How Will the Levee Affect Orange, and How Will It Save It?
by Ginger Broomes
A presentation was given at Tuesday’s Orange City Council meeting regarding the Orange County Levee Project, which is in the design phase. Don Carona from the Orange County Drainage District, Orange County Judge John Gothia, county commissioners, along with several reps from the Corps of Engineers, took turns presenting to the council and the public details on what’s known as the “Ike Dike”.
The project will be a 25 +/- mile storm surge protection project that will include a series of earthen and concrete levees, floodgates and pumping stations stretching from Orange to just south of the Orangefield area. Its nickname - and the need for it - stems from Hurricane Ike, which flooded much of Orange county in 2008.
The Orange County Levee Project is just part of the overall project, named “Sabine Pass to Galveston Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Program”. The overall program is being implemented to reduce risk of storm surge impacts in Orange, Jefferson and Brazoria counties. (For the overall project info, go to this website: https://www.swg.usace.army.mil/s2g/)
Here is a breakdown of the info given to the council, specific for residents of Orange:
The Orange County Levee, right now, will extend from I-10 and Simmons in Orange, at the northeast end, run along the Sabine River and through Orange, West Orange and Bridge City. It will then run northwest around the Entergy Power plant and skirt along the edge of the Bessie Heights Marsh, terminating near the west end of Tanglewood Drive in Orange county.
But it looks like the final design of the levee will be further north than the I-10/Simmons Road area.
“We’re working on the issue of where the levee will terminate,” Don Carona told the council. “Right now it terminates at I-10 and Simmons. I don’t think it will end there but go further north.
“The Corps is projecting future surge, even 50-100 years ahead, in planning this,” Corona said. “Will it have to go up as far as Little Cypress bayou? Maybe. But it’s being studied right now. To account for future rising waters.”
Project is in the design phase. The overall timeline has changed since public meetings were held in April (but not yet changed on the website). Construction is now expected to begin in 2025 or 2026, with four years to completion.
STRUCTURE of PROJECT:
Two navigation sector gate structures - one on Adams Bayou and one on Cow Bayou - will be built with a gate opening of over 84 feet in width, to allow for barge traffic, and to not interfere with existing recreational and commercial navigation along those waterways.
Approximately 30 gates throughout the county will cross certain roads and railroad tracks. When the gates are open, they will not impede traffic.
There will be at least seven pump stations throughout the Orange County Project, four of which will definitely be located at Adams Bayou, Cow Bayou, Cooper’s Gulley and Bessie Heights. By the time the final layout of these stations is decided, in 2023, there will be more than seven pump stations.
Levees throughout the project will consist of 15 miles of earthen levees and 10 miles of concrete floodwalls. Earthen levees have clay cores which, along with the width of the levee, will prevent flooding. Strict maintenance is required on these and the cost of upkeep will be taken care of by the Gulf Coast Protection District.
EFFECTS ON STRUCTURES IN ORANGE:
Rick Villagomez, with the Corps of Engineers - Galveston District, told the council that dropping a 25-mile levee system into a developed county is a challenge, but the goal is to keep the city of Orange as close as possible to the way it is today.
“We’re making sure it doesn’t affect businesses and upcoming projects,” he said. “The alignment (layout of the levee) is not defined just by the Corps of Engineers but also by stakeholders (business owners) here in Orange County, as well as Orange Co Drainage District. This isn’t being done in a vacuum. We’re part of the community here, it does us no good to do this without input from folks. We want the community to prosper.”
Councilman Childs voiced concern over the possibility of destroying enhancements made in the city of Orange, such as parks, and the Riverside and Riverfront Pavilions.
“We’re working with the county on the boat launch area, and where we have our fishing tournaments. We’re designing this project in such a way so that we least impact that area.
“In the Riverside area, the engineers are studying how we’re getting stormwater to a pump station. In this area, it could be that we want to move the levee out a little bit, like Beaumont has done, and they’ve built soccer fields in that space. Nothing would be done without working with the city,” Carona replied.
Along Simmons, Bluebird’s Fish Camp, its nearby park, and boat launch will be outside the levee, with a floodgate designed to access those areas from Simmons. The Orange Boat Ramp and Riverside Pavillion will most likely be out of the levee protection and accessed by a floodgate, along with businesses along Pier Road.
The original design of the levee project called for the demolition of the Boardwalk and Riverfront Pavilion. Now, engineers are working on different levee designs that could possibly keep both these structures. Front Street’s levee alignment is still being determined, in hopes of bringing Entergy’s substation behind the floodwall protection, and the County Administration Building is still being worked in the design phase. Carona stated that they are looking at multiple ways to protect the Admin Building.
