WESLACO, RGV – U.S. Sen. John Cornyn says he was not aware just how “vastly underfunded” the U.S. section of International Boundary and Water Commission is.

Established in 1889, IBWC has responsibility for applying the boundary and water treaties between the United States and Mexico and settling differences that may arise in their application. It also gets involved in flood control, dam repair and sanitation issues.

Jayne Harkins, the commissioner for the U.S. section of IBWC, explained how stretched her budget is at a roundtable discussion at the offices of Hidalgo County Precinct One in Weslaco on Monday. She said she was struggling to find $10 million to expand the capacity of the Arroyo Colorado.

In remarks during the roundtable discussion, Cornyn said: “I was not aware of such a constrained budget that the commissioner has and that is something I have made a mental note of, to see if we can work together with her.

“We have a continuing resolution until November 21 and then, hopefully, we will come up with an accommodation to fund the federal government. But we are going to look for an opportunity to supplement some of the funding that the IBWC gets.”

During a news conference following the roundtable discussion, Cornyn said: “IBWC is a federal agency that we have learned today is vastly underfunded.”

After the news conference ended, Cornyn asked Harkins which Senate subcommittee looks after IBWC. Harkins responded: “State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.” Cornyn said he would have a word with the chairman of this subcommittee, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, about getting more money to IBWC.

IBWC has a U.S. section and a Mexican section, each headed by an engineer-commissioner appointed by his/her respective president. Each section is administered independently of the other.

The U.S. section is a federal government agency and is headquartered in El Paso, Texas. The IBWC operates under the foreign policy guidance of the Department of State. The Mexican Section is under the administrative supervision of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is headquartered in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.

Harkins has been commissioner of the U.S. section of IBWC for just over a year. She said that while flood control was a top issue for the Rio Grande Valley, she also has to deal with structural issues surrounding Amistad Dam and sanitation issues on the border next to Tijuana and Nogales.

“My budget is about $78 million a year, so, not billions, nothing with a “B.” We have about $48 million in our salaries and expenses. That is all of our operations and maintenance that we do. About $28 million for construction projects. It is not enough. We have a lot of O&M that needs to be done.”

Harkins said she has visited the Rio Grande Valley about four or five times during the past year.

“I have not ignored you. I have been living out of a suitcase most of this year. It is long, hard travel on this border to get to places. A lot of times I have got to drive it and it is five, six, seven hours to some of my spots to see some of my folks,” Harkins explained to the Valley leaders at the roundtable event.

IBWC’s top issue in the Valley this past year, Harkins said, has been improving water flow in the Arroyo Colorado.

“Staff has come out, they have done the surveying. We have expanded the hydraulic model. We did that all in house. We have estimated how much (vegetation) we have to take out to get it back to the capacity that it should be,” Harkins said.

“So, I am now in a search for about ten million dollars. We can do it, maybe, with end of year funding but that would take us probably four or five years to get it all done. So, I will see how and when I can ever add it to my budget.”

After hearing these remarks, Mercedes Mayor Henry Hinojosa called on Sen. Cornyn to do something about it.

“In one of the last meetings we had, we meaning the cities along the Arroyo Colorado, which are nine cities, with IBWC, our new commissioner was not on board yet. They pretty much told us, you are on your own. So, we were in the process of organizing the cities along the arroyo to see what we could do to improve the draining into the Arroyo Colorado,” Hinojosa said.

“I’m glad what you said earlier, commissioner. Hopefully you will get monies to periodically clean the Arroyo Colorado because nine cities from Mission all the way to Harlingen drain into that waterway. As earlier people were commenting, there is a negative flow. There was a negative flow because of the lack of cleaning the Arroyo Colorado so it (the floodwater) was flowing back into our cities.

“Senator, if you could monitor that up in Washington, to see that the IBWC does get the adequate funding… we were all amazed at the limited resources that they told us they had at the time. Basically, we were in shock because this is the federal government.”

Harkins said her visit to the Valley this time was excellent because she got to interact with local leaders. The main talking point on the visit was the Raymondville Drain project, which, when funding is found, will take floodwater from Hidalgo County to the Laguna Madre via Willacy County.

“It was good to get out here and learn from you folks about the needs in the North Floodway and things that we could do there. It is good to hear my folks are doing a good job. I have learned we have to do some things in the low flow-channel. You may want to widen it,” Harkins said.

“That is more money that I probably don’t have. But we have to work through this and at least understand what it is we need to do. I don’t think I know that right now. We will have to get a cost estimate put together. Maybe we could re-prioritize some things within our budget, which is what we are doing continuously all through the year.”

Harkins added: “As we go through time, what I am trying to do is to be able to explain to folks what we are not doing and the importance of it, and what the cost-benefit analysis of doing those things are.”

IBWC Annual Reports

Jayne Harkins, commissioner for the U.S. section of the International Boundary & Water Commission.

Harkins was interviewed by the Rio Grande Guardian afterwards about why IBWC has stopped publishing its annual reports online. The agency stopped publishing them online in 2008.

Asked if IBWC still publishes annual reports and if they do, why they are no longer listed on the agency’s website, Harkins did not have an answer. “I thought we did joint reports (with the Mexican section of IBWC). I will have to go check. I will get back to you,” she said.

Among the local leaders Harkins met with were Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, Willacy County Judge Aurelio Guerra, and Hidalgo County Commissioners David Fuentes and Ellie Torres.

“It has been good learning experience for me, so I get to understand. I have toured the area before, the floodway and the Arroyo Colorado with my staff. It is good to hear the locals’ perspective and understand the needs that they have and the concerns that they have. We clearly have to work together in the operation of our drainage facilities, our floodway facilities, as well as the local facilities,” Harkins said.

Asked where things are at with regard to repairing Amistad Dam, Harkins said:

“The U.S. and Mexico together have hired the Army Corps of Engineers to do an analysis of the different options. They are about done with that. We are now going to sit down with the Corps and the Mexican section and figure out what we want to do. We are going to have to figure out how and when we can do that and go find the funding. It should be funded by both countries. We are getting close to at least knowing the best path and the best option.”

Asked if Amistad Dam can be repaired before the dam breaks, Harkins said: “I think so. We have important work on the border, flood control, the dams, storage. Lots of issues we are trying to tackle.”

During the news conference, Sen. Cornyn also spoke about securing funding for the Raymondville Drain project. Long a priority for the Valley, the project will cost an estimated $400 million but local leaders only have $25 million.

“My job in D.C. is not only to make sure that federal priorities are adequately funded but things like the Raymondville Drain Improvement Project are included in the Water Resources Development Act bill,” Cornyn said. “That is where the authorization has to take place, by Congress before the Army Corps can do what they do.”

Cornyn said the Water Resources Development Act is up for reauthorization is up in 2020. He said he will work to make sure the Raymondville Drain project is included. If it is he and other members of Congress can then go after funding.