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Study reinforces value of dune coastal barrier

May 24, 2019

It didn’t contain a lot of surprises, but a major study by the Texas General Land Office and Texas A&M University reinforced a key point in the ongoing debate about how best to protect Gulf Coast communities from hurricanes: Sand dunes provide the best and most cost-effective way to shield these homes and businesses from a powerful storm surge.

That conclusion never should have been in doubt, but an earlier proposal would have built a wall-like barrier inland on much of the Bolivar Peninsula. Bolivar residents wanted nothing to do with a divisive and unnatural structure like that, and fortunately those plans were dropped recently. With that distraction finally out of the way, peninsula residents can finally start focusing on real-world solutions that are affordable and environmentally friendly. Sand dunes check those boxes.

The study by the Land Office and A&M focused on storm surge from a major hurricane in Chambers, Galveston and Harris counties. To no one’s surprise, it predicted devastating consequences. Property values would decline and gasoline prices would increase because of refinery damage. A 500-year storm could reduce the Gross State Product by 8 percent by 2066, a loss of $853 billion. With various kinds of coastal barriers in place, however, the Gross State Product would decline by only 2 percent.

Planners are still considering floodgates in places like Galveston Bay, and that debate is worthwhile. For peninsula residents on land, however, dunes provide the most realistic option.

For one thing, dunes are much more likely to clear environmental impact statements and survive possible lawsuits by environmentalists who are opposed to any major changes. Dunes are, after all, a natural phenomenon that already exist in parts of the peninsula. The only difference is that the new dune structures would be built up higher, such as 8 to 13 feet, possibly from sand dredged offshore.

Another recent study by Rice University pointed out that dredge material from the Houston ship channel could be used to build barrier islands on the west side of Galveston Bay. In both cases, the same approach is used to protect the land in a natural, doable manner.

Nothing can stop the wind of a hurricane. But dunes, berms and barrier islands can absorb much of the water energy from a storm surge. This must be the focus going forward for the long-term future of the Bolivar Peninsula, however these plans are adjusted in coming years.

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