MISSION — The Rio Grande Valley is in fact not a valley, but a very large flat flood plain. If you know the Valley, you understand that most of the water moves east and little goes into the Rio Grande. Wouldn't it be easy to dig more ditches to the ocean?
It should be, but apparently it isn't.
In 1955, Hidalgo County failed to pass a $15 million request to improve and expand existing facilities.Then again in 1965, a proposal to build two drains for $200 million was advanced but died after a lack of funding. Possibly the timing, being after the completion of the Falcon and Amistad dams, lulled the population into a false sense of security. The same story came again from the federal side in 1974 when a $30 million project died due to a lack of support. It should be noted that during this time several agencies including the new U.S International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and our own Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 (HCDD) kept up the pressure recognizing that public safety was at risk.
In 1974 and 1975 various proposals were put forward and denied due to the Corps of Engineers' refusal to recognize any data but their own, and the lack of a funding date, even if a proposal had been accepted by the federal government.
Finally, in 1975, Hidalgo County voters passed a locally funded interim plan. This plan stopped dead in its tracks when the owners of the El Sauz Ranch refused to allow the drainage ditch to cross their property. From 1975 to 1980 the owners of the El Sauz effectively blocked progress by convincing the Corps of Engineers that an environmental study was needed even though it had been initially waived. After a change in utilization of the El Sauz Ranch, the owners did a 180-degree turn and supported the building of the drain.
By 1992, the drain and over 200 miles of ditches were tied into the completed Main Drain to the Laguna Madre. Astoundingly, it took 37 years to reach the coast with a ditch that was initially designed for the agricultural run-off of the 1950s.
Cities Improved, Infrastructure Abandoned
The first and largest player in the increased flooding we see now is the citizens of the Valley. During the period from 1955 to 2000, the population of Hidalgo County increased from 160,000 to 570,000. That's over 350 percent. Local economic development groups certainly did their job, but they didn't push for infrastructure to accommodate the people who came for their jobs. In fact, they did nothing twice since in most cases taxes that could have helped pay for new drainage, roads and parks were deferred to the future, or outright eliminated.
In 1992, the county built a drain we are still living off of. By raw population numbers, we need more than three times its capacity.
Consider that we grew by 410,000 people and that each family of 3.5 people built a house on a lot of 5,000 square feet out of which they left 20 percent in grass, then that by itself is 729 million square feet. In front of each of these 117,000 homes there is a total of 1,000 square feet of street and sidewalk for an additional 117 million square feet. Add to that the 23.1-square-foot per person that is required to support each person's need for commercial activities like buying, selling, working, etc we have another 9.5 million square feet. Then the Texas Department of Transportation built an expressway through Hidalgo County, which meant there was another 50 million square feet paved over.
So far we have identified over 905 million square feet of surface that water cannot soak into. Just to make that number more understandable: since 1955 we have prevented water soaking into an additional area greater than twice the present size of the City of Mission.
When HCCD was fighting an uphill battle to gain approval of the first and only ditch to the Laguna Madre, other county and city agencies were doing their best to ensure maximum uncontrolled growth in the Valley.
As mentioned before, after spending tax dollars to improve the industrial areas, the cities were cutting deals deferring or eliminating tax money that could have paid for improvements in existing neighborhoods. Local flooding, poor roads, minimal parks and yearly budget crises now partially evidence this short sightedness. Additionally, either subdivision drainage ordinances were not in place or those that were fell victim to poor inspection and enforcement by local government.
At the same time, it would seem no government agency had any idea of the capacities of the existing agricultural system or how much of these capacities are being used. These figures are still not available from the county. Since I live adjacent to the Mission Lateral that has been close to overflowing three times since 2009, I must assume we are out of capacity. This conclusion must be true since McAllen is suddenly digging retention ponds and Mission has employed consultants to identify why large portions of our cities now flood during a heavier than average rain storm.
So why can't we at least temporarily divert excess runoff to the floodway when it isn't full? The answer is we can't because the IBWC will not allow HCDD to discharge anything other than a small amount of water originating north of Business 83 into the floodway and river.
The cities, since they utilize the HCDD drains, have to share this small amount and limit it even if the rainfall pattern has filled the only drain available to the Laguna Madre. How could this be seeing that there are at least five large drains and other smaller ones originating close to or in the areas that are routinely flooded in McAllen and Mission? Another question unanswered by IBWC.
The flooding we have experienced since 2008, excepting that from Mexico due to Hurricane Alex, has resulted from water that couldn't make it to the river or Laguna Madre fast enough; not water coming onto the land from the river.
In 1944, the United States and Mexican governments entered into a treaty giving complete management of the Rio Grande, and its yet to be constructed dams and floodways, to the IBWC. After the completion of Falcon Dam in 1953, the IBWC was given the sole authority to regulate flows into both the North (American) and South (Mexican) floodways.
Its charter in part explains that the group must operate and maintain international flood control projects as well as one domestic project. They're also responsible for the operation and maintenance of two international storage dams and four diversion dams.
Please note that the IBWC says that it places flood control before water storage.
Unfortunately, the facilities it operates are, in my opinion, operated to generate profit from the most power generation and water sale possible not provide the best public safety. The recent flooding produced by Hurricane Alex evidenced this. The evidence is also that the water level in both Amistad and Falcon dams is held very close to their capacity.
Amistad's maximum water level is at 1,144 feet above sea level and Falcon is 314 feet. In November, the water level in Amistad was 1,119 feet and in Falcon it is at 304 feet. That may have been prudent during the droughts but certainly is not now.
Apparently, this was and is too high considering the amount of water that had to be released from Falcon when Hurricane Alex hit Monterrey and Coahuila. Similar elevations were in place prior to and during the storms. Amistad apparently did not have enough capacity to decrease its discharge and there was no room in Falcon to hold back the additional water from Mexico. This release caused widespread flooding of low lying agricultural property, homes and businesses from Rio Grande City to Donna.
Coupled with the large release of water was the decision to force water to the floodways at Anzalduas and Retamal dams. To do that, the level of the river behind the dams has to be raised. Yes, raised, not lowered. Although necessary because of the need to release water from Falcon, this was the cause of the upstream flooding. If these dams had been built with gates that could be lowered to allow the water into the flood channel the results would have not been as severe.
This is policy as evidenced by this quote from IBWC:
"Flood water is arriving into the Rio Grande from Mexico," said Rodolfo Montero, operations manager for the Lower Rio Grande Flood Control Project for the IBWC. "Right now they're still not being diverted. They're going through the dam and if the amount of water that we expect to go through Brownsville and Matamoros exceeds at a certain point then we're going to hold them at Retamal Dam. We expect to be holding water from Retamal Dam all the way to Anzalduas."
Subsequently, after the above statement, not only was the water held and the river raised at Retamal, but also at Anzalduas. Why was this needed? It was required to protect Brownsville and Matamoros.
In summation, the Rio Grande Valley drains slowly. Local governments were more interested in growth than safety. Hidalgo County and its cities did not keep up with the construction of drainage needed to accommodate the rapid growth they wanted. Finally, the IBWC failed to recognize the increased property value and population upstream from Brownsville or to improve or even maintain existing flood control facilities let alone modify policy to accommodate the increased flow from the cities or from the change in our climate.
How do we fix it? I am not an engineer, but personally, I would prefer fixing an existing serious safety problem rather than hearing about highway loops, a new county courthouse, tennis courts or more civic centers.
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.