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Texas lawmakers consider spending $1 billion for flood prevention and Galveston’s “Ike Dike”

By Erin Douglas, The Texas Tribune

Texas lawmakers consider spending $1 billion for flood prevention and Galveston’s “Ike Dike”” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas lawmakers could allocate about a billion dollars this year to prevent floods, but the potentially huge investment is just a fraction of the tens of billions of dollars that are likely necessary to harden Texas communities against hurricanes and floods, according to early proposals for the state’s first flood plan.

Texas House and Senate members negotiating the state’s massive two-year budget included $550 million for proposed coastal barrier projects, including the “Ike Dike,” a huge gate system proposed for the mouth of Galveston Bay and named for the 2008 hurricane that ravaged the island.

Both chambers have also proposed hundreds of millions for Texas’ Flood Infrastructure Fund, a bucket of money that can be used to finance flood-prevention projects. The exact amount is yet to be decided: The House proposed a total of $625 million for the fund, while the Senate proposed $400 million.

Lawmakers have less than two weeks before the legislative session ends, but Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock who has spearheaded water-fund legislation for years, said he “absolutely” expects lawmakers to put a significant chunk of money toward the Flood Infrastructure Fund.

Together with the coastal barrier and Ike Dike money, Texans may see a roughly billion-dollar investment this year for flood prevention infrastructure as part of the state’s roughly $300 billion two-year budget.

Climate change has increased temperatures and warmed oceans, increasing the amount of moisture in the air and the risk of extreme rainfall events in Texas, the state climatologist and a national climate assessment have found. Heavier precipitation during hurricanes, in particular, has been linked to climate change, which likely increased Hurricane Harvey’s total rainfall by as much as 19%.

State lawmakers are separately considering between $1 billion and $3 billion for new water supply and water infrastructure funds.

Sarah Kirkle, the director of policy and legislative affairs for the Texas Water Conservation Association, a group that represents water districts, water authorities and other water professionals, said a drought–to-flood pattern in Texas driven by climate change has exacerbated problems with the state’s water infrastructure.

“We’re trying to urge the Legislature’s spending to help us prepare for both of those scenarios, either too little water or too much,” Kirkle said.

But even a billion dollars would fall far short of the more than $38 billion that the state probably needs just to get started on flood prevention in an area as large as Texas, according to early proposals for a statewide flood plan being developed by the Texas Water Development Board, the state water agency that helps finance water projects.

The state flood plan, a project launched in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation along the Texas coast in 2017, will assess Texas’ vulnerabilities to floods and detail the projects that could prevent them.

The early estimate in the plan is likely “vastly understated,” said Danielle Goshen, a policy specialist for the National Wildlife Foundation’s Texas Coast and Water Program.

Texas “has been more proactive on water supply than on flood mitigation,” Goshen said. “There’s some catching up we need to do.”

The Flood Infrastructure Fund, which received almost $800 million from Texas’ so-called rainy day fund when it was created in 2019, has so far granted or loaned more than $400 million for flood projects in Texas. Eventually, money from the Flood Infrastructure Fund will be used solely to finance the projects in the state’s flood plan.

In January, water planners representing each region of the state, largely broken up by river basins, submitted the first drafts of plans to prevent flooding across Texas. The cost of the Ike Dike project was estimated at $24 billion (although the cost is likely closer to $31 billion or more). Projects across the rest of the state add up to about $14 billion.

But the process is far from complete.

“Until it’s done, we don’t really know what is the total flood hazard in our state,” said Reem Zoun, director of flood planning at the Texas Water Development Board.

These first estimates came in a rushed initial planning cycle of a little over two years that left water planners scrambling and unable to include every necessary flood-control project for their region, several water planners said. The regions will have five years to develop plans in the future.

Omar Martinez, the chair of the Upper Rio Grande Flood Planning Group in El Paso, said during a January water conference in Austin hosted by the Water Development Board that the process was “very difficult” to get done in less than three years.

Scott Hubley, who works for the large engineering firm Freese and Nichols and worked on the Canadian-Upper Red Flood Planning Group’s plan in the Panhandle, said during the same panel discussion that the group essentially started from scratch — most areas of the Panhandle had hardly any information about flood-reduction projects.

“It may not be perfect or final,” he said during the panel discussion, but “the first step is to understand how big the issue is, and that had never been done before in Texas.”

Zoun, of the Texas Water Development Board, said the plans still have more revisions to go through before they’re approved by the agency, which she expects to occur early next year. The first state flood plan is due to the Legislature in September 2024.

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