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This column is meant to be a conversation about the federal stimulus package as the Comptroller's office tracks how the money is spent in Texas.

July 28, 2011

Staying Dry in the Rio Grande Valley

By MARK WANGRIN

If you’re one of those staring into the eye of a hurricane in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in the future, recalling that just last year Alex made the Rio Grande crest at its highest since 1967, realize one thing.

It could be worse. Much worse.

Three years ago, funding from a $100 million bond program that was later supplemented by stimulus and disaster-relief money allowed governmental entities along the LRG to break ground on a long overdue project to overhaul the region’s levee, canal and flood control systems.

In early 2009 the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act kicked the repairs into high gear by granting $220 million to the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission for levee work along the Rio Grande, from New Mexico to Brownsville. That’s roughly 20 times the average annual allocation for the federal agency that oversees water issues between the United States and Mexico.

As of early July 2011, 90 of the planned 105 miles of levee have been completed, says Sally Spener, IBWC spokesperson.

The project created about 2,000 jobs, Spener says, and $162 million of the $220 million allocation has been paid out to contractors.

Lower Rio Grande projects received $110 million of that. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security spent an additional $200 million to construct a 22-mile structure that serves as both a border wall and levee. The LRG Flood Control System contains 270 miles of U.S. flood control levee along the Rio Grande, interior floodways, and the Arroyo Colorado in Texas, an area that’s home to about one million people.

Hurricane Dolly hit the region in 2008, making landfall at South Padre Island. It dumped 16 inches of rain and caused $1.05 billion in damage.

“With this funding, we will be able to rehabilitate most of our deficient levees in just two to three years,” former IBWC commissioner C.W. Ruth said when the projects were announced in March 2009. “At previous funding levels, we were looking at a 20-year project to complete the work.”

In June 2010 Alex hit northern Mexico and South Texas, dumping between six to nine inches of rain and setting single day precipitation records in Brownsville and McAllen. Though the improvements weren’t yet complete, enough work had been completed to make a huge difference.

The levees held. A catastrophe was avoided.

“Because of the advances made on levee construction, our levees were in the best condition in years and performed as intended to protect the Valley residents from the worst flooding since 1967,” Spener says. “We had only some minor erosion problems and leakage at structures, some of which was caused by vandalism.”

In Hidalgo County, a levee-wall project begun in 2008 in conjunction with IBWC, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 – and later supplemented with stimulus funds and post-Dolly disaster-relief money – was already in place.

After Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, a re-evaluation of the area’s levee system revealed urgent changes were needed.

“After Katrina, the levees were decertified,” says Godfrey Garza, Hidalgo Country Drainage District 1 manager. “After FEMA came in to update the (flood risk) map, it put one-third of the county in the flood plain. That would result in $50 million to $60 million more in flood insurance premiums every year. The Red Cross wouldn’t open emergency shelters in the area in anticipation of a hurricane because the levees weren’t certified.”

Hidalgo County officials and their partners went to work. The projects, which created about 1,500 jobs during their two-year construction, included 26 miles of levee construction. Tasks included building concrete walls, strengthening levees, replacing bridges over canals, reinforcing water lines and – this is where Homeland Security came in – improving border security.

“We had focused our construction on the west side, where the greater flood danger was,” Garza says. “If the new levees had not been there, it probably would have flooded out the industrial sector, the international bridge, all the warehouses. We would have had a hard time recovering from that, because that would have taken out about 40 percent of the tax base.”

Hidalgo County is planning to address the east side by lining up federal funding to offset the county’s financial responsibility.

The improvements are expected to hold the water out – and keep business in.

“Everybody, citizens and businesses, are more at ease because of the levees,” Garza says. “I think you’ll see the industrial sector continue to grow. Fortune 500 companies like Emerson Electric, Delco, Zenith and other auto plant industries feel comfortable that their supplies and facilities are not endangered.”

E-mail your comments or suggestions for future columns to: Mark.Wangrin@cpa.state.tx.us

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