The Cove and West Orange alignment areas are still undefined. Although some homes and businesses may have to relocate just past the downtown area, the final layout of the levee project will not be decided until 2023. At that time, there will be more meetings open to the public for discussion.
As far as environmental impacts, Villagomez said, “There’s no way around it, but we’re not turning our backs on it. We’re going to address it. When the (2017) feasibility study was conducted, 2400 acres would be impacted. And it was proposed that we would create approx 430 acres of new marsh, and preserve 560 acres of forested wetlands.”
WILL THE LEVEES WORSEN INTERNAL FLOODING:
Don Carona stressed that the levee project’s goals were not just preventing storm surge, but to also alleviate Sabine River flooding, when rain levels up north cause the river to flood further south. He said he wanted to make sure the levee ended at a point that would prevent this. The levee system will be in a horseshoe configuration for this reason.
“We don’t want to keep out the storm surge, then have the river come up behind us and flood, like the area saw in the 2016 Sabine River flood. It (the levee) will make a tremendous difference.”
Both Councilman Brad Childs and Councilwoman Terrie Salter voiced concerns about rain events such as Harvey.
“From a drainage district standpoint, I know what happened in Hurricane Harvey. I was on 16th street, saw the water coming from the river. I know what flooded those buildings on 16th. It was the river,” Carona said.
“This project won’t protect against epic, historic all- time rain events across the county. But will it make a difference? Absolutely in my opinion.”
“In regard to the interior drainage, we’ve been working really closely on this, particularly following Harvey and Imelda,” Carona told the council. “The last thing we want to do is to have a system that will worsen interior drainage. Even during everyday (non-storm) events, this project will not in any way worsen drainage. In an open-gate situation, which the gates will be open 360 days of the year, it will offer protection up to a 100-year event. Based upon the most recent rainfall data from NOAA. In fact, because of some features, I think this is going to improve drainage on an everyday basis.”
Both Carona and Villagomez stressed that the Orange County project provides for a pumping capacity up to a 25-year event when the gates are closed. A 25-year-event, or even 100-year-event is not defined by how often the rain event occurs, but is defined by the percent-chance of that event happening. A 25-year flood event has a .04 percent chance of happening.
“Gravity drainage structures will be located throughout the levee system at strategic locations. When the floodgates are open, these will allow drainage to go through the system,” Villagomez said.
Interior drainage channels, not ditches, will be constructed along the interior of the levee and the flood wall system for conveying drainage to either a gravity drainage structure or a pump system. There will be approximately 50 gravity drainage structures throughout the project.
Dawn Pilscher, P.E. with LJA Engineering Inc., used the existing levee system in Port Arthur as an example.
“The system, closed during Harvey, saved a lot of properties that would’ve otherwise flooded. Gauges there registered over 63 inches in a 5 day period, and everyone flooded. However, the water inside the levee system was several feet lower than the water on the outside of the system. Port Arthur did flood, because the pumps simply couldn’t keep up with all that rainfall. But ultimately with their system, they were able to evacuate all the water within 1.5 to 2 days.”
In Orange, with no system in place, it flooded from Harvey rainfall, then the Sabine River flooded the town a second time. It took weeks, not days, to evacuate all the flood water. And, Pilscher said, the Orange County Project is being designed at double the capacity of the Port Arthur system.
Pumps throughout the project will also be elevated and sump pumps used to keep the pumps from being submerged.
WILL PROJECT RAISE TAXES/LOWER FLOOD INSURANCE:
Don Carona said, “Kirk Roccaforte is our rep of the Gulf Coast Protection District, which consists of 5 counties. They pay the non-federal portion of the design/construction project and pay for the operation and maintenance of the levee. They have the right to levy a tax, but only in the event that it is approved by voters in all the counties represented by the Gulf Coast Protection District.
“But in the event that happens, voters have to approve, and even then, the tax can never be more than a nickel, as set by statute. At this time there’s no indication that Orange County taxpayers will be responsible for the cost of maintenance and operations.
“The judge and commissioners are heavily involved in what we can do to change our rising flood insurance rates, but FEMA is changing the game,” Carona explained. “We don’t know, based upon their new system, what effect the levee system will have on flood insurance. But all we do know is that the folks that live in Port Arthur behind the levee, pay less flood insurance than those that live here (in Orange).
“So we can’t say if the project will provide help with flood insurance, but it will provide us protection from flooding.”
More information and maps are available at: https://www.swg.usace.army.mil/S2G/