Latest News: U.S. IBWC Breaks Ground on Recovery Act Levee Project
Granjeno, TX -- The United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) held a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009, to mark the start of construction on the Lower Rio Grande Flood Control Project levee improvements.
The work is being carried out with appropriations from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). Construction has begun on two segments-- the Banker Floodway North Levee and the Main Floodway. The ceremony was held along the Banker Floodway near Granjeno where the USIBWC construction ties into the levee improvements previously constructed by Hidalgo County and the levee-barrier segments constructed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The USIBWC is raising levee height to comply with standards established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the 100-year flood.
"We are moving forward quickly to implement these projects so we can meet the goal of the Recovery Act to jumpstart the economy and create jobs," said U.S. Commissioner C.W. "Bill" Ruth. "At the same time, we are making signficant improvements to the flood control infrastructure in the Lower Rio Grande Valley."
The Banker Floodway construction, covering three miles of levee between Granjeno and 23rd Street, is being performed by Inuit Services, Inc. of Anchorage, Alaska, which was awarded a $950,997 contract in accordance with a federal program targeting qualified small businesses in distressed areas. Construction is scheduled to be completed by February 2010 on that section.
Construction has also begun on a 43-mile reach of the Main Floodway in Hidalgo County, Texas to provide enhanced flood protection for the communities of McAllen, Hidalgo, Pharr, San Juan, Alamo, Donna and Weslaco. Longhorn Excavators, Inc. of Richmond, Texas was awarded the $19,169,159 contract, with construction scheduled to be completed by Sept. 2010.
The Recovery Act includes $220 million for USIBWC levee projects in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas and the Upper Rio Grande Flood Control Project in West Texas and Southern New Mexico. The USIBWC provides regular public updates on its planning and spending of Recovery Act funds at www.recovery.gov and www.state.gov/recovery. An updated project schedule is available at www.ibwc.gov/Recovery/RGF.html.
Hidalgo County Receives Texas Association of Counties Leadership Foundation Award for Levee-Barrier Project
Read the Levee Economic Impact Study, Released May, 1, 2009 (click here)
In September 2006, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced the re-mapping of southern Hidalgo County. Due to archaic mapping processes, much of Hidalgo County would be classified in a flood zone where it would be mandatory for home and business owners to purchase flood insurance.
Meanwhile, in November 2006, voters passed a $100 million drainage bond for
Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 to improve the flood control
system in Hidalgo County. The system was in dire need of upgrades. The last upgrades to the district's drainage system occured in 1979, when much of Hidalgo County was agricultural land. Since that time, blacktop and rooftops have replaced carrottops, putting a strain on the system.
Of that $100 million bond, $10 million had been allocated for the river levees. This was based on cost estimates from the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission -- the owner and maintainer of the river levees -- that the total cost for rehabilitation of the federally-owned levees in both Hidalgo and Cameron counties would cost $125 million.
The rest of the bond was allocated for the expansion of existing drainage laterals and the building of new drainage
laterals (ditches), the Raymondville Drain and the Mission Inlet.
In July 2007, HCDD No. 1 finalized a Memorandum of Understanding
with the IBWC to work on federally-owned levees. And seeing what a
serious problem the levees had become, the
Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 Board of Directors, which has
the same membership as the Hidalgo
County Commissioners' Court, took action in August 2007 to adjust the
original allottment of $10 million to $40 million of the $100 million
bond for the levees. The goal was to save lives and property and
continue the trend of economic prosperity of the region.
Things got heated that fall, when FEMA
said preliminary maps for Hidalgo County were expected to be available by the end of 2007 and that their release would extend the floodplain, requiring costly flood insurance for homes and businesses in southern Hidalgo County.
Levee certification is required by FEMA to exclude areas from the flood plain, and according to the IBWC, a significant portion of levees would not attain certification because the levees:
Do not provide sufficient freeboard,
would be overtopped by current flood stages,
and do not comply with other design, operation and maintenance criteria.
A new map not only would send
insurance rates for homeowners and businesses through the roof, costing more than $150 million annually, but it would also put numerous lives and properties in harm's way.
Hidalgo County Drainage District Director Godfrey Garza assured FEMA that the levees would be fixed; the agency extended Hidalgo County's flood insurance/re-mapping deadline to January 2009. By substantially completing (75 percent) of the levee and levee-barrier (see below) construction by the end of 2008, FEMA agreed it would not declare certain portions of Hidalgo County as floodplain with the release of the new maps, saving taxpayers from having to pay costly flood insurance.
