As the Rio Grande Valley continues to recover from several major floods over the last few years, one Hidalgo County leader says regional thinking and interagency cooperation will be the key to making mitigation efforts successful now and in the future.

That was the overarching message delivered by Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes during a citizens’ forum hosted by the International Boundary and Water Commission via webinar Wednesday.

The IBWC invited Fuentes to deliver a presentation on one of the county’s most ambitious flood mitigation projects yet — the Delta Regional Water Management Project. It’s a three-phase, multiyear project that aims to impact floodwaters not just in Hidalgo County, but neighboring Willacy and Cameron counties, as well, Fuentes said.

“All the water ends up in our area before it hits Willacy County and Cameron County,” Fuentes said of his Precinct 1, which encompasses Weslaco and Mercedes, as well as the Delta communities of Edcouch, Elsa, La Villa and Monte Alto.

“We’ve worked very hard to try to regionalize a lot of these projects. And it is really important for us as we move forward that everything we do is mindful of our partners to the east,” he added, speaking of the two neighboring counties.

But beyond working with local leaders and water authorities, Fuentes also stressed the importance of cooperation from the state and federal partners who also have stakes in water resource management and flood control.

Those partners include the IBWC, which maintains the floodway that carves a path through the heart of Precinct 1, as well as the Texas Water Development Board and the Texas Department of Emergency Management, which provide funding and other resources for infrastructure projects and disaster response.

THE DELTA PROJECT

Perhaps no other flood mitigation project better illustrates that need for cooperation than the multiphase Delta reclamation project Fuentes spoke of Wednesday.

One of several drainage projects approved by Hidalgo County voters during a 2018 bond election, the Delta Regional Water Management Project is composed of several components, including detention ponds, ditches, drains, the installation of permanent water pumps at key sites, and, hopefully, the ability to eventually put floodwaters to practical use.

“We believe that the project, as it continues to go forward, will eventually get to a point where we will have water available to sell of use at a water plant … and they will be able to use that, process it, and clean it to the point of distribution to households,” Fuentes said.

Capturing floodwaters and then putting it to use for water consumers is a novel idea, Fuentes said — one that he believes hasn’t been attempted in the Rio Grande Valley yet. And it will become an increasingly important component to consider as the Valley’s population continues to grow.

According to the commissioner, one water resource study conducted by the TWDB in 2008 estimates the Valley’s population growth will outpace the available water supply by the year 2070.

But in order to begin thinking about using captured water, the county must first put infrastructure in place. To that end, the initial steps of Phase 1 — a 224-acre detention pond just north of La Villa — have gotten underway.

Fuentes said excavation of the 10-foot deep detention pond has already begun and is expected to be completed within 18 to 24 months.

“The reason that this easternmost area was identified as Phase 1 is because we believe that it has the most impact. It would be able to impact … the majority of the Delta population,” as well as the colonia populations that lie between the Delta and Weslaco and Mercedes, Fuentes said.

The location can also serve as a hub for future projects, connecting to existing drainage systems and ones yet to be built.

The second and third phases of the project involve work at the Santa Cruz Reservoir in north Edinburg and the Engleman Reservoir, which lies just northwest of Elsa.

If capacity at those two sites can be increased, then that’ll give floodwaters a chance to continue draining eastward more safely, without the detrimental compounding of flooding seen in Willacy and Cameron counties during the Great June Flood of 2018 and again in June 2019.

Costs for the project, which were initially projected to be $95 million, have since grown to $103 million, Fuentes said. The Delta Reservoir accounts for some $45 to $57 million, of which $20 million have been allocated from 2012 and 2018 bond issuances, he said.

COOPERATION ESSENTIAL

In November 2019, voters approved $190 million in bonds for a spate of drainage projects throughout the county, with more than 30 slated to be completed within Precinct 1 alone.

But, those funds may not cover everything, such as the studies needed to determine whether projects like the Delta reclamation can be used to create a usable water resource. But Fuentes hopes including such a component in a flood mitigation project will help open up funding avenues from entities such as the water development board.

Then there’s the IBWC, which — though not a direct partner on the Delta project — is still essential to the project’s overall success, Fuentes said.

The IBWC spillway — which runs north from the Rio Grande, then turns east near La Villa, before wending its way into the Arroyo Colorado — is essential to draining Hidalgo County.

All along its path are floodgates which allow storm waters to flow from inundated municipalities into the spillway, which normally sits dry.

But in times of severe flooding, such as 2010’s Hurricane Alex, the spillway itself becomes a raging river that can worsen municipal flooding by pushing more water into flood zones rather than carrying it away.

The IBWC closed the spillway’s floodgates during Alex, but local residents, unaware of how the drainage system works, reopened them.

“There was actually a particular problem where people were coming along and opening the gates after we closed them, so then the water is getting out and creating flooding,” said IBWC Secretary Sally Spener.

Part of the Delta reclamation project involves installing more than a dozen permanent water pumps at sites along the floodway in order to continue pumping water over its levees and into the structure, even if floodgates have been closed.

“It’s a really important aspect, as we certainly saw that firsthand in 2010,” Spener said of the pumps.

With the county experiencing six FEMA-designated disasters over the last five years, large-scale flood infrastructure must be considered high priority. Weather that was once considered an “anomaly” is such no more, Fuentes said.

“Now, it kind of seems to be an every year expectation,” he said. And the only way to make significant progress on disaster prevention is if everyone works together.

Carlos Sanchez, who chaired Wednesday’s public forum, agreed.

“I think with that philosophy, we’re gonna make headway here in the coming years,” Sanchez said.

“These projects are big-dollar capital costs that are gonna take years, but we’ve gotta start somewhere,” he said.