Researchers at Rice University incorrectly described data used to model a proposed coastal barrier system in a widely distributed news article published earlier this week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said.
Data used to analyze its proposed $23 billion coastal barrier system included the “most advance modeling and catastrophic storm surge events,” a corps statement issued Wednesday asserts.
On Nov. 12, the Houston Chronicle quoted researchers from Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters Center, known as the SSPEED Center, who said the corps used “incomplete” models that did not account for very powerful, worst-case-scenario storms. By not doing so, the corps had recommended a plan that left Houston and Harris County unprotected, the Rice researchers argued.
The article was picked up by the Associated Press and distributed to news agencies nationally.
The objections to, and dire warnings about, the plan from researchers at a prestigious university hit the news just as the corps was beginning to gather public comment that will help determine whether the project moves head.
The Rice researcher’s statements were incorrect, corps officials said Nov. 15.
“That was completely inaccurate,” said Kelly Burks-Copes, the project manager for the corps study. “We actually had a budget and did entire storm modeling for the region.”
The corps modeled 660 storms, including storms stronger than ever recorded but still theoretically possible, Burks-Copes said. It used 102 of those storms — the most likely ones — to reach its conclusions in its report, Burks-Copes said.
The corps’ modeling methodology was included in the hundreds of pages of appendices published Oct. 26 with the recommendation.
“I think they jumped to conclusions based on some earlier presentations,” Burks-Copes said.
Jim Blackburn, SSPEED Center co-director, declined Nov. 15 to comment about whether he stood by his comments on the corps’ modeling. Regardless, he said he did not believe the corps’ plan adequately protects Harris County and Houston.
The Houston Chronicle did not contact the corps before publishing the article about Rice University’s assertions, Burks-Copes said.
The corps is in the midst of a 75-day public comment period after the release of its tentatively selected plan for a coastal barrier system. Released after three years of work, the plan recommends more than 70 miles of barriers around the Houston-Galveston region, including along the lengths of Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula.
The plan calls for a gigantic sea gate across Bolivar Roads, a ring levee around much of Galveston Island, and smaller gates at the mouths of other waterways, such as Clear Creek.
The project would cost between $23 billion and $30 billion to construct, the corps estimated.
The plan immediately drew criticism from environmental groups, who fear how a gigantic construction project would affect ecosystems and wildlife around Galveston Bay. The corps proposal also has drawn questions from Galveston County property owners about whether their homes would be protected, displaced or left outside a barrier system.
A final report about the coastal barrier is not scheduled to be completed until 2021, after which the plan could be presented to Congress for funding. Texas leaders have urged Congress to waive the corps’ normal processes so the project could move along faster, however.
Rice University’s criticism of the coastal barrier system isn’t new.
The SSPEED Center has for years advocated for alternatives other than a storm surge barrier built directly on the coast.
Instead, the center has said barriers within the bay and measures such as building dredge spoil islands to disrupt storm surge waves would be more cost-effective than a massive barrier system.
The center also has produced models that show that a large enough storm could flood bay-area communities with bay water trapped by a storm-surge barrier.
In 2014, state leaders urged Rice University and Texas A&M University at Galveston, which has advocated for barriers along the coast, to sign a kind of peace accord, so the state could present a single plan to federal leaders for funding. Since that agreement, presentations made by Rice University included concepts for a barrier along the coast.
The corps did study barrier concepts different from the one it finally recommended, including erecting barriers in the middle of Galveston Bay and on the western side of the bay along state Highway 146 from Texas City to Baytown.
The corps discarded its mid-bay barrier proposal because of concerns about how it would affect maritime traffic in Galveston Bay, about how costly it would be to maintain water circulation in the bay and about building on top of oyster reefs in the bay.
For the state Highway 146 model, the corps’ reasoning for rejecting it was simpler: a barrier along the highway would cause $175 million in economic damage annually for homes and business on the east side of the highway left outside the wall.
CALLS FOR MOVING ON
The public reaction to Rice University’s criticism of the barrier, and claims that it would not protect Houston, haven’t spurred much criticism or agreement from elected officials.
State Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican who chairs the Joint Interim Committee to Study a Coastal Barrier System, said healthy debates and disagreements are critical when discussing projects as large as the barrier.
“We are fortunate to have accomplished engineers and scientists modeling various storm settings,” Taylor said. “Every storm is different, so it’s impossible to study every scenario, but the overall goal is broad risk reduction and I think the USACE’s tentatively selected plan accomplishes that. However, we should be open to suggestions that could complement USACE’s plan and find solutions that mitigate risk with a lower cost and footprint.”
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s office declined to comment specifically on whether the corps’ plan was best for Houston. Through a spokesman, he called on higher authorities to propose a real plan that would create and fund a barrier.
“The time for talk has passed and it’s time for someone in the congressional delegation to draft the legislation needed to get the federal money to make it happen,” Emmett said.