County officials hope a federal agency will assume maintenance responsibilities now that funding for a project aimed at addressing ship collisions along the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway has received the green light.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Tuesday it had allocated more than $509 million in funding for seven projects in Texas, including one that calls for the demolition of the West Brazos River Floodgate and for the width of the waterway to be doubled at that location.
The funding also will provide resources for extensive studies of the Texas coastline to help guard the state against future storms in the wake of Hurricane Harvey last August, according to a news release from Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.
“This funding is essential to … help minimize the loss of human lives and damage to infrastructure and property,” Abbott said.
Brazoria County officials, such as Precinct 1 Commissioner Dude Payne, have expressed concern that demolishing the floodgates would encourage flows of water and sediment that have been linked to silt piling up in the Intracoastal Waterway in Port Freeport and at the mouth of the San Bernard River.
“They have not done the modeling to see what this is going to do to closing off the mouth,” Payne said.
County commissioners in March approved a 25-year agreement with Port Freeport to split the necessary costs to keep the mouth of the San Bernard River open.
But Payne, and others involved with the project, believe the Corps should take on that responsibility if its plan interferes with those efforts, he said.
“We and the port have taken on the responsibility for the next 25 years, and we have no idea what’s going to happen if they take that gate out,” Payne said. “That’s going to let a lot of sand through.
“They should have to assume the responsibility if they’re going to close the lock.”
The frequency and cost of locally funded maintenance dredges — necessary to ensure the mouth remains open — will depend on weather conditions and the river’s flow rates, but estimates have indicated as much as $2 million every three to seven years, said Christopher Sallese of Dannebaum Engineering.
Dannebaum officials explored other avenues to keep the mouth open, including a granite jetty or a steel wall, but all other options would cost at least $30 million, Sallese said.
“We could dredge the next 50 years for the cost of half that project,” he said.
To this day, much of the San Bernard River takes a left-hand turn at the waterway and enters the Gulf of Mexico via the West Brazos River Floodgate rather than through its natural river mouth.
The Corps’ plan to remove the west floodgate and double the width of the waterway there would potentially divert even more San Bernard River flows from the natural mouth, according to the same study that proposed the plan.
After a lobbying campaign by the Friends of the River San Bernard, the Corps undertook a $2.4 million dredging operation to re-open the river mouth in 2009, but consecutive years of low river flows led the mouth to close again in 2013.
Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey, however, forced it open in September and Brazoria County groups have continued pushing for funds to more permanently keep the mouth open in order to prevent flooding problems for residents along the river, navigation problems for shippers on the waterway and silting issues near Port Freeport.