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Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 passed a resolution opposed to a border wall earlier this month.

EDINBURG, RGV – The Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club has voiced concerned about what it calls “misleading information” coming out of Hidalgo County regarding the status of Rio Grande river levees.

Stefanie Herweck

The group does not believe statements made about the state of the levees by Hidalgo County Drainage District #1 are in sync with those made by the International Boundary and Water Commission.

LRGV Sierra Club has written an open letter to the Drainage District. The group wants the Drainage District to “correct inaccurate statements that have been made in regard to the status of our river-levee system and the purported role that proposed levee-border walls would play.”

Stefanie Herweck, an executive committee member of LRGV Sierra Club, will speak in the public comment section of Tuesday’s HCDD#1 board meeting.

Here is the Sierra Club’s open letter:

An Open Letter to the Board of the Hidalgo County Drainage District #1 from the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club:

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club expresses appreciation for the letter and resolution opposing border walls that Hidalgo County Drainage District #1 unanimously approved at their May 2nd public meeting. We believe that taking a strong stance against all border walls best reflects the views of County residents, and we applaud you for advocating for what is in the best interests of your constituents.

However, we request that the Drainage District correct inaccurate statements that have been made in regard to the status of our river-levee system and the purported role that proposed levee-border walls would play.

We have been in contact with both IBWC and FEMA, and we have been told in no uncertain terms that the river levees have been completely rehabilitated. The work was done by IBWC with $220 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This work was completed last year according to an email we have from Ms. Sally Spener, Foreign Affairs Office with IBWC.

All of the segments of levees along the river where the proposed border wall would go have been submitted for accreditation by IBWC and are tagged “certification submitted” on the Levee Improvement Status maps. In her email of March 3, 2017, Ms. Spener explains,  

“Certification Submitted” means that the USIBWC has submitted documentation to FEMA indicating that USIBWC certifies the levee as meeting FEMA criteria. In that sense, the levee rehabilitation part of the accreditation process is complete. FEMA accreditation also depends on local communities addressing local drainage issues on the land side of the levees.” (Emphasis ours.)

So, work on the levees is in fact complete, and they are ready to be accredited. On a call of April 25, 2017, Mr. Larry Voice, project manager with FEMA, echoed this, saying that the levees were rebuilt to “structural certification,” meaning that the levees themselves, in their current state, would be accredited by FEMA. The reason the system is not accredited already has nothing to do with the structural integrity or the height of the levees. Instead, the accreditation is waiting on work that needs to be done on the land side, or north of the levees, NOT to the levees themselves.  Ms. Spener was very clear about what exactly those land side repairs are in her email to us:

“In many communities, during non-flood conditions, local rainfall from the land side of the levee drains into the river via gates in the levee. However, during flood operations, the gates are closed to prevent the flooded river from flowing out onto the land side of the levees. There needs to be a plan for how to handle the land side runoff during these conditions, such as by pumping it over the levee. The drainage infrastructure varies among the communities but this is the general idea of how there needs to be a local drainage plan in order for FEMA to accredit a flood control system. We can fix the levees but there are still other flood control concerns that need to be addressed by local jurisdictions.”

So, FEMA is not waiting on repairs to IBWC’s levees, they are waiting on work done to the other drainage infrastructure which is the responsibility of various local entities and drainage districts. This work includes pumps and gates and drains which are not related to the structural integrity or height of the levees.

For an example of the drains that run through the levees which, according to IBWC and FEMA, may still need work, see the images here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B95V1oklwdAnZk9PZ1hRS0tMUlU

Therefore, a levee-border wall will do nothing to address our flooding issues or FEMA accreditation. Those remaining issues all revolve around allowing inland water to drain into the river, even when the levee gates must be closed due to river flooding.

However, in his May 2 statement before the Drainage District Board, District Manager Raul Sesin said that because the flood maps were not yet accredited, “we’re still back where we were in 2008.” This is clearly misleading, as it leaves the listener with the impression that our levees are in the same state of disrepair that necessitated the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act construction.

Referring to the levee-border wall proposal, Mr. Sesin said that “we felt like we could get closer to accreditation by this method.” Later in his address to the Drainage District Board he says that he has spoken repeatedly with Larry Voice at FEMA. The Sierra Club has also spoken repeatedly with Mr. Voice in recent weeks, and he told us that the levees do not need to be made taller or otherwise structurally improved beyond work that he would characterize as regular maintenance. Presumably he told Mr. Sesin the same thing.

