Commissioners support Coast Protection District
Last updated 5/4/2021 at 10:10pm
Orange County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a resolution supporting a bill in the Texas Legislature that is expected to make the long-discussed “Ike Dike” a reality.
“I’d say this is probably the most important event I’ve been around in 20 years dealing with Orange County and its cities,” said Commissioner Kirk Roccaforte, who was mayor of Bridge City in 2006-16, helping the city recover from Hurricanes Rita and Ike.
“For all the 20 years I’ve been here, I don’t think the State of Texas knew where Orange County was. I think the State of Texas knows now and I think we’re doing the best thing in the interest of Orange County and the interest of the State of Texas.”
Senate Bill 1160, which passed the Texas Senate April 14 and is under consideration by the Texas House of Representatives, would create the Gulf Coast Protection District.
It would be comprised of Harris County, Galveston County, Chambers County, Jefferson County and Orange County. It would be an ad valorem taxing entity with the authority to execute a Project Partnership Agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to build and maintain a $2.9 billion system of levees, flood gates and pumps to protect Orange County from flooding from both storm surge and major rainfall events.
The USACE timeline calls for the project be finished by 2027.
Tuesday’s special meeting of Commissioners Court was called because the county leaders, with advice from Assistant County Attorney Denise Gremillion, weren’t happy with the language in a supporting resolution that was sent to them to vote on at last week’s meeting.
“We wanted to make sure the language that we have worked on for several years now is consistent with the protection of our Orange County citizens in both the rain events as well as the storm events,” County Judge John Gothia said.
“We may never have this opportunity again, to have this funding provided for us. We don’t want to pass up that opportunity but we also don’t want to risk the safety of our residents in a rain event or a storm surge event.
“We wanted to make sure that language is in there. It is in there now. We have met I can’t tell you how many times to make sure that language is consistent both at the state level and the federal level.
“So we’ve done our part.”
Hurricane Ike in 2008 flooded Bridge City with more than 10 feet of water and it backed up the Sabine River into Orange. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was a slow-moving storm that was the country’s biggest ever rain event, dumping as much as 60 inches of rain in a few days on areas of the county.
Plans were first developed for the “Ike Dike” to be a system of levees and flood walls extending from below Galveston to the Sabine. Pumps were added to the plan at the insistence of Orange County officials.
“The wording on providing interior damage is very crucial,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Robert Viator, who represents Vidor and much of northwest Orange County. “If the wall holds water out, it holds water in.
“I’m still concerned about what it’ll do on the west side of the county.”
Wording in the resolution put forward Tuesday was lengthy and cited a USACE agreement that the project “provide drainage relief as it did prior to the levee system” in a 100-year (1%) rain event and that the interior drainage system (pump stations and minimum pump capacity) be designed for a 25-year rain event.
“Whereas,” the last whereas paragraph states, “the Commissioners Court recognizes the low-lying nature of major portions of Orange County as well as the complexities of the project design … in light of the expressed willingness of USACE to address interior drainage, [Commissioners Court] finds that the opportunity for construction of the Orange County Project, which is wholly dependent on federal and state funding, may not be present again for decades to come … it must act on behalf of the best interest of the County …”
The terms of Senate Bill 1160 requires the district to hold an election before authorizing the imposition of an ad valorem tax not to exceed 5 cents per $100 value.
Orange County officials were initially told several years ago the county’s local 35% matching share of the federal government’s funding would be more than $800 million. Already, the county and the Orange County Drainage District have reached agreement with the Texas General Land Office for the GLO to pay $74 million for Orange County’s share of design costs.
Gothia points out that Orange County’s population makes up only 3% of the population of the total five-county Gulf Coast Protection District, with Harris County dwarfing the rest.
That means Orange County will have little to no say in any district-wide election, although it is guaranteed at least one of the 11 directors’ seats.
“That means we’ll only be bearing 3% of the project’s cost and we’re benefiting from one-third of the total cost,” Gothia said.
Under the Water Resources Development Act of 2018, the United States Congress authorized $15 billion for construction funding for the Sabine Pass to Galveston Bay, Texas coastal storm risk management project, which included the Orange County coastal storm risk management project as a separate element also known as the Orange County Project.
Federal law requires the Project costs be shared between the federal government and a local non-federal sponsor on a 65-35 percent basis.
“Without this district being formed this year, it will be two years until we can bring it up again,” Gothia said. “For those two years, money will be pulled from USACE.”
Consultant Duane Gordy, a Lumberton resident who has consulted with Pine Forest on drainage issues, was the only speaker to question the letter.
He cautioned that Senate Bill 1160 was too broadly written.
“We’re creating a taxing district that will be as hard to get rid of as TxDOT,” he said. “Special taxing districts are hard to get rid of.
“And if it’s going to issue an ad valorem tax, it’ll have to go to the district for a vote. But that’s the entire district, which means rural Texas is going to be at the mercy of urban Texas.
“If they want to bring a project forward and they want to use that ad valorem tax to service that project, the population is going to dictate where those dollars go.”
Gothia said he expects to hear many questions from county residents.
“I know there are a lot of questions people are going to ask, and they should ask,” he said. “And we’re asking those kinds of questions ourselves. I can promise you we’re trying our best to make sure we’re protected.”