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EDINBURG, RGV – Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia says he does not want a border wall built in his county.

However, he says if President Trump is determined to have one built, the Department of Homeland Security should at least build it in conjunction with the rehabilitation of the levees in the county – like the levee-wall combo that one of his predecessors, J.D. Salinas, helped make happen ten years ago.

But, according to the U.S. Section of the International Boundary & Water Commission, which handles Rio Grande River flood protection, all the levees in Hidalgo County have been fixed. The only rehabilitation work that still needs to be done is bolstering a few “gaps” measuring a couple of hundred feet.

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia

Asked if all the levees in Hidalgo County have been repaired, Isela F. Canava, Supervisory Civil Engineer, Construction Office, Engineering Services Division, of USIBWC said: “They have been rehabilitated per FEMA standards.”

In February, Judge Garcia wrote to Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly proposing the levee-wall combo. He titled the letter, “Continued Partnership for Protecting the U.S./Mexico Border – Border Levee Strengthening & Security Infrastructure Project.” In the letter, Garcia suggested adding to the 20.72 miles of border walls and levees built in Hidalgo County during the last decade.

“To date, the “Border Levee Strengthening & Security Infrastructure Project”, that resulted from the above referenced program, has served a dual purpose in providing over 20 miles of much needed flood protection against waters from the Rio Grande River, while at the same time providing border security to our great nation,” Garcia wrote. “The original intent was to complete approximately 50 miles of a river protective levee/wall for the entire length of Hidalgo County which is the most populous county along the Texas/Mexico border.”

In an in-depth interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, IBWC’s Canava said: “In Hidalgo County, there have been approximately 140 miles of levees that were rehabilitated. Of those, approximately 32 miles were done in partnership with DHS and Hidalgo County Drainage District.”

After the interview, Lori Kuczmanski, Public Affairs Officer, for the U.S. Section of IBWC, confirmed Canava’s point in an email to the Rio Grande Guardian.

“Total miles of levees rehabilitated in Hidalgo County (both by IBWC and HCDD/DHS) is approximately 140 miles (140.5). Approximately 108 miles by IBWC. Of those, approximately 83.22 levee miles are Interior Floodways (Main Floodway, North Floodway, and Arroyo Colorado). Remaining 56.78 are along river,” Kuczmanski wrote.

“Remaining levees to rebuild in Hidalgo County are ‘gaps.’ There is one gap actively being constructed (North Floodway Levee at Union Pacific Railroad Crossings in Mercedes, Texas). Not including this gap under construction, there are five gaps remaining in Hidalgo County amounting to less than have a mile in length combined.

“As a side note, total levees rehabilitated in Lower Rio Grande Valley is 180.9. Remaining 40.4 miles are in Cameron County.”

Canava was joined in the interview by Dr. Padinare Unnikrishna, Supervisory Civil Engineer, Engineering Service Division, of USIBWC. Asked if the levees were the responsibility of IBWC, Unnikrishna said: “Yes.”

Unnikrishna said when USIBWC needs to repair a levee the agency hires a design company. He said the company selected designs the levee according to certain engineering standards. “After that the contract is awarded to a contractor who constructs the levees. After that we assemble all the documents and submit them to FEMA for their approval.”

Unnikrishna explained that IBWC is required to provide “reasonable assurance that the levees provide protection from the design flood.” He said that in some cases, such in El Paso, the design flood is based on a 100-year flood model. “It has a one percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year. That is the standard we adopt in the Upper Rio Grande, for example in the El Paso area. But, in the Lower Rio Grande, the design flood is based on Hurricane Beulah that occurred in 1967. It was such a big flood.”

Unnikrishna said if a hurricane as impactful as Beulah occurred, with floodwaters rising rapidly in Rio Grande City, a flood control system is in place. The plan is for 108,000 cubic feet per second of water (cfs) to be diverted into the Main Floodway, 21,000 cfs to be diverted along the Arroyo Colorado in Mercedes, 84,000 cfs along the North Floodway, and 105,000 cfs to be diverted into Mexico just upstream of Retamal Dam. The remainder of the floodwaters proceed down river to Brownsville and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Unnikrishna also explained that for FEMA to credit the levees as fixed one of the steps required is that an interior drainage analysis be completed. “We do not have the right to work outside our right of way. So, this has to be done by the local municipalities.” Unnikrishna said IBWC is required to submit hydraulic models, geo-technical reports, engineering plans, and operation and maintenance plans.

Unnikrishna added: “We have been improving the condition of these older levees. For example, we just completed the Progreso Reach 1 Levee, which is about six miles. Reach 2, we will be working on, which is from Los Indios to Santa Maria in Cameron County.”

USIBW’s Canava said there are five outstanding “gaps” in the levees in Hidalgo County that need to be rehabilitated. “One is under construction right now, a railroad gap in Mercedes,” Canava said. “The five combined are less than half a mile.”

Unnikrishna concluded the interview by saying Valley residents can learn more about the work of USIBWC by attending the agency’s Lower Rio Grande Citizens Forums. The next one is slated to be held at the USIBWC office at 325 Golf Course Road in Mercedes, Texas, on May 20, between 3 and 5 p.m. For more information contact Lori Kuczmanski at (915) 832-4106.