By HARVEY RICE, From: HOUSTON CHRONICLE
GALVESTON - Galveston officials should consider abandoning the west end of the island and consolidating the city behind the seawall to rejuvenate the economy and avoid being swamped by rising seas, Rice University scientists recommend in a two-year study made public Wednesday.
The 198-page "Atlas of Sustainable Strategies for Galveston Island" is an effort to encourage long-term planning for coastal cities and an island that must cope with rising sea levels and hurricanes.
The authors deem impractical a proposed "Ike dike" plan to protect the coast with hard structures, but recommend a levee to protect the bay side of the east end.
The report, produced by the university's Shell Center for Sustainability, says Galveston's economic future lies with tourism and a port expanded to service a new generation of super cargo ships designed for a wider Panama Canal that is nearing completion. The study closes with architectural visions that fortify the city against the rising sea and contribute to the growth of tourism.
"I appreciate Rice University's great study, and I look forward to discussing its findings," Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski said via email. "Given sea rise and erosion issues, I am aware there will always be a tension between development and open space preservation on Galveston's west end. I hope that future development is always done in the smartest, most sustainable way."
Jaworski said he agreed with the study's suggestions for development on the east end.
The authors do not expect their recommendations to have an immediate effect on Galveston policy, said co-author John Anderson, the Maurice Ewing professor of oceanography at Rice. "The plan in publishing this document is to get this information out there," Anderson said.
Facts paint grim future
In the first section, Anderson and oceanographer Davin Wallace use scientific evidence to outline the island's grim future.
Graduate students from other fields of study, including economics, lay out development options in the second section; the third section features selected designs from a four-year architecture school project.
"These data do not yield a pretty picture for the future of the island," notes the book's introduction.
The coastline on the west end is retreating at 3 to 6 feet per year, the fastest rate of erosion in 6,000 years, the book says. Sea level rise could double or triple the rate of erosion over the remainder of the century, it says.
The sand supply for Galveston beaches has run out and existing sand is being washed away by storms, much of it too far out to sea to return, according to the study.
The authors found that the western end of the island is eroding so fast and is so vulnerable to storms that it should be abandoned for the eastern end behind the seawall, the highest part of the island. An undeveloped area used for dredge spoilage, known as the East End Flats, could be developed to offset the population loss on the west end. The depopulated west end could be developed for ecotourism.
Costs factored in
The book also argues that it costs the city more to provide services for the west end than the area returns in property taxes. For example, 31 percent of the island's roads serve 11 percent of the population.
Population in the west end can be reduced by limiting construction near the beach, the book recommends. Another way is to adopt a geohazard map that was made for the city in 2007 but shelved. By building only in environmentally hazard-free areas, construction would be limited to a narrow zone in the center of the island.
The final solution is to wait for a catastrophic hurricane to do the job.
The last portion of the book is devoted to architectural designs that include protecting the shoreline with mangrove trees, extending the area in front of the seawall, and abandoning traditional wood-and-drywall houses for structures of steel and concrete that blend with the natural environment.
"We need to rethink the way we are living along the water's edge that produces less environmental impact," said co-author Christopher Hight, associate professor of architecture. "We can keep doing what we are doing, but it's not a recipe for success."