EDINBURG, RGV – Earlier this year, the Legislature gave the Texas Water Development Board $600,000 to develop a statewide flood plan.

Working with local governments, the state agency plans to assess flood risks and consider locally developed projects.

At a groundbreaking ceremony for phase one of the long-awaited Raymondville Drain, Bech Bruun, chairman of TWDB, said he thinks he knows which project is the most important.

“Thank you for letting our agency be a partner in this project, which may very well be the single most important flood control project in the State of Texas,” Bruun said.

When fully developed, the $400 million Raymondville Drain system will cover 63 miles in Hidalgo and Willacy counties, starting near Edinburg Lake and ending at the Laguna Madre. The drainage ditch is slated to be 350 feet wide and 12 feet deep. Local officials believe they can fast track the project now the federal government has agreed to reimburse 75 percent of the project.

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Bruun, like many others who spoke, referenced Hurricane Harvey.

“I have spent quite a bit of time in the Houston area these past few weeks, since the storm came on. I am from Corpus Christi originally. My parents live in Rockport, where the eye of the storm came on shore. It is heartening to come down here today and be part of a groundbreaking ceremony for a project that is so important for this area,” Bruun said.

Phase One of the Raymondville Drain project is being made possible thanks to a $4.5 million grant from TWDB. Bruun pointed out that TWDB gets its funding from the Legislature, which means the agency is dependent on the support of state legislators. “There is not a delegation that works harder for its constituents than the Valley delegation,” Bruun said to applause. “They are champions for you.”

Pie-in-the-Sky


Hidalgo County Commissioner Joseph Palacios

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Hidalgo County Commissioner Joseph Palacios pointed out the Raymondville Drain project has been 30 years in the making. It has taken so long, he said, because it was difficult to get the federal government to agree to reimburse a large percentage of its cost.

“This project has been in the making for so many years. We had to hit a lot of milestones just to get to this point. So, we are glad to be at this point,” Palacios said. “The last few years has been about making this a federally refundable project. Now, the federal government is covering 75 percent of total costs. And we are working diligently to cover the last 25 percent.”

Palacios said local officials have been “very successful” at garnering Restore Act dollars as well as funding from the Texas Water Development Board. He said that all told, TWDB has assigned about $10 million to the project.

“What this has done is catapulted us to this point. We hope in the next few years, with the leadership we have at the state and federal level, that we continue to garner more funds so most of it is largely covered by the state or federal government.”

Palacios paid tribute to Congressman Filemon Vela for his help in securing an amendment to the Water Resource Development Act that ensures the federal government will reimburse Hidalgo County for the cost of the Raymondville Drain project.

“To know that at the end of the day the local taxpayers would not flip the bill for 100 percent of this construction is huge. It has allowed us to garner additional dollars from the Restore Act and the Texas Water Development Board.”

Palacios admitted that when he first became a county commissioner, he did not give much thought to the Raymondville Drain project.

“When I first got on the drainage district board, I thought it was just pie in the sky, we were talking about $400 million. We were talking about major milestones that needed to be hit. That is why this is such a great day. This is the culmination of a lot of work through regional partnerships, for a regional need. We all came together. Everybody did their part, whether a legislator, whether a district manager, whether a commissioner, we all agreed to one thing, there is great need and we have to keep going.”

Asked how much funding the project has thus far, Palacios said: “We have about $10 to $15 million right now. But we also have the $100 million we got in 2012 when we went back out with a bond issue. It was specifically slated for this particular project. We are in the middle of releasing these funds so we can add the $100 million into the mix. So, we are hovering somewhere between $100 and $115 million. The beautiful thing is, we have a lot of talented district managers and so we are going to figure out how we stretch every single dollar to ensure we are turning more dirt than we have ever done before.”

In his remarks at the groundbreaking ceremony, Palacios said the Raymondville Drain project will not happen without the help of Delta Lake Irrigation District. Asked about this afterwards, Palacios said: “We are having to connect to Delta Lake’s system, inevitably. We hope to enhance their drainage structure all the way to the Laguna Madre. They are critical partners to this entire project.”

Palacios added: “The hard work starts now. While we are constructing Phase 1 we will continue as leaders of our community to garner more state and federal funds to assure we go beyond Phase 1. This is a regional project for the Valley. Regional significance, regional project, regional benefits.”

Delta Lake Irrigation District is crucial


Troy Allen, manager of Delta Lake Irrigation District, and Hidalgo County Commissioner Joseph Palacios.

Troy Allen, manager of Delta Lake Irrigation District, was in the audience at the groundbreaking ceremony. Interviewed afterwards, Allen said he appreciated the shout out by Commissioner Palacios.

