Thank you. Good morning. My name is David Fuentes and I currently serve as the Hidalgo county commissioner for Precinct 1. I also serves as a board member of Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1.

First of all I would like to acknowledge this historic Rio Grande Valley field hearing of the U.S. House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth. I would also like to thank Congressman Vicente Gonzalez for representing our region in a remarkable way and I would also like to commend Chairman Jim Hines, Ranking Member Bryan Steil, all of the members of the committee and their staffs for scheduling this critical field hearing in the Rio Grande Valley.

As a background, Hidalgo County is the seventh largest county by population out of the 254 counties in the state of Texas with an approximate population of one million people. 

Today I come to you to talk about our most critical issue, which is flooding. Flooding in Hidalgo County can be attributed to many reasons. Insufficient drainage systems, rapid urbanization, low permeability of soils, a flat topography, high poverty levels among other critical factors. But, the bottom line is that when it rains in Hidalgo County water stagnates and floods our neighborhoods, our businesses and our infrastructure creating devastation in our community. 

The only solution to flooding is to build flood control infrastructure. Over the last 15 years Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1, which is in charge of the county’s regional flood control systems, has invested $374 in local bond monies to create flood control infrastructure. However, that is not enough. 

In 2012, S&B Infrastructure performed a comprehensive study of the necessary drainage improvements needed in the Rio Grande Valley. That study found that $4 billion in drainage improvements are needed in our region. And that was at $2012 prices. 

Over the last six years, Hidalgo County has had six FEMA disaster declarations due to flooding. And these were listed in your written testimony. In 2018, we suffered 34 inches of rain in Hidalgo County over two days. We endured one of the largest rain events in the United States in 2018 and, ironically, this hearing is almost four years to the day from when we experienced that horrific event.

After the 2018 rain event we had received little to no federal assistance. FEMA told us that due to a reinterpretation of their rules Hidalgo County would not be eligible for public assistance. Actually, all of us in the Rio Grande Valley would not qualify for public assistance. We are here to request a more equitable distribution of that federal funding. 

One example of real life devastation in our precinct is Roosevelt Elementary of Weslaco ISD. After three different flooding events the school had to be permanently shut down and the students had to be relocated to other schools. Weslaco ISD also lost their entire bus fleet in 2018 and it cost them over $4 million to replace. 

In another example during the rain event of 2018 my staff and I assisted in evacuating many residents, including children, the elderly and many needing medical assistance using high profile vehicles and boats. 

Based on our experience we have found that many of the federal funding opportunities available to Hidalgo County have inequitable rules and criteria that make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to obtain federal funding for infrastructure and particularly for mitigation. 

We are requesting that the rules and criteria of new and existing federal funding programs be modified to create a more equitable distribution of federal funds. We provided over half a dozen examples in our written testimony but I would like to focus on one specific example of disparity. 

HUD issued $4.2 billion in funding for several rain events in Texas in 2015, 2016, and 2017 through CDBG MIT (mitigation fund) programs. During this period, Hidalgo County underwent three FEMA disaster declarations. Although Hidalgo County was listed in the federal register as one of the most impacted and distressed areas in Texas it only rescued $25 million in CDBG MIT. The reminder of the funds, approximately $4.1 billion, went to Hurricane Harvey-affected areas. 

This means that Harris County and a handful of other regions obtained 168 times more funding than the Rio Grande Valley. Was that because they had 168 times more population? Or 168 times more rainwater? One hundred and 68 times more funding than we received. That is a huge disparity. 

In closing, the only solution to stop flooding is to create robust flood control infrastructure. What we ask from you today is funding for the Raymondville Drain, the largest and most comprehensive flood control project in Hidalgo County and all of South Texas. Under the terms of existing federal legislation under the Water Resource Development Act the federal government has a 75 percent funding agreement with the Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1, which will fund the remaining 25 percent of the project cost. We need a congressional allocation of approximately $325 million from the federal government and the creation of a team within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that will be tasked with assisting Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 by reviewing our environmental and design and construction documents to bring this game changing project to reality. 

Editor’s Note: The above remarks were made by Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes at a field hearing of the U.S. House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth. The hearing was held June 17, 2022, at the offices of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council.

Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service will have more coverage from the select committee’s field hearing in future editions.

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