WESLACO, RGV – Weslaco leaders were frustrated to learn that funding to improve the city’s antiquated drainage system was diverted to fix levees in other parts of Hidalgo County.

They also learned that those levees should have been reinforced with federal dollars.

Just under $5 million that should have gone to Weslaco was used to repair levees in south McAllen and Mission, city leaders say. In total, almost $80 million out of a $100 million bond issue that was approved by Hidalgo County voters for drainage projects in 2006 was used on levees. 

“We should have gotten $4.9 million for the Weslaco area to help the problems we are having,” said Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez. “The way it was told to the county commissioners at the time, the improvements that were already done were going to take care of the problem. They didn’t.”

Asked where the $4.9 million was spent, Perez said: “It was used to construct the concrete walls that the federal government put in, in the McAllen and Mission area, which improved the levees but still left us with the problems we are having today.”

Asked how felt about the money being shifted, Perez said: “It is frustrating. It is frustrating for me and it is frustrating for our local officials. And, it is frustrating for the county leaders that are in place today. When you look at it, what was told at the time, did not do what it was supposed to do.”

The diversion of drainage monies occurred in the 2008-2010 period. Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas and the county commissioners at the time were faced with a dilemma. They were told by FEMA that if the levees were not certified, much of Hidalgo County would be classified as a flood zone and all businesses and homeowners would have been required to purchase flood insurance. 

The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission said it could not certify the levees because they were not structurally sound. The IBWC, led at the time by the late Carlos Marin, said it did not have the money to restore the levees.

Salinas and county commissioners made the decision to take a large chunk of the $100 million bond issue voters had approved in 2006 for drainage system repairs and spend it on reinforcing the levees. The hope was that the federal government would later reimburse the county because fixing levees is a federal responsibility. But, the money was never reimbursed. 

Weslaco Mayor David Suarez said he was not aware of the shift in resources from Weslaco to the levees until the recent storms hit his city. 

“They brought it to my attention during this event. In 2006 they passed a $100 million bond. There was about $4.9 million for Weslaco. That should have alleviated the northeast of Weslaco. That money got diverted to the levees,” Suarez said.

Asked what he thought about the decision, Suarez said: “I am irate, upset and disappointed. I am not blaming anybody, there is enough blame to go around. We just need to find the money now and get it fixed. We have already started the process by talking to the (Hidalgo County) drainage district director. He is the one who brought the situation to us, to Mike and to the county commissioners. We are already addressing this as we speak.”

Suarez said he has seen old video where a former drainage director said a bottleneck in the flow of water down a choke hole would be alleviated. “The choke hole has not been alleviated. We experienced it in 2015 and we have experienced it again in 2018. The new drainage district director is assessing that area. We need to alleviate that choke hole.”

Suarez said there is no point asking Hidalgo County for the money to be returned to Weslaco because has already been spent. “The money is no longer there. We have already asked.”

Now, working with Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes, Perez and Suarez are looking at securing new money. There is talk of a new $50 million bond issue, just for drainage.

“We are talking to the Corps of Engineers, we have spoken with one of Senator Cornyn’s aides. We need the money to alleviate this drainage problem. It affects us regionally. It will save the federal government in the long run if they invest in our drainage system. We need to move water a lot faster to the floodway than we currently are doing right now,” Suarez said.

Suarez and Perez gave exclusive interviews to the Rio Grande Guardian at the conclusion of an emotionally-charged town hall meeting held last Wednesday evening at Weslaco City Hall. Hundreds of residents whose homes and neighborhoods were flooded packed the venue. They wanted to know why the city’s drainage system did not disperse flood waters quickly enough.

Perez said he has great sympathy for the residents. 

“We held this meeting so residents could tell us where the problems are and to give us ideas on how we can solve this problem. A lot of things they were talking about, we obviously knew already. We have to hear them. I think for us to take action without hearing them is not fair to the citizens who were affected,” Perez said.

