What's Holding Up the Ike Dike?

A mockup of the possible Ike Dike
A mockup of the possible Ike Dike Screenshot

Even though we’ve been talking about the Ike Dike for more than a decade at this point, a recent report on the latest pitch from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for how to create the gate system designed to block storm surges certainly doesn’t indicate that this project is going to exist anytime soon. Admittedly, however, this isn’t exactly a shock to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Plans to build the Ike Dike have been percolating since back in 2008 when, in the aftermath of weathering Hurricane Ike down in Galveston, Bill Merrell, a marine scientist at Texas A&M University at Galveston, surveyed the destruction and started sketching out possible designs for a storm surge barrier, something modeled on the complex system of dikes and floodgates used in the Netherlands.

At the time, as Merrell told the Houston Press for a cover story back in 2015, he’d been convinced that the federal government would survey the wreckage, come to a similar conclusion, and nudge Congress toward allocating funds for such a project. But that didn’t happen. Ultimately it would take a succession of storms and floods and finally Hurricane Harvey in 2017 for interest in Merrell’s idea to take hold. (Although the project resembles his original idea but has been steadily revised over the years.)

Since then, the process of getting the Ike Dike, as it has come to be called, built has been moving at a crawl. There have been the usual disagreements among the various stakeholders regarding who would foot the bill, but another crucial point of contention has been over the actual design that will be used.

Over time, the concept of some sort of coastal barrier project has gained traction politically. Both U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz have been vocal in their support, while state officials have been publicly in favor of the project since then-Gov. Rick Perry started backing it in 2010 (Gov. Greg Abbott has followed suit, saying the project “will go down in history” once it’s built). Locally, an array of officials have been pushing for the project. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 Mayor Sylvester Turner quickly pointed to the Ike Dike as crucial to protecting Houston from similar storms in the coming years. But all this talk hasn’t managed to translate to fully funding the project yet.

Why? Well, partly because it’s going to be expensive. This thing is expected to cost between $23 billion and $31 billion to construct and it’s estimated it will take nearly 20 years to complete, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the entity charged with planning and building such projects. And generally, with projects like these the federal government will pay for 65 percent but the state and local entities have to come up with the difference.

But there has been progress. Locally, the state established the Gulf Coast Protection District in 2021 and its board has been charged with procuring the funds needed to pay the other 35 percent.

Then last June the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Water Resources Development bill, legislation aimed at authorizing federal agencies to work on the Texas Coastal Protection and Restoration Project, a plan that includes finally building the Ike Dike.

Although the bill stalled out shortly after the U.S. Senate also approved their version, lawmakers opted to bundle the legislation—which authorizes but doesn’t actually fund the project—in with the annual defense act as they wrapped up the year. This time, the legislation was passed and signed into law by President Joe Biden in late January. Thus, the plan to build the Ike Dike has been authorized to proceed with $34 billion in total, $16 billion of which will be dedicated specifically to creating the coastal barrier, a bargain considering a 2021 Corps’ study found this may prevent roughly $2.5 billion in storm damages once it’s completed. (The Corps’ plan is to protect the entire Texas coast from restoring the eroded beaches at South Padre to improving the Galveston Seawall).

So what’s next? Well, plenty.

First, another bill is going to have to be squeezed through Congress to provide the actual funding. On top of that, there’s still the matter of how the Ike Dike will be built.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came out with its first take on the project in 2017, but that approach—constructing a structure with a 1,200-foot-long gate that would stretch from Galveston to Bolivar Point—was roundly criticized, with particular vehemence from those who work in the Houston Ship Channel who felt it was too narrow and needed to be moved out further into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Corps went back to the drawing board, so to speak. In 2021 the Corps’ offered a new design, this one with a pair of 650-foot-long gates. The concept includes using artificial islands to anchor the gates, which will be 80 feet tall, and flanked by concrete towers that can rise more than 100 feet to allow more gates to be lowered during the storm. It’s estimated this could reduce storm surge flooding into Galveston Bay by anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent. It’s a dazzling possibility, although once again critics have found the proposed approach wanting.

And this is just one of interests that needs to be appeased. Over the past few years, the environmentalists have raised concerns over how the Ike Dike might impact federally protected areas like Rollover Pass, where its mud flats are home to migratory birds for part of each year. Additionally, there’s also been worry over a host of other things from how this could impact the San Luis Pass to the endangered sea turtles and the balance of the waters in Galveston Bay.

While some of the planned concrete structures were turned into sand dunes along with a few other allowances after a 2018 public input meeting, most of these concerns haven’t really been addressed yet. However, the version that Congress approved has included is to create or restore about 1,400 acres of wetlands to offset the environmental damage from the project. Make of that what you will.

On top of that, after years of people raising concerns that the Ike Dike and the rest of the project to protect the coast won’t be enough to fully prevent storm surges wreaking havoc on Galveston and the Houston Ship Channel, the Corps’ acknowledged back in 2021 that the plans they have now will only protect against up to a Category 3 hurricane.

But in addition to all of this it’s looking like there’s another issue to deal with, based on a report commissioned by the Greater Houston Port Bureau and presented to the Gulf Coast Protection Board last week. The report contends this latest design, in addition to blocking storm surges, may also block some ships from getting through the Houston Ship Channel, as Bill Diehl, president of the board, noted during a recent interview on Houston Matters. Considering the Houston Ship Channel does about $800 billion in business each year, it seems unlikely that this version of the structure is going to gain any more traction than the previous iteration.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray