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The Ike Dike deserves support

November 18, 2018

Let’s not let egos get in the way of choosing how best to spend billions of dollars to protect Houston and the Gulf Coast from the kind of monster storms that will increasingly blow through this region.

Protecting the city and nearby coastal region from the kind of devastation we saw 10 years ago during Hurricane Ike and last year during Hurricane Harvey is far too important to let a fight over the path forward leach away the project’s necessary momentum before it ever has a chance.

We raise this concern in the wake of the minor dustup between professors at Rice University’s Center for Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters and the Army Corps of Engineers, which has at last given its tentative blessing to the massive - and, let’s face it, massively expensive - proposed Ike Dike.

It’s worth cheering that we’ve arrived at wide support for the coastal spine project, a system of floating gates intended to ward off storm surge. The concept was first proposed by Texas A&M oceanographer Bill Merrell, who says it’s been heavily studied and tested in other places, including The Netherlands. When was the last time officials from Houston, Harris County, the coastal region and the state of Texas have all been on the same page about spending anywhere from $23.1 billion to $31.8 billion in mostly federal dollars to help this region? How about never?

The folks at Rice’s SSPEED Center say the Corps’ proposed alternatives leave out a much smaller, targeted solution more likely to win support in Congress. The SSPEED approach would cost less than a quarter of what the Ike Dike could cost, and would focus more pointedly at protecting key industrial and commercial sites along the coast.

These are valid priorities, and if the Rice folks can present them in a way that helps improve the approach the Corps will ultimately sign off on, that’s all for the better. But in suggesting that their approach is better because it’s more likely to get approved, or because it relies on different storm forecasts, they run the risk of sabotaging the plan that has managed to do something theirs has not: Unify public officials from nearly every corner of the region behind an ambitious and badly needed remedy.

The Ike Dike, which is far from approved, has won tentative support not just from the Corps, but also from the state, the cities of Houston and Galveston, Harris County and most other local partners.

Now is not the time to snipe at the effort. Not when it finally has cleared the first of what will likely be many tall hurdles thanks to the Corps decision to name it as the preferred option among several in the draft environmental impact statement required by federal law.

As the Rice experts know, this is a draft environmental review. Now, the public will get to kick the tires of all the alternatives evaluated by the Corps, and ask questions about the Ike Dike and other proposals. The process is designed to improve the final proposal before Congress is asked for funding.

The public will get its first look at the alternatives Nov. 27 at a public hearing in Port Lavaca. Other hearings will follow throughout the region. The Rice team promises to use this period of public input to lobby the government to incorporate its proposal in the final plan.

We hope everyone gets equally involved and weighs in on what will likely be the most important Houston-area public works project for many decades. But these ideas ought to be aimed at improving the current proposals without bogging them down in controversy.

Critics and supporters of the Ike Dike should take care to help steer but not divert the ship that is finally on course to becoming reality.

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