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Hidalgo-County-SealEDINBURG — The Hidalgo County Drainage Advisory Committee recommended that the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court go ahead with a $168 million referendum to improve efficiency in the county’s existing drainage system.

Two main issues facing the infrastructure are opening up and removing blockages that can choke the system and increasing efficiency of the existing system using a 1997 study and its recommendations, said Jim Darling, a McAllen city commissioner and co-chair of the Drainage Advisory Committee.

“In the last 15 years, we haven’t had many regional rain falls, but say there’s a heavy localized rainfall in Mission, it chokes the system,” he said. “This proposal would eliminate choke downs by allowing the drainage district to control flow with gates.”

The other piece of the puzzle is the Raymondville Drain, a project that would cost $110 million and also be authorized under the referendum. However, that chunk of money has the possibility of loan forgiveness.

“It would be a zero interest loan paid back with federal money,” Darling said.

As it stands, the Raymondville Drain could alleviate strain on the system by taking floodwaters from western Hidalgo County. Right now, one major canal takes water out of the county and during a heavy rainfall it becomes clogged causing problems in feeder canals, which results in flooding.

The Hidalgo County Drainage Advisory Committee also considered annexing areas that are affected by drainage decisions, but not technically a part of the district and deemed that it wasn’t economically feasible to do so.

“They also evaluated tax base outside the district and with the agriculture exemption many of those people would get, it would be less than $200,000 contributed to the tax base from that area,” Darling said.

The Hidalgo County Commissioners formed the 25-member drainage committee in 2011. The deadline to call a bond referendum is Aug. 6.

The Drainage District Board of Directors also received a presentation by Hollis Rutledge & Associates regarding an attempt at recapturing funds through federal and state agencies and other sources relating to construction on the Lower Rio Grande Flood Control Project levee improvements. Work on that project started in 2009.

Hidalgo County spent funds from a 2006 $100 million drainage bond voted for by taxpayers toward improvement of the levees, which are owned by the United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission.

Also in 2009, U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) and U.S. Congressman Ruben Hinojosa (D-Mercedes) filed legislation seeking reimbursement for monies spent of local money spent on federal levee projects.

In a 2009 press release announcing this, the legislators said roughly $48.5 million was spent on the joint levee barrier project with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and $18.7 million was used to reinforce three sections of levee in western Hidalgo County.

“In fact, we have more than $415 million in local drainage projects awaiting funding, and time is of the essence,” Sen. Cornyn and Rep. Hinojosa said in a joint 2009 statement. “Next hurricane season cannot come and go without action. We cannot continue to sink local funds into a federal project with no hope of ever getting it back.”

Three hurricane season later, Hollis Rutledge told the drainage board of directors that Sen. Cornyn sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on May 1 asking whether she could issue a directive of policy for existing authorities to allow reimbursement to state and local entities for appropriated funds in that project.

Rutledge said they are taking a legislative approach to retrieving the funds as well as looking for an administrative fix and that’s been the strategy all along. But Rutledge did advise the Drainage Board of Directors that they could hire a law firm to research to see if the Secretary of State has the authority to authorize reimbursement administratively.

But for now, Sen. Cornyn’s office is in communication with Clinton’s office seeking clarification on her response to Cornyn’s letter.

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