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Storm damaged county's aging drainage system

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Posted: Thursday, April 5, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 12:23 pm, Fri Jun 14, 2013.

A 30-year-old dam intended to keep floodwaters at bay on a Willacy County ranch washed away during last week’s heavy storms, underscoring the challenge facing Hidalgo County commissioners as they seek to update an aging drainage system.

Hidalgo County commissioners could take action as early as next week to hire an engineer and contractor to replace the weir in an attempt to have it in place shortly after hurricane season begins June 1. But a replacement weir expected to cost up to $2 million is part of about $15 million in similar repairs needed throughout a drainage system completed in 1980 for an agricultural-based community.

“We have a system that is pretty old already,” Hidalgo County Drainage District general manager Godfrey Garza told commissioners Tuesday. “It needs to be taken care of and, unfortunately, it’s very costly to keep it up to date.”

The weir, located about six miles west of the Laguna Madre in Willacy County, washed out last week after the March 29 thunderstorm dumped piles of hail and heavy rains on much of McAllen, overwhelming the city’s drainage system meant to protect streets and homes. But the floodwaters soon entered the drainage district’s system that was built to withstand a 6-inch rain over a 24-hour period.

Garza said portions of the county received that amount of rainfall in a three-hour period, putting the drainage system at capacity within a matter of hours.

The floodwaters washed away the dam located on the boundary line of El Suaz, the historic Willacy County ranch located between Raymondville and the Laguna Madre. The drainage district must replace the weir that manages the volume of floodwaters through the ranch in order to be in compliance with the 1981 agreement that granted an easement for the county’s main drainage canal.

Commissioners designated the weir as an emergency item Tuesday to allow them to negotiate contractual agreements to expedite the reconstruction without a lengthy bidding process. While it could allow the weir to be replaced within the next 30 to 45 days, construction likely wouldn’t be complete until sometime after hurricane season begins.

The county formed a committee last year to explore ways to build up to $340 million worth of drainage improvements with a bond referendum potentially headed before voters in November. The drainage needs are headlined by the Raymondville Drain, a proposed regional channel that would lessen the load on the weir that collapsed – and others like it – by providing a second path for floodwaters to reach the Laguna Madre.

But commissioners must also continually work to remove debris from ditches and make other repairs to the existing system. After Hurricane Dolly swamped the county in 2008, the drainage district sustained $17 million in damage during the storm as the water rushed through its system toward its outfall in the Laguna Madre, scouring banks, damaging concrete embankments and blowing out one weir.

While about $8 million in repairs were completed with assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, other work remains.

Garza said the weir that washed out last week needed patching after Dolly, but the district hadn’t funded its repairs yet. Garza said the county’s system isn’t equipped to handle the intensity of last week’s storm.

“The system is inadequate and too small to handle the volume of water that hit it,” Garza said. “It is old and needs some major rehabilitation throughout.”

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Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and legislative issues for The Monitor. He can be reached at jjanes@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4424.

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