With this deadline looming, construction had to speed up. The bonds were originally supposed to be sold in phases over a three-year time span. The first $27 million phase was sold in February 2007, but the by the end of the year, the remainder of the bonds were let out, as an effort to speed up the process. With money in hand, Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 began to acquire right-of-way and put projects out to bid individually so that multiple contractors could compete and the massive project would take less time, thus reducing risk and avoiding a large insurance premium creep.
As of July 14, 2008, construction is underway on two portions of levee to be fixed under the work plan -- a 3.74-mile segment from Banker Weir to Inspiration Road ($6.3 million, Ballenger Construction) and a 5.3-mile segment west of the City of Hidalgo ($7.5 million, Ballenger Construction). Ballenger Construction is based in Harlingen, Texas. The 3.91-mile segment from Inspiration Road to Abram Road ($4.8 million, Longhorn Excavators, Inc.) has not yet begun construction. HCDD No. 1 is currently finalizing contract documents.
Approximately 18 miles of river levee -- from Peñitas to Anzalduas Dam -- will be completed by the end of 2008. Another 22 miles of levee will be fixed as part of the levee-barrier program with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, thoroughly increasing flood protection in this county.
No Border Fence
On Oct. 26, 2006, the U.S. Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, allowing for the construction of pedestrian and vehicle barriers along 700 miles of southern border. However, the fencing, left largely unfunded, did not seem likely. Yet, in spring 2007, maps showing a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border surfaced from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Rio Grande Valley was identified as a illegal immigration corridor, and 70 miles of fencing from Roma, in neighboring Starr County, to Brownsville, in neighboring Cameron County were under scrutiny. A total of 22 miles of that lay in Hidalgo County.
Reaction along the southern border, and particularly in the Rio Grande Valley, was swift and strong. Valley leaders were and still are opposed to the wall based on its potential harmful impacts to the economy, harmful impacts to the United State's relationship with Mexico, the message this fence would send to the world, how it could hurt the environment and restrict access to some land and outright take land from others. The Hidalgo County Commissioners' Court passed a
condemning the fence, as did almost every other Hidalgo County municipality.
Many visits to the county's congressional delegation in Washington D.C. were had. County leaders, along with other members of the Texas Border Coalition, voiced strong opposition against the proposed border fence and collectively hired media specialists to work the court of public opinion. Letters were written, press conferences were had, and leaders participated in roundtable discussions with high-level Washington officials, yet the fence, it seemed, would be built no matter what locals had to say about it.
The turning point came on Oct. 10, 2007, when Sen. John Cornyn toured the levees with several Valley mayors, county leaders and members of the media. Cornyn toured the levees because DHS proposed to build the fence on top of them, despite local governments' constant reminders that the levees needed to be fixed after many years of wear and tear. An alternative compromise plan combining the federal government's need for border security barriers and the local government's need for flood control was first proposed at this influential meeting.
Jointly with the U.S. IBWC, Hidalgo
County submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
to consider reconstructing tactically the levees instead of building a border fence. As drawings were reviewed and congressional leaders worked their magic, earning some time with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Oct. 15 -- the deadline for public comments to be included in the Rio Grande Valley Sector's draft environmental impact statement -- came and went. On Nov. 16, 2007, as both Hidalgo and Cameron officials met with leaders in Washington D.C. about border fence impacts on levee improvements, the draft EIS was released; however, it did not include the proposal.
Nevertheless, on Feb. 8, 2008, Sec. Chertoff announced acceptance of the alternative compromise plan to fencing that he said meets the operational needs of the U.S. Border Patrol as well as the flood control needs of Hidalgo County. Financing was still an issue, though. On April 1, 2008, DHS issued two waivers to expedite security improvements along the southwest border. One waiver was specifically tactical for the levee-barrier project in Hidalgo County to strengthen flood protection systems. And even despite the waiver, which was necessary in order to comply with Congress' mandate and Hidalgo County's FEMA deadline, all players in the levee-barrier tactical reconstruction project pledged to be good stewards of the environment. Another EIS was not released; instead, DHS put together an environmental stewardship plan, encompassing public comments. DHS also offered, and environmental agencies accepted, a mitigation package in return for their cooperation.
In May 2008, Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 finalized the cooperative agreement with DHS, which laid out the financing in detail. The project will be funded by DHS at 65 percent and HCDD No. 1 at 35 percent. Up to $88 million of federal
funding will be locally used for the improvement of 22 miles of levee.