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Regional drainage plan to be finalized in coming months

MISSION — A regional drainage plan that could help the Rio Grande Valley manage its storm systems and maintain its economy after a major hurricane hits should be completed by the end of May, officials said this week.

At a special workshop at Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Offices on Wednesday, engineer Sharlotte L. Teague, a consultant on the project with S&B Engineering, said the Lower Rio Grande Valley Regional Economic Adjustment Plan (Regional EAP) would include top projects that are vital to maintaining the area’s economy. Currently, a narrowed list of projects has over 70 different initiatives across Hidalgo County.

Through the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council’s grant from the Economic Development Administration in 2009, the group’s “Regional Economic Adjustment Plan for Building Disaster Resilient Communities” has the Valley working as one region following Hurricane Dolly in 2008.

“This is about being able to recover from flooding,” Teague said. “This project is about economic recovery.”

By working together as one region to lobby for funding, the Valley could be more successful, she added.

Thus far, the group has visited 110 entities, which includes business organizations, cities, counties and water irrigation groups, among others, to ask which problems they encountered and how flooding has impacted them.

They’ll later evaluate their findings with land use characteristics to have the Regional EAP’s steering and technical committees made up of officials from Hidalgo and Cameron counties to rank the top priority projects.

To determine which project will be selected as the most vital, Teague said the group developed a scoring system that appraises the community benefit to the cost of the project. Additionally, projects will be separated into three categories for priority. Small projects are under $2.5 million, medium projects are under $25 million and large projects are anything with a cost of over $25 million.

In Hidalgo County, over 100 projects were identified; in Precinct 3, almost 20 projects were named. They include projects proposed by the cities of Mission, Alton, La Joya and Sullivan City. Irrigation district projects and the precinct’s projects were also included in the list. The precinct’s proposed project cost is approximately $44 million.

Most proposals ask for pump upgrades, general drainage improvements and increased capacity for systems here.

Throughout the region, the proposed project total is over $1 billion, Teague said.

To ultimately decide which projects the group will lobby for funding, Teague explained the committees would rank projects based on three categories. They include the area the project serves and the effectiveness to the system, the cost of the project to the benefit of the initiative and the public’s support for implementation and the commitment to long-term maintenance of the project.

While the rankings should be completed and voted on by May, funding options are still unclear.

Teague said along with approving a list of capital improvement projects, consultants are looking at ways to fund the projects, as well. Funding may require a combination of federal funding and bond elections.

“We didn’t want it just sitting on a shelf,” she said of the plan.

Godfrey Garza, the manager of the Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 who also serves as the steering committee president, said the project was an important way of ensuring the region stays economically viable after a major weather event.

A storm that destroys South Padre Island, Cameron County’s largest revenue generator, could be detrimental, Garza said.

“They’re done,” he speculated. “If that’s not protected, Cameron County will never recover.”

In Hidalgo County, major damage to power plants could make it impossible to recuperate from, he added.

“Those are the types of structures that need to be protected,” he said.

Priorities on the approved list may also change as the years go by or if an organization designates funding for a project further down the group’s list. Likewise, an entity may find funding for one of its projects on its own.

“If Hidalgo County has money for drainage improvements, we’ll do it because this regional program has no funding behind it,” Garza said.

Historically, Valley counties and cities have worked independently for funding opportunities, but this new effort could make it easier to get funding.

“We lose out by not going out as a region,” Garza explained. “The local (entity) can only do so much.”

While these projects are aimed at maintaining economic growth and recovery after a storm, Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe M. Flores said it was important to remind taxpayers that completing top priority projects doesn’t mean the region won’t have flooding problems. Cities like Houston have spent million of dollars on their drainage and still have flooding problems.

“We can minimize,” Teague said.

Next month, the steering committee will do preliminary rankings before meeting with the public again before adopting the final plans.

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