Valley flood projects gain priority funding status

‘Game changer’

A 500-year storm in June 2018. Then another in June 2019, followed by a hurricane this July.

In recent years, the Rio Grande Valley has been hit hard by catastrophic floods that have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage while highlighting in stark relief the deficiencies of the region’s aging and overburdened drainage infrastructure.

But a recent announcement by the Texas Water Development Board has local officials who have been laboring to address those issues excited.

Last week, the TWDB announced the funding prioritization list for dozens of prospective flood infrastructure projects throughout the state. Of 285 projects vying for $770 million in available funding, a total of 14 projects in Hidalgo County were among those prioritized to potentially receive money.

The majority of those projects are slated for the Mid-Valley and Delta regions, with proposed projects in Pharr and Alton also receiving high priority.

While the Valley has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster relief and recovery after significant weather events, the projects given the initial greenlight by the TWDB are intended to provide mitigation before a disaster can wreak damage.

“With today’s action by the TWDB, the state takes another step towards mitigating the damage caused by future flood events,” state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa said last Thursday in a statement announcing the prioritization list.

“The Flood Infrastructure Fund Program was established for this purpose and I am glad to see the process is moving forward despite the economic downturn,” Hinojosa said.

Last spring, the state senator co-authored the bill that helped establish the fund “through a one-time transfer of $793 million from the ‘Rainy Day’ Fund,” the statement reads.

And in November 2019, Texas voters seconded the creation of a permanent flood infrastructure fund when they overwhelmingly approved the passage of Proposition 8, a constitutional referendum that aimed to dedicate a portion of Rainy Day funds to a program that would be immune from future legislative budget debates.

Now, those two decisions are beginning to bear fruit.

“For us as a county, and for taxpayers, this is a substantial, substantial win,” Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes said Wednesday regarding the announcement of the project prioritization list.

However, the announcement doesn’t guarantee that each of the 285 projects will receive funding. With the news, local entities have now been invited to submit letters of intent to officially apply for the funds, which will be distributed via grants and zero interest loans.

Applicants are slated to receive word on whether their projects will be funded by later this year, with the first set of disbursements expected sometime next spring.

For Fuentes, whose Precinct 1 has borne the brunt of the damage during the last three major floods, the news is very welcome, but is only part of a complex infrastructure improvement plan he and other county leaders have been working on since long before the Great June Flood of 2018.

Officials have aggressively pursued funding from as many different sources as possible, including through the passage of a $190 million bond in November 2018.

And of the Valley projects to make the cut for potential TWDB funding, a proposal by Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 received the highest prioritization at No. 31.

The $32 million project involves a large swath of the Delta region, from Farm-to-Market Road 88 east toward the floodway, Fuentes said. But county officials didn’t wait for state funding to get started on it. Over the last year, they have allocated some of the bond funds toward designing the project.

“Knowing that these [TWDB] funds were not going to be awarded until early 2021, we set aside enough money to keep us going and to keep the project moving and advancing the way it needed to,” Fuentes said.

The TWDB monies will allow the county to pay for the construction, land acquisition and equipment purchases that are essential to the project. Some 30% — or $8.91 million — of the expected funding award will be via a grant. The remaining $22.5 million will come in the form of a zero percent interest loan.

“This project is gonna entail ditch widening, retention facilities and also an additional structure at the floodway,” said drainage district General Manager Raul Sesin on Wednesday.

“So, yes, we’re very excited about the funds,” Sesin said.

By the project’s end, some 137 acres of detention ponds will have been constructed. Too, the county plans to install a permanent pump station at the International Boundary and Water Commission spillway to help pump floodwaters into the system during heavy rains, even if the gates have been closed, Sesin said.

Sesin also spoke about another project to receive a high priority rating for funding: an $8.87 million project submitted by the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council for studying the hydrology of the three-county region.

“What we’re requesting there for our county is the H and H — which is the hydrology and hydraulics of our systems so we can get the information that we need to try to get one step closer to submitting the request for the accreditation of the levees by FEMA,” Sesin said.

Manuel Cruz, executive director of the LRGVDC, explained it further, saying the funds would go toward installing dozens of hydrologic stations throughout Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties that could potentially allow officials to have a view of local waterways and flooding as it occurs in real-time.

“The project will serve as a critical first step in identifying regional and impactful solutions and mitigate current or future disasters that deal with flooding,” Cruz said Thursday.

As of now, there are only three to four such stations in the Valley. If funded, the LRGVDC would be able to place between 40-50 stations at strategic locations, such as the Raymondville Drain, and along the IBWC floodway, Cruz said.

“That would be basically a game changer for everyone, as there has never been such a project or devices to collect the data,” he said.

While the Precinct 1 and LRGVDC projects are high on the priority list — 31 and 38, respectively — many of the 14 Valley projects are lower down on the list and may not receive funding at all.

Such is the case for the city of Weslaco, which has three projects identified on the priority list. Only one of those is within the top 120.

As a result, Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez said the city, realistically, expects only one will get funded.

“We think they’re (TWDB) only going to have enough money to get down to about 140,” on the list, Perez said Thursday.

But Weslaco officials are optimistic that a project along the city’s main drag, Texas Boulevard, will make the cut.

“The idea is to put a large drainage pipe from Texas going east to the ditch right there where City Park is, including digging out City Park and creating a drain detention (facility),” Perez said of the project site, which lies in the Los Torritos neighborhood.

Like Commissioner Fuentes, Weslaco city leaders didn’t wait for word from state officials before getting started on drainage improvements.

Not only did Weslaco voters approve a $10 million drainage bond last May, but city leaders have also been actively pursuing infrastructure funding from FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Perez said.

The city manager expressed his gratitude to local and state voters who have repeatedly approved such ballot measures as the state continues to grapple with the ever increasing costs of natural disasters.

“I think in the long run, it’s going to be good for everybody. It’s good for the state. It’s good for the federal government,” Perez said of the passage of local and state drainage funding meant to address issues ahead of a disaster, rather than continually focusing on allocating funds only after such disaster has struck.

“Every time you have a disaster and people get flooded, I mean, it causes tens of millions or hundreds of millions of damage to public property and private property,” Perez said.