Salinas: We will defer to IBWC over height of concrete levee walls

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EDINBURG, RGV – If the International Boundary and Water Commission says Hidalgo County cannot build concrete levee walls above the designated height of the levees then the county will not do so, says County Judge J.D. Salinas.

Salinas made his comments on the day he and county commissioners announced they had reached agreement with the Department of Homeland Security on the so-called levee wall combo plan.

“I’m not sure what segments need what, but I can answer like this, anything we are going to build has to be approved by the IBWC. Carlos Marin needs to sign off on anything we build so if he doesn’t agree with it we are not going to build it,” said Salinas, at the end of Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

The Department of Homeland Security has said it wants an 18-foot high barrier. That goal was confirmed Tuesday by DHS press officer Amy Kudwa. “It’s going to be an 18-foot concrete wall incorporated into the levee,” Kudwa told the Guardian, in a brief telephone interview.

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian last month, IBWC Commissioner Marin said he would “protest like hell” if DHS opts to construct an 18-foot sheer concrete wall from the bottom of the floodway.

Marin said DHS would only be able to build a concrete wall to the height of levees. Anything above that would have to be a fence that allows floodwater through.

A clause in a 1970 U.S.-Mexico Boundary Treaty says that each country will not build anything that will cause any deflection or obstruction to normal or flood flows from the Rio Grande River.

Marin said he estimates that the tallest levees in Hidalgo County are 14 feet, while the tallest in Cameron County are about 12 feet. If that is the case and if the 1970 treaty is to be adhered to, the highest a concrete wall in Hidalgo County could be built is 14 feet and in many places it would be lower than that, sometimes as low as eight to 10 feet.

To construct a barrier to 18 feet, Marin said, the remainder would have to be some type of fence. If that happens, many Hidalgo County residents who have protested a border fence might feel they have still been left with one, after all.

“We are still against the wall, we still think that a fence and a wall is not going to work, but if they are going to build something that holds water, literally, this is the best agreement we could come to,” Salinas said.

Salinas said Marin has been involved in discussions on the levee-wall project from the outset.

“The levees are controlled by the federal government, by the IBWC. But these levees are not going to be built 18 feet from where the levees are. They are going to be built down,” he said.

Salinas issued a news release Tuesday saying DHS had awarded a $65.7 million grant, with an additional $23 million available in supplemental funding, to Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 (HCDD No. 1) to construct more than 22 miles of levee walls.

HCDD No. 1 comprises Salinas and the four county commissioners, Sylvia Handy, Tito Palacios, Joe Flores, and Oscar Garza. Its director-consultant is Godfrey Garza.

The county will contribute $48 million of its own money to complete the levee wall project. This will accomplish more than 10 segments of the levee throughout the county. HCDD No. 1 will perform the work under the auspices of the IBWC, the news release states.

“This is a much awaited grant, as you know we have been working with the Department of Homeland Security to make sure that they don’t build a structure that isn’t going to work,” Salinas said. “It’s going to be able to help us secure $1.7 billion of our evaluation and make sure we don’t lose any jobs if there was ever any overtopping of the river.”

Palacios said HCDD No. 1 would be putting up a non-federal share to complete the earthen levee part of the project.

“We are pursuing legislation efforts to recoup monies through reimbursement,” Palacios said. “From the local level to the federal level, we all have a stake in making sure our levees are strong enough to hold the floodwaters from a hurricane. We all have a duty to the residents of Hidalgo County and the rest of the state and the county to make sure trade and commerce and lives aren’t interrupted. We’re upholding that responsibility together.”

DHS spokesperson Kudwa also praised the agreement.

“It is an important example of a win-win and we appreciate the support of the State of Texas and U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison,” Kudwa told the Guardian.

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