Texas Coastal Study: Corps to partner with state, federal agencies to protect regional resources, restore losses from storms

Published Oct. 12, 2012
A pillar commemorating the Army Corps of Engineers' involvement in building the original Galveston Seawall remains standing after Hurricane Ike in September 2008.

A pillar commemorating the Army Corps of Engineers' involvement in building the original Galveston Seawall remains standing after Hurricane Ike in September 2008.

by Southwestern Division Public Affairs

DALLAS--From the natural beaches of Sabine Pass near Port Arthur to the rich diversity of bird and marine wildlife along the Laguna Madre near Port Isabel, the sweep of the Texas coast contains varied and fragile ecosystems juxtaposed with highly industrialized areas that host a national economic powerhouse. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Southwestern Division, through its Galveston District, is involved in virtually every mile of the 367-mile coastline, and plays an integral role in both the preservation of Nature’s treasures that are a living part of the Texas coastal region as well as serving and preserving the industries that fuel commerce and power our nation. 

The Corps has been an active player in the development of the Texas coast for many years, but a milestone was the establishment of the Galveston District in 1880 to oversee river and harbor improvements along the entire Texas coast.  Twenty years later, after the Great Storm of 1900, the Corps helped Galveston recover from the deadliest hurricane in American history and build protection against future hurricanes.  That protection, the iconic Galveston Seawall, helped protect Galveston during Hurricane Ike in 2008.  Over the years, the Corps’  involvement with the Texas coast  has seen the construction and maintenance of 1,000 miles of channel with sixteen major deep draft ports along the Texas coast that generate over $9 billion in federal tax revenue through the handling of more than 500 million tons of cargo annually. 

Today the Corps and the Galveston District are looking ahead as they work with the Texas General Land Office in anticipation of a comprehensive study that will bring more than 10 Federal and four State agencies together to identify opportunities to address the growing issues along the Texas Coast.  This study, called the Coastal Texas Ecosystem Protection & Restoration Study, will identify a complete body of data and recommend a comprehensive strategy for reducing flood risk through structural and nonstructural measures that take advantage of natural features like barrier islands and storm surge storage in wetlands.  The first step in this anticipated study is the Sabine Pass to Galveston Bay Feasibility Study, which will address opportunities to reduce risk and damages to public safety, property, and environmental resources from storms and erosion within the region of Orange, Jefferson, Harris, Galveston, Chambers, and Brazoria Counties.

Three major elements drive the need for a comprehensive plan:  waterborne commerce (Texas ports), the petroleum and chemical industry, and wetlands and coastal ecosystems. 

Waterborne Commerce

Texas is the number one state in the nation for waterborne commerce, with four of America’s top 10 ports (Port of Houston, Port of Corpus Christi, Port of Beaumont, and Port of Texas City).    The Port of Houston is the country’s busiest port in foreign tonnage, second in overall tonnage, and tenth worldwide in tonnage.   Transiting Texas port are a vast variety of goods, such as  agricultural products grown on Texas farms,  petrochemical  products, industrial and agricultural machinery,  containerized shipments carrying goods  for  major retailers, Gulf Coast seafood, and foreign manufactured automobiles.  Corps construction and maintenance of these ship channels enable the ports to “deliver the goods.” 

The Corps is responsible for keeping waterways open for navigation and commerce, and the Galveston District maintains 13 shallow draft ports and 15 deep draft ports, as well as the 423 miles long Texas portion of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, for a total of 760 miles of shallow draft and 240 miles of deep draft. 

Petroleum and chemical

Texas leads the nation in petroleum refining and chemical products production, and is a global leader in the closely related petrochemical industry. Long known as the petroleum-rich state, Texas' 26 refineries lead the nation in both crude oil production and refining. With a refining capacity of more than 4.7 million barrels of crude oil a day, Texas accounts for 27 percent of the nation's total capacity.  Houston is known as the energy capitol of the nation and is home to more than 3,700 energy-related companies, including 16 of the nation's top 20 oil pipelines. 

The Gulf Coast chemical plant and refinery complex is the largest petrochemical complex in the world and home to over 400 chemical plants, which employ approximately 33,000 Texans.  The complex provides for the convenient and cost-effective transfer of the fuel and chemical products shared among plants, storage terminals, and transportation facilities by way of an extensive pipeline network.  Houston alone accounts for over 40 percent of the nation's base petrochemical manufacturing capacity.

Wetlands and coastal ecosystems

The Texas Gulf Coast has some of the most abundant and diverse wetlands in the world, including critical coastal ecosystems of 3.9 million acres of wetlands, 235,000 acres of sea grass, 367 miles of sea turtle nesting habitat, 380,000 acres of piping plover critical habitat, and 328 square miles of whooping crane critical habitat, as well as 21 state and Federal wildlife refuges.  Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas is the migration ground of most of the world's whooping cranes in the wild.  Padre Island National Seashore in Texas is the nation's longest stretch of undeveloped beach.  An estimated 4.1 million acres of wetlands existed on the Texas coast in the mid-1950s. By the early 1990s, wetlands had decreased to less than 3.9 million acres including 3.3 million acres of freshwater wetlands and 567,000 acres of saltwater wetlands. 

All of these components of our productive and prosperous Texas coast are increasingly vulnerable to storm surge, flooding, wind damage, and the effects of sea level rise. These very vulnerabilities are the impetus for planning and investing in a comprehensive plan to make communities, ecosystems, and industries along the Texas coastline more resilient and sustainable. 

In addition to the coastal mission of maintaining the waterways for navigation, the Corps also plays a role in two major areas:  hurricane and storm protection, and shoreline erosion. 

Hurricane and Storm Protection

Galveston District maintains three Hurricane Protection Structures, located in Port Arthur, Texas City, and Freeport.  These structures have prevented more than $36 billion in cumulative damages.   Though some damage was reported after Hurricane Ike,   these structures—particularly the Texas City Hurricane Protection Structure—were all that stood between Hurricane Ike and such valuable assets as the petrochemical complex in Texas City in 2008.  Ike was the third most destructive hurricane ever to hit the U.S. If it had hit 30 miles further south, the storm surge would have been between 20-25 feet in the Houston Ship Channel—a disastrous impact. The U. S. Coast Guard has estimated that a one-month closure of a major port like Houston would cost the national economy approximately $60 billion

Shoreline Erosion

Of the 367 miles of shoreline, more than 60 percent has been identified by the Texas General Land Office as subject to high rates of erosion, some of the highest rates in the Nation.  The Corps has estimated that 60 percent of the Texas shore is eroding, 33 percent stable and seven percent is advancing.  The Texas coast suffers up to 10 feet of shoreline loss per year, and the GLO estimates that 225 acres of topsoil wash into the Gulf each year.

All of these elements and Corps missions intersect with the interests of state agencies like the Texas General Land Office as well as other Federal agencies and underscore the need for a comprehensive assessment of the entire Texas coast.

What depends on it?   Forty percent of the Nation’s petrochemical industry, 25 percent of national petroleum-refining capacity, deep and shallow draft ports, critical transportation infrastructure and delicate ecosystems.  All will continue to be at risk without a comprehensive plan to restore and maintain a robust coastal ecosystem aimed at reducing storm damage to communities, industries, and the environment.  The future depends on it too.  A strong economy and a healthy coastal ecosystem are no small gifts to pass on to our children and grandchildren. 




Release no. 12-012