“We are still in negotiations with Hidalgo County, as we have been for many, many, years. Our hope and intent is that we can get an inter-local agreement worked out that will benefit Hidalgo County to help them drain and still protect Willacy County and all of our constituents within Willacy,” Allen said.

“Right now, we know Willacy County floods real bad. Our goal is to make sure that whatever deal we work out with Hidalgo, we protect Willacy first. With that being said, we know that our current structure, if it were increased in size – we already own the infrastructure, most of the infrastructure needed, they just have to buy some additional right of way on the outside – they (Hidalgo County) could take that and it would give them another private channel out to the Laguna Madre and probably save millions and millions of dollars instead of having to buy 65 miles of right of way to get out there.”

Allen said Hidalgo County Drainage District 1 and the Raymondville Drain planners also want to utilize some of Delta Lake Irrigation District’s Salt Lake as a water retention facility.

“They are in the process of doing some sampling to make sure that when that happens we do not take a chance in salting out the adjacent land. That is the fear of some of our landowners in that area. We are still trying to work this out. If we can prove that will not happen that would be another huge storage area to store the water and then bleed it slowly into the Laguna Madre,” Allen said.

“Some of the old-time farmers say that after Hurricane Beulah it did salt out some of the land. I cannot honestly answer that.”

Allen said Delta Lake Irrigation District currently diverts water to about 85,000 acres of agricultural land and a few rural communities. The district covers about 400 square miles.

Asked why he is particularly concerned about Willacy County, Allen said:

“Willacy floods. It is very low-lying and the natural drain in the Valley is to the northeast. The water is naturally going to flow towards Willacy County. But the danger is when you channel it and you start taking higher flows, the fear is that the communities of Lasara, Raymondville, San Perlita, that the water will not drain quickly enough. They are afraid it could back up and impound those cities for a longer time.

Asked about a partnership with Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 on the Raymondville Drain project, Allen said: “If everything works out the way we are hoping they will utilize our current ditch and then they will buy additional right of way. Our ditch will be the pilot channel for their 350-foot wide stretch. If it is built the way they are talking about it, it is going to hold a lot of water in itself. If it is constructed right… I think it is a wonderful project and I am hoping we can get everything worked out to help Hidalgo County and Willacy.”

Allen added: “I am glad to see this (Raymondville Drain) project kicking off. I have been with the irrigation district since 2003 and this has been discussed since day one. It is good to see something finally taking place.”

Federal funding is crucial


U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony. Interviewed afterwards, he promised to work hard to secure federal funds for the Raymondville Drain project.

“I intend to work hard every day to ensure the funding for this project is provided to the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas. I think that with the devastations we have seen across the mainland, and in Puerto Rico, people nationally can see this is a good investment, the right investment to make. In the long-run it saves tons of federal resources. Think about it, if Houston had a better drainage system they probably would not have been underwater the way they were. I hope that never happens to us and that is why I intend to keep working on it,” Gonzalez said.

Asked why the Raymondville Drain project has taken 30 years to get to phase one of construction, Gonzalez said: “They never had a right to reimbursement of federal funds before. This was before Judge (Ramon) Garcia’s time as county judge. I do not believe it was in the agreement they would get reimbursed. I think it might have been an assumption. But, certainly, now for sure we can say this is a 75 percent reimbursement of a $400 million projected expense.”

Shifting to the fast lane


State Sen. Juan Hinojosa

Along with Palacios and Gonzalez, other dignitaries to speak at the groundbreaking were state Sens. Juan Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio, Jr., state Reps. Terry Canales and Bobby Guerra, and, in the absence of County Judge Garcia, Bobby Villarreal. Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chair Ricardo Godinez was emcee and Father Alfonso Guevara of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in San Juan gave the invocation and consecrated the ground with holy water.

In his remarks, Sen. Hinojosa said now was not the time to dawdle. He said he was amazed to see such a large turnout for the groundbreaking.

“We saw what happened in Houston and the Coastal Bend. The destruction to Houston, Aransas Pass and Rockport was amazing. There is a clear message to us. For us in the Valley, we have been working on this project now for 30 years. It is about time we shifted to the fast lane. We cannot wait any longer. Whatever we need to do, we need to get it done,” Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa said time is of the essence because a hurricane similar to Harvey could hit the Valley.

“It is not a matter of it, but when. We have to pick up the pace. I would urge our leadership at the county level, at the state level and the federal government, to be truly focused on the need for the Raymondville Drain. If we don’t it is going to cost lives and on a long-term basis cost us a lot more money. I ask for an increase in terms of the pace, an increase in effort, an increase in focus, so that next time we have an event celebrating, it will be a celebration of having completed the Raymondville Drain project.”