Suggesting that FEMA accreditation will be solved by a levee-border wall is inaccurate. IBWC and FEMA have both stated that it is the County that needs to resolve the interior drainage issues—drainage gates and pumps rather than the structural integrity or height of the levees—in order to be accredited.

In the same May 2 speech Mr. Sesin brought up the specter of Hurricane Katrina, noting that the levees that were breached in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina came down because of weaknesses on the landside. “Because the land side wasn’t adequately studied or certified I guess and that’s what eroded away and that’s what caused the levee to fail, so that’s my understanding of FEMA’s position,” he said. This is also not accurate. Most of the massive flooding of New Orleans was caused by the collapse of two concrete floodwalls (the Industrial Canal and the 17th Street Canal), types of structures which don’t exist in Hidalgo County or the Rio Grande Valley.

Another point in need of correction was contained in the February 21, 2017 levee-border wall proposal letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kelly and members of Congress that was on Mr. Sesin’s letterhead and signed by Judge Garcia. It says, “The original intent was to complete approximately 50 miles of a river protective levee/wall entire length of Hidalgo County which is the most populous county along the Texas-Mexico border.”

This “original intent” idea is then backed up by Dannebaum and L&G’s proposed levee-border wall map and construction schedule which accompanied the letter, which lists a “phase 1” being the 2008 levee-border walls and a “phase 2” which was never built.

In fact, there never was a phase 2. The Environmental Stewardship Plan issued by Customs and Border Protection in July of 2008 said, “The concrete flood protection structure/concrete fence will not be continuous, but will be constructed in seven distinct sections.” The total length of those seven sections was 20.37 miles. There was no indication in that document or any other that has been publicly released that more levee-border walls were planned for Hidalgo County. 

When Sierra Club members asked Mr. Sesin about this discrepancy at our meeting at the office of Judge Garcia on April 20, he said that what was called the “original intent” in the letter and “phase 2” in the map and construction schedule was not a plan put forward or accepted by the Department of Homeland Security, but instead the aspiration of the contractors, Dannenbaum Engineering and L&G Construction. Nevertheless, the Drainage District presented in their original letter to Congress it as though it was a part of an existing contract with DHS that was waiting to be fulfilled.

Finally, there is completely different story circulating that the levees need to be raised two feet in order to be accredited. On April 24, 2017 Mayor Darling gave a report at the McAllen City Commission meeting saying that FEMA was “requesting” that the levees be built up two-feet higher. He said, “They don’t call it a certification program but it does involve recognition of certain flood preventions that involve insurance premiums.” Based on this information, Mayor Darling said he would not rescind his February letter supporting a levee-border wall.  

This claim that the levee needs to be raised two feet was repeated by Judge Garcia at the April 18 Drainage meeting and again at the May 2 meeting.

In our phone call with Mr. Voice of FEMA on April 25, he stated that his office was trying to find out who Mayor Darling spoke to and how he could have been confused into thinking that the levees needed to be built up another two feet. He stated that for certification (and therefore for insurance purposes), what was needed was 3-feet of freeboard in the case of a 100-year-flood event, and that’s what IBWC had built the levees to. He did not know where the 2 feet request idea had come from. He noted that IBWC owned the levees, not FEMA. He said that he understood that the height of the levees was spelled out by treaty with Mexico. He also said, “We don’t tell people what to do with their levees. That is up to the local communities.”

We got in contact with Mayor Darling by phone on April 26, 2017, and he told us that he had received the information about the 2 feet request not from FEMA, as The Monitor had reported, but from the HCDD #1. He said that Assistant City Manager Michelle Leftwich had made the call, and this is what HCCD #1 told her.

We are calling on Hidalgo County Drainage District #1 to clarify the actual status of the river levees for the public and for local leaders, and to tell County residents exactly what work remains to be done on our flood control system and what that work entails. If accreditation is an urgent issue, County residents deserve to hear the Drainage District’s concrete plans to address it, and all statements should align with the facts as outlined by the IBWC and FEMA.


Stefanie Herweck

Executive Committee Member, Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club