In a radio interview a few days before the “flood forum,” Perez said it would take a billion dollars to fix Weslaco’s drainage problems. Asked by the Rio Grande Guardian how he arrived at that figure, Perez said: “That was based on a study that was done four or five years ago, before I got here and before Mayor Suarez was elected. We cannot afford a billion dollars. There is a large portion of the city that is built in a flood plain. We have inadequate ditches. We have inadequate drains into the floodway. Those outlets we have going into the floodway were built back in the 40s. The amount of growth we have had in the Weslaco area, it has outpaced the capacity of those drains.”

Perez said he agreed with comments made at the flood forum by Commissioner Fuentes that the priority has to be fixing the drains that take water into the floodway.

“We can do all the improvements inside but unless we improve the outlets it is all going to be for naught. We may have to look at some regional detention pond facilities but the cost is quite great. So, we are going to have to look at some short term solutions and then some longer term solutions that involve working with the county and possibly working with the state,” Perez said.

Asked how much it would cost to improve the outlets that lead to the floodway, Perez said: “Just to improve the drains, it is going to cost about $2 million per site. That is just the simple cost, it does not include engineering. So, we are probably looking at $10 million to $12 million at a minimum. But if you just do that and do not include the crossings getting to the outlets, then it is going to get bottlenecked. Just like one of the people talked about: there was a bottleneck, with one side of the ditch full and the other side empty. So, it is going to take a lot of money and take multiple years to do that. We need to do a comprehensive plan, we need to hire an expert that knows drainage and hydraulics and then start working on that plan.”

Asked about the possibility of a new bond issue, Perez said: “We are talking with our county commissioner. He (Fuentes) is on the county’s drainage board and he is working with them and that is what he is talking about today.”

Perez said all the monies secured under the previous bond issue, much of which was diverted for levee repairs, has been spent. “They (Hidalgo County Commissioners) do not have any money. So, even if they get a certificate of obligation, with no tax increase, they would still have to go to the voters to get their approval. So, if they approve it, they could get a $50 million bond issue with the tax rate staying the same.”

The bottom line, Perez said, is that drainage is expensive.

“Someone has to pay for it. And if you don’t have the money… just like with Weslaco, we don’t have the money. The McAllens of this world, they have the money and they did a lot under pay as you go. But, even with them, they had to borrow some money to fix some of their drainage problems. We are just going to have to invest money in drainage. It is something that has not, ever, been taken care of. You heard stories today that we have had drainage problems going back 30, 40, 50 years. It has not got the attention it needs to get. This mayor, this commission wants to do it. The question is, where do we get the money?”

Suarez said he was pleased local residents came out spoke their mind at the flood forum.

“(The flood forum was held) to let the citizens come and vent and tell their stories, how they got flooded, and to hold the city accountable and mitigate the drainage issues that need to be fixed immediately. We need to come up with a short term plan and a long term plan and redirect all the resources of the city has and money to be able to mitigate some of this flooding and help those areas that got flooded,” Suarez said.

Like Perez, Suarez said he has sympathy for Weslaco residents.

“They are frustrated because they lost everything. The least the city could do is listen to them and let them vent and come up with solutions. Their faith in the city government is not there and rightfully so. They want to know what is being done and what it is going to take to get it done in order to alleviate the flooding. Albeit we had massive rains but that is no excuse for us not being able to move the water quicker with the city’s resources,” Suarez said. 

Asked how bad the flooding was, Suarez said: “I have traveled with FEMA. We have had reports of four to five feet of water at the street level. Some went to three or four feet in the houses. About 20 percent of the homes got flooded, anywhere from one or two inches to three or four feet.”

Asked what the answer is, Suarez said: “I am not an engineer. We are in a low-lying area and it drains from west to east as a county. Weslaco has some low-lying areas. The drainage system is antiquated. It was built to take five or six inches of rain at any one time. We need other venues to take the water out, be it weirs, dams, to redirect the water and let it flow into the floodway quicker. That is the problem.”