August 9, 2007

Galveston Island is on the Move — Literally — and It’s Not a Good Thing

By Bill Hanna, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas

GALVESTON -- This island city is in the midst of a building boom.

The only problem?

Galveston is sinking.

It is sinking so fast that some scientists say the fragile West End of the island, which is not protected by the Galveston seawall, could lose parts of the coastal highway -- and blocks of beachfront homes -- in the next 60 years.

The debate isn't just an academic exercise being played out by scientists.

The largest development ever proposed for the island has raised questions about whether it's smart to build a large resort in such a vulnerable area.

The 3,900-unit project -- known as The Preserve -- would bring high-rise towers, a golf course and a marina. Not only do residents worry that it will change the character of that part of the island, but there is also concern that it will harm beaches and wetlands even though the development would include a nature preserve.

Galveston isn't alone in grappling with such issues

Just across San Luis Pass in the Treasure Island subdivision on Follets Island, one house has literally gone out to sea, with waves breaking beneath its support beams. Farther west in Surfside, homes that were once part of a subdivision are now standing on the beach and are being demolished.

The entire upper Texas coast will become more vulnerable as some sections continue to subside and, if scientists are correct, the seas begin to rise faster as a result of the melting polar ice caps.

"The upper Texas and Louisiana coasts are sinking at a rate faster than anywhere else in the United States," said John Anderson, a Rice University oceanographer and author of The Formation and Future of the Upper Texas Coast.

"The coasts in those areas will feel the effect of rising seas at an even greater level than places on the East Coast," he said. "Even if you ignore the global-warming component, we have the tidal records to show that the relative sea rise on portions of Galveston Island has been about 2 feet during the last century. If the island continues to sink at that rate, many areas of beachfront and bay-front areas will feel the effects in the next 50 to 100 years."

The University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, at the request of the city of Galveston, created a geohazards map that shows that many wetlands, beaches and tidal flats are under imminent threat. The map also shows that a significant part of the island faces a critical threat in the next 60 years if the relative sea-level rise -- the combination of subsidence and rising sea level -- continues at historical rates of the last century.

Political debate

Some critics say the city is ignoring the warnings in favor of expanding the tax base.

"We cannot rely on our politicians to protect our interests, to protect what made Galveston unique," said Galveston environmental attorney Robert Moore, who has threatened to sue if the city approves the development.

"All they are looking for is a way to get tourists over that causeway and take as many of their dollars as possible."

Galveston officials insist that it isn't true.

City Councilwoman Dianna Puccetti, who represents the West End, said the geohazards map will be used to evaluate future developments. As for The Preserve, she has not decided whether to vote for that project, which has already been approved by the planning commission.

"I think the council would want more information before making a decision," Puccetti said. "There are both pros and cons to the project. In terms of how I would vote, I think it's premature until we work through some of the issues."

Last week, the city recommended hiring outside lawyers to study the developer's offer to enter into a binding agreement on the property. City officials are expected to vote on the project in late August or early September, well before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will say whether the development's plat would harm wetlands.

Beachfront problems

The developer, Darren Sloniger of Marquette Land Investments of Illinois, says 361 acres would be set aside as a preserve, though he concedes that 67 acres of wetlands would be lost in the development.

"The irony is because we're avoiding some areas and setting aside a preserve, it actually forces us to go into the wetlands because the significance of the land is not just the wetlands but habitat," Sloniger said. "The goal is a contiguous preserve that has wetlands and uplands."

Anderson, who owns a vacation home in Jamaica Beach on the West End, argues that developments impede the migration of beaches and wetlands.

The Pointe West Development, built by Centex Homes on the far western edge of Galveston Island, is an example of what can happen, Anderson said.

"They actually did a pretty good job with setbacks on their beachfront condos to allow the beaches to migrate," Anderson said. "The problem is on bay side, where they didn't allow enough room for the wetlands to migrate. That is the problem with these properties. The most desirable real estate is by the beaches or the bays, which need room to move as the island migrates."

Washing away

James Gibeaut, a research associate in UT's Bureau of Economic Geology who helped design the geohazards map, said the island will look significantly different in the future.

"The island will become skinnier," Gibeaut said. "The Gulf shoreline will continue to erode at 5 to 10 feet per year. Bay shorelines are also eroding, putting the island into a squeeze play. On the Gulf side, there are development subdivisions now in danger just from ongoing shoreline retreat caused by waves and a lack of sediment and a lack of sand. That problem will increase because there are a lot of developments that have gone in."

City officials insist that the problems can be mitigated by beach renourishment and other methods.

The Army Corps of Engineers is doing a study to search for more sand resources and it should be final in 12 to 18 months, said Wendy O'Donohoe, director of planning and community development. The total cost of the project will be around $100 million.

"The geohazards map is based on nothing happening, no mitigation, no change in conditions," Puccetti said. "It is basically a time snapshot of what is happening right now. We know the study is going to change. ... The geology of the island isn't going to change, but we can certainly manage that process in certain respects."

Looking ahead

Jerry Mohn, president of the West Galveston Island Property Owners Association, which represents 35 neighborhoods, said his organization hasn't taken a stand on the development. He remains optimistic that a man-made solution to coastal erosion will be found.

"There is a solution out there," Mohn said. "I think some kind of underwater stabilization that breaks the wave energy so sand can move onshore. It may be five to 10 years away, but I think it's out there."

But the scientists argue that the island will move inland regardless of what government officials do.

"There is this perception that this is a relatively new phenomenon and something can be done to stop it," Anderson said. "But this has been going on for thousands of years and the island will keep moving."


500 feet: The amount the beach has retreated just west of the Galveston seawall since it was completed in 1962.

3 feet: The average annual rate that Galveston Island has been retreating for the last 1,200 years.

2.2 feet: The rise in the water level (combination of subsidence and rising sea level) over the past 100 years at Galveston's Pier 21.

Sources: The Formation and Future of the Upper Texas Coast and Pier 21 tidal records


Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 [email protected]