Opened in 1955, Rollover Pass has been the bearer of unexpected consequences, including rapid beach erosion and environmental risks. (Image courtesy of Google Maps)

Rollover Pass: Why closing it is the right thing to do

On January 19th, the Galveston County Commissioners Court has taken important steps to help advance the closure of Rollover Pass. This is a welcome development that will save Texans millions of dollars in years to come and make Bolivar Peninsula safer and more enjoyable. Closing Rollover Pass will also help protect property and critical infrastructure against erosion, restore the environment to natural conditions, and help the coast be better prepared for the next major storm.

A Man-Made Problem

Rollover Pass is a man-made strait. It was cut into the Bolivar Peninsula in 1955 by the Texas Game and Fish Commission (which is now Texas Parks & Wildlife) at the peninsula’s narrowest point. The pass connected the Gulf of Mexico with Rollover Bay and was intended to improve water quality and salinity in the bay and help with fish migration while also improving local fishing conditions.

Rollover Pass achieved the latter result and has become one of Texas’ most popular fishing spots. Unfortunately, the Pass has also created a number of damaging side effects that threaten public and private property and cost Texas and U.S. taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

Costly Erosion

Within just a few years after being opened, Rollover Pass widened greatly due to erosion. Walls had to be installed to keep it from widening further. Studies over the years showed conclusively that Rollover Pass contributes to significant erosion on the beaches to its south and west, which deprives property owners of their shore. Additionally, Rollover Pass causes sand and sediment to be diverted and deposited into the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The Intracoastal Waterway is a key transit route for goods and products to and from Texas ports and cities. In order to maintain navigability, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has to dredge the Rollover Pass segment of the Intracoastal Waterway every year to remove sediment, costing taxpayers from $600,000 to $1 million. The Texas General Land Office and Galveston County also have to add sand to the eroded beaches each year, costing about $166,000. The Texas Department of Transportation also spent $675,152.33 in emergency repairs after Hurricane Ike due to Rollover Pass, and the Land Office has spent more than $827,000 in federal matching funds for beach nourishment after three hurricanes from 2001 to 2008.

Erosion of the beach west of Rollover Pass has increased significantly, costing Texans millions of dollars.

Some say a jetty would solve Rollover Pass’ serious erosion problem, but studies have shown this would not work. A jetty or jetties would not prevent sand loss from the peninsula’s beaches. Modifying the pass would also amount to rebuilding it entirely due to heavy corrosion of the steel walls that currently hold the pass open.

Environmental Damage

Rollover Pass was intended to improve fishing conditions and promote fish passage from the Gulf to inshore waters of Rollover Bay and East Bay. But studies have demonstrated the pass can bring too much salt water into the bays and nearby estuaries, which hurts oysteries and fish habitats. Closing Rollover Pass will restore the bays to natural salinity levels, which will be good for the fish and the oysteries.

Storm Threat

The State Highway 87 bridge that spans Rollover Pass is more vulnerable to damage from hurricanes and other major storms due to increased flow velocities. The pass threatens the highway and bridge, which is the only land access to the Bolivar Peninsula and the primary hurricane evacuation route. Damage to the bridge could prevent people from reaching safety ahead of approaching storms. Post-storm recovery would also be significantly impacted by serious damage to the highway and bridge.

Hazardous Pass

Rollover Pass’ bulkheads, sidewalks and handrails sustained damage from Hurricane Ike that has not been fully repaired. Corrosion has left the tops of its steel walls jagged and has weakened its sheet piles, increasing the possibility that the walls may collapse and take the sidewalks with them. This poses a serious threat to anyone fishing or otherwise enjoying the pass.

Replacing the Pass

Closing Rollover Pass is not the end. The Legislature, the Land Office and Galveston County recognize that closing Rollover Pass would impact the local economy — so state and local officials are teaming up. The Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry approved funding to close Rollover Pass in 2009. Following closure, a public park and recreational area will be built on the former pass for everyone to enjoy, as soon as possible after the pass is closed. A fishing pier will also be built on the gulf side of the peninsula for fishermen and everyone who enjoys the gulf to have for generations to come.

Closing Rollover Pass makes fiscal sense — it will save taxpayer money. It makes environmental sense — it will restore Rollover Bay and nearby estuaries to their natural state, strengthening fish and oyster habitats. It is safe — left open, Rollover Pass threatens to make serious storms even more dangerous. And closing Rollover Pass protects the private property of Texans who have seen their beaches carried away by the dangerous currents that Rollover Pass creates.