VICKSBURG, Miss. – In this episode of the new Engineering With Nature® (EWN) Podcast, guest Dr. Edmond Russo, former deputy district engineer for Planning, Programs, and Project Management, Galveston District, and current director, Environmental Laboratory, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), discusses the scope and scale of Galveston District’s responsibilities, and how the district is incorporating the principles and practices of EWN into their daily work as well as their future planning.
A 27-year veteran of USACE, Russo has a passion for innovation, especially identifying and pursuing new ways to improve water resource management efficiency and effectiveness. In his work at the Galveston District, he led a team that is developing a 50-year plan to protect and restore the Texas Gulf Coast.
Galveston District’s 50,000-square-mile area of responsibility spans over 360 miles of the Texas coast, from Louisiana to Mexico, extending inland 150-200 miles, and includes world-scale ports, container terminals and the Houston Ship Channel. The region’s fragile coastal shorelines, ecosystems and infrastructure are vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme storms. The District has correspondingly big challenges and opportunities in the areas of navigation, flood risk management, coastal storm risk management and ecosystem restoration. The Galveston team is currently working on navigation channel improvement projects on the order of approximately $3.9 billion.
When Russo arrived at the Galveston District in 2014, he faced significant organizational and collaboration challenges. Under his leadership and driven by his Fierce Urgency of Now (FUN) approach, the district became the first EWN Proving Ground, which inspired and enabled the Galveston team to collaborate and innovate to effectively address pressing water resource management challenges. The team’s work led to the integration of nature-based solutions into their traditional water management processes. For example, in one project, the sediment that was dredged from the Houston Ship Channel ⸺ an activity that was required to expand the channel and improve shipping safety ⸺ was used to construct wetlands and dikes in Galveston Bay. By using the dredged sediment instead of more expensive rock for the lining of the dikes, the team was able to achieve extended ecological benefits, while meeting its navigation safety and reliability mandates and reducing costs by about 30% compared to more traditional approaches.
What was learned from initial EWN projects is being incorporated into larger projects in the District, including the “Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study,” which recommends infrastructure construction along the coast of Texas on the scale of $22 billion to $32 billion and spanning a 50-year timeframe. Part of the proposed plan is to construct a 40-mile-long barrier of beaches and vegetated dunes across Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula. A key objective is to reduce coastal storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico into Galveston Bay. This will reduce the risk of property and infrastructure damage and protect and restore fragile ecosystems. Russo believes this will be critical to achieving long-term resilience and sustainability of coastal communities and ecosystems, especially along the Houston Ship Channel where billions of dollars of energy sector and other economic assets are located.
Russo talks about the importance of one of the core EWN principles the team has applied to the development of the Feasibility Study ⸺ enhancing communication and collaboration with decision- makers, agency partners, academics and public stakeholders, through a variety of activities, including community work groups. A key finding has been that early and frequent engagement with clear and transparent explanations of the process, progress and intent of each stage, plus enabling stakeholders to influence the process and outcomes, is helping to achieve shared understanding and unity of purpose. He notes this spirit of collaboration will be critical in the future planning and implementation phases of the long-term “Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Plan.”
When envisioning the Texas coast over the next 50 years, Edmond believes the application of EWN in the Galveston District will enhance understanding of the complex performance of integrated coastal storm risk management and ecosystem restoration features at a landscape scale. The integration of robust field observation, data collection and analysis, leap-ahead biophysical process modeling and simulation, machine learning and artificial intelligence will significantly improve decision-making, project performance and outcomes ⸺ especially during significant storm events. He notes that as the Galveston District continues to innovate, the lessons learned in applying EWN principles and practices and those associated outcomes will be shared with other USACE districts to extend value to the nation.