Sand tubes combat erosion

Geotubes used to save properties along Gulf of Mexico in Texas

March 23, 2003|By Bill Hanna | Bill Hanna,FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

CRYSTAL BEACH, TEXAS — Without the artificial dunes in front of his home, Eddie Oehlers isn't sure he would still have a place to live.

Twice in the past decade, tropical storms have pounded the beach in front of his Bolivar Peninsula house near Galveston in southeast Texas, washing away swaths of sand and pummeling nearby homes.

But with the cylinders of sand called geotubes holding back the Gulf of Mexico, Oehlers, 64, believes that a short-term solution to slow the encroaching waters has been found.

His view is far from unanimous. There are some along the Gulf Coast who argue that the tubes, also known as sand socks, simply protect expensive beachfront property at the cost of public access to the beaches.

The tubes are filled with sand, and then bulldozers cover them with more sand.

In time, the geotubes can begin to resemble dunes. If they are not maintained, or kept covered, water can cause them to collapse.

Emily Rostvold, press secretary for the state General Land Office, which oversees Texas beaches, said the agency helped fund geotube projects on Nueces Bay (Corpus Christi) and Galveston Bay.

'Unique challenges'

Rostvold said making geotubes work in developed areas isn't easy.

"Geotubes are always placed behind the vegetation line, and in some cases it is difficult to place geotubes behind that line because of development," Rostvold said. "That buffer zone between development and vegetation is sometimes very narrow, which creates some unique challenges."

In January, the land office's Coastal Coordination Council said the agency's "beach/dune rules express a preference for non-structural erosion response methods, such as beach nourishment, sediment bypassing, near-shore sediment berms and planting of vegetation. A geotube shore protection project is a structural erosion response method."

Whether or not geotubes are part of the solution, a study for the Federal Emergency Management Agency shows that erosion is a threat to many beaches along the Texas coast.

A 2000 Heinz Institute report found the worst erosion on the continental United States coastline was taking place in Galveston County and Brazoria County, south of Houston. In some areas, the rate was as high as 5 or 6 feet a year.

Left unabated, portions of the Bolivar Peninsula and the west end of Galveston Island could be breached within 50 years, the study said. "If we don't try and stop it, Bolivar Peninsula is eventually going to be an island," said Oehlers, who is president of the Gilchrist Homeowners Association.

The geotubes have been used to preserve beaches along the Bolivar Peninsula and the west end of Galveston Island. Galveston County covers the sand-filled tubes, then uses dredged sand to build back beaches.

'Two philosophies'

"There are two philosophies about Texas beaches," said former state Sen. Jerry Patterson of Austin, the GOP nominee for land commissioner.

"Do you let Mother Nature take her course or do you use man-made techniques to defend property? You can only retreat so much. Obviously, the Galveston area is one of those areas we need to defend. If we do nothing, [Farm Road] 3005, which cuts across Galveston Island, could eventually be severed in five places, and the San Luis Pass bridge will be a very nice fishing pier surrounded by water."

Galveston and Jefferson counties are participating in a feasibility study with the Army Corps of Engineers to determine what causes erosion on some beaches along 90 miles of the upper Texas coast while other beaches may be growing.

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