project could be complete by the early 2030s, providing 25-foot storm surge protection for both the industrial complexes and densely populated areas of west and northwest Galveston Bay,” said SSPEED Center Director Phil Bedient. “We’re grateful Port Houston, City of Houston, Harris County, and Joe Swinbank agreed to invest in a more detailed analysis of the plan.”
The idea for Galveston Bay Park centers on the fact that the Houston Ship Channel will need to be dredged in coming years to both remove silt runoff that settles in the channel and as part of a long-term plan to widen the channel’s navigation lanes. The islands of Galveston Bay Park would be built from dredged material and run parallel to the ship channel from Baytown to Texas City. During a hurricane, storm surge gates between the islands and across the ship channel navigation lanes would be closed to prevent storm surge from entering west Galveston Bay or the ship channel.
“I am a longtime supporter of what I call the ‘all of the above’ approach when it comes to coastal storm protection plans, which would potentially include the Galveston Bay Park Plan,” said Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia. “Southeast Texas has waited far too long already for action to guard against the dangers from storms that come across our coast from the Gulf of Mexico. I am grateful to all of our partners at the City of Houston, Port Houston, and Rice University’s SSPEED Center for their financial and intellectual efforts to study how to keep us safe from a devastating tropical weather event.”
Bedient said 25-foot storm surge flooding of petrochemical refineries and densely populated residential communities on the west side of Galveston Bay is a realistic hurricane scenario SSPEED’s researchers have studied extensively using computer models. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of major hurricanes that are classified as Category 3, 4, and 5, and Bedient said the Galveston Bay Park barrier will work in concert with the proposed coastal barrier, or “Ike Dike,” to protect against these large storms.
“Passage of funding for this item represents a significant step forward for our region in support of the research at the Rice SSPEED Center that’s needed to inform critical investment to protect our region from the devastating effects of future storms in the Gulf of Mexico, along the Texas Coast, and within Galveston Bay,” said Houston City Council Member David W. Robinson. “The Galveston Bay Park Plan has been lauded as a real, potential complement to enhance the effectiveness of the coastal spine project while protecting critical infrastructure, regional industry, and our port facility along with Houstonians and our neighbors throughout the region.”
Port Houston Chairman Ric Campo said, “Port Houston remains steadfast in its commitment to serving in the best interests of the community and the region it serves. We are optimistic this project will help protect lives, Texas’ economy, and the environment.”
SSPEED computer models have shown a Category 4 hurricane with 132 mph winds and a smaller footprint than 2008’s Hurricane Ike could cause catastrophic flooding if it made landfall at San Luis Pass on the southern end of Galveston Island. In that scenario, up to 26 feet of floodwater would inundate areas around the ship channel, extending well inside Loop 610. Up to 20 feet of flooding would occur in La Porte, Seabrook, Bayview, Clear Lake, Webster, and portions of Friendswood west of Interstate 45. If Galveston Bay Park is built, SSPEED’s models show flooding in such a scenario would be limited to about seven feet along the ship channel and six feet in coastal communities.
If sea-level increases from climate change are factored into the model, the same scenario in 2050 could produce up to 30 feet of flooding along the ship channel and up to 24 feet of flooding in coastal communities. With the Galveston Bay Park barrier in place, SSPEED found flooding would be limited to 10 feet along the ship channel and 9 feet in west bay communities.
SSPEED Center Co-Director Jim Blackburn said, “The Galveston Bay Park project was created from the necessity to achieve a higher level of protection than was being provided by the coastal spine project for the upper portion of the bay. We now can protect the ship channel and the eastern shore of Harris County from the big storms of the future. That is crucial to our long-term economic and ecologic future."