HARLINGEN, RGV – Having lived through and reported on the devastation caused by 1967’s Hurricane Beulah, veteran commentator Ron Whitlock is urging local elected officials, city administrators, and business and community leaders to attend an IBWC meeting this evening.

The United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission is soliciting public comment on alternative methods to restore the capacity of the Arroyo Colorado in Harlingen, to carry floodwaters.

IBWC representatives will participate in a public scoping meeting to present alternatives to restore the capacity of the Arroyo Colorado over a 6.3-mile segment from Business 77 (Sunshine Strip) to Highway 574 (Cemetery Road) in Harlingen and Cameron County.

The public scoping meeting will be held on Thursday, December 12, 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. at the City of Harlingen Community Center, 201 East Madison Avenue, Harlingen. Materials will be presented in an open house format that will describe alternatives under consideration to restore the Arroyo Colorado’s capacity.

Ron Whitlock
Ron Whitlock

Whitlock was director of news and public affairs for KRIO AM 910 when Beulah hit in September 1967. He said he fears more “Hurricane Beulah-type flooding” if the Arroyo Colorado is not fixed. He points out that Harlingen suffered the most damage during Beulah because of a levee collapse.

“The IBWC levee floodway diversion dam at Mercedes was designed to divert 80 percent of Beulah’s floodwaters northward through Willacy County and 20 down the Arroyo Colorado through Harlingen and then out to the Laguna Madre. But in fact it collapsed and a ‘Wall of Water’ came crashing into Harlingen,” Whitlock said.

“According to Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio, who in September 1967, was with the  Harlingen Police Department, a ‘wall of water’ came crashing down into Harlingen from higher Upper Valley elevations.”

Whitlock said this failure resulted in approximately 100 percent of the floodwaters of Rio Grande River, hitting Harlingen.

“The Harlingen Airport radio interview that I did with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, which was broadcast on K-Rio 910, and the follow up coverage with the Valley’s only Congressman, Eligio “Kika” de la Garza and others, pressured the Johnson White House to fix the problem,” Whitlock said.

“The constant KRIO radio coverage ultimately resulted in the defective IBWC diversion system at Mercedes getting redone.”

Those repairs need to be looked at again, Whitlock argued.

“In my opinion, this reconfigured, reengineered and reconstructed IBWC levee at Mercedes has never adequately been tested by a storm event of comparable size to 1967’s Hurricane Beulah‘s flood waters,” Whitlock said.

“Are IBWC’s Levee’s Ready? Is Harlingen safe? It is very important – especially for those of us who lived through Beulah – for Cameron County elected officials, business and community leaders and residents to attend the IBWC public hearing. We must ask questions and testify as to what happened to Harlingen and its residents and businesses back in 1967 and to determine our vulnerabilities today.”

Whitlock points out that the only reason IBWC has the money to fix the Arroyo Colorado is because of a roundtable discussion in Weslaco in October and the subsequent media coverage of the event.

At the roundtable discussion, Jayne Harkins, the commissioner for the U.S. section of IBWC, pointed out that clearing vegetation from the Arroyo Colorado would cost $10 million. However, she said her agency did not have enough money to do it.

Along with local elected officials such as Mercedes Mayor Henry Hinojosa, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn was shocked IBWC was so poorly funded. After the roundtable discussion had ended, Cornyn asked Harkins which Senate committee oversees IBWC. When Harkins responded that it was a subcommittee chaired by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Cornyn said he would act.

Publication of a Rio Grande Guardian story headlined “Cornyn: I did not know how badly underfunded IBWC was,” was swiftly followed by an announcement by Cornyn that Senate appropriators had found an additional $15 million for IBWC. The Rio Grande Guardian immediately tweeted that $10 million of that $15 million would surely go the Arroyo Colorado project.

Various Alternatives

In a news release, IBWC points out the importance of the Arroyo Colorado.

“USIBWC oversees the Lower Rio Grande Flood Control Project (LRGFCP), which controls floodwater in the Lower Rio Grande and interior floodways in the tri-county region (Hidalgo, Cameron, and Willacy Counties).

“During river flooding, Anzalduas Dam south of Mission, Texas is used to divert floodwater from the Rio Grande into the interior floodway system to control flooding along the river. A portion of this water eventually flows into the Arroyo Colorado, a natural channel confined by high banks in most areas. The USIBWC maintains the LRGFCP and its levee systems and removes obstructions from the floodways to maintain conveyance capacity.”

The current plan is for IBWC to provide additional maintenance activities intended to restore the Arroyo Colorado’s flood conveyance capabilities.

“The Arroyo Colorado is an important part of the LRGFCP that protects residents, businesses, and farmland from flooding in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas,” the IBWC news release states.

“Over time, increases in vegetation and sediment caused the Arroyo Colorado to lose more than 50 percent of its capacity to carry floodwaters, which increases flood risk. Recent vegetation and sediment removal has restored some of the Arroyo Colorado’s flood conveyance capacity.”

Lori Kuczmanski, public affairs officer for IBWC, said her agency is considering various alternatives, some of which would restore the full design capacity of the Arroyo Colorado. The options are:

No Action Alternative

Current vegetation and minor sediment maintenance operations would continue. Between US 77 and FM 509, vegetation maintenance occurs on 53 acres of floodplain and minor sediment maintenance occurs near bridges and other structures. These maintenance operations would continue as part of each of the alternatives currently under consideration. This alternative would not restore the Arroyo Colorado’s flood conveyance capacity, and properties in Harlingen would continue to have an increased flood risk.

Off-Channel Storage Alternative

The Arroyo Colorado’s flood conveyance capacity would not be restored. Water surface elevations would be managed by temporarily storing floodwater in a new detention basin that may require up to 2,204 acres to construct and operate. Properties in Harlingen would have a much-reduced flood risk.

Expanded Vegetation Removal Alternative

Additional flood conveyance capacity would be restored by expanding vegetation removal and maintenance activities downstream to Cemetery Road. This may not fully restore the Arroyo Colorado’s flood conveyance capacity and some increased flood risk may continue. Expanded Vegetation and Sediment Removal Alternative Flood conveyance capacity would be fully restored through dredging and expanded vegetation management between US 77 and Cemetery Road. This alternative would provide properties in Harlingen with the greatest decrease in flood risk.

Kuczmanski said public comment will be accepted at the Thursday evening’s meeting and the presentation materials, a fact sheet, and instructions to submit comments will be available for a continuing 30-day period at https://www.ibwc.gov/EMD/EIS_EA_Public_Comment.html beginning December 12 and ending on January 11, 2020.

“Public comments received will be used to refine the alternatives and prepare an Environmental Assessment. There will be an additional opportunity for public and stakeholder review and comment on the draft Environmental Assessment once it is completed,” the IBWC news release stated.

“Implementation of the selected alternative will not begin until the Final Environmental Assessment is completed, and the proper permits and funding have been secured. For more information, contact Mr. Kelly Blough, Environmental Protection Specialist, 915-832-4734 or [email protected].”