WESLACO—Hidalgo County leaders and Weslaco officials gathered on the north side of town Wednesday to break ground on a $10.6 million drainage improvement project — the first of many slated to be completed in District 1.

After torrential rainfall inundated large swaths of the region last June, residents and county leaders alike pressed for change to the region’s drainage system — a system which had been unable to keep up with the volume of runoff created by the combination of heavy rainfall, the region’s relatively flat landscape and the reduced ground percolation that comes with increased land development.

As a result of the storm, and the widespread flood damage it wreaked, Hidalgo County voters overwhelmingly approved a $190 million bond election last November.

The funding will allow the county to tackle some 37 projects throughout Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1, explained General Manager Raul Sesin at Wednesday’s groundbreaking. Of those, a majority will be completed within county Precinct 1, he said.

“We have 545 acres of detention facilities that we’re proposing, and out of that 467 acres are just here in Precinct 1,” Sesin said.

Throughout the drainage district, crews will also widen approximately 66 miles of ditches, create 75 miles of new ditch infrastructure, and install nine pump structures in locations where water flows into territory controlled by the International Boundary and Water Commission, he said.

“That’s a total of about 141 linear miles of ditches that we’re going to be improving, adding to our current 600 miles that we currently have,” Sesin said.

For Precinct 1, Wednesday’s groundbreaking located off Mile 9 North Road, just east of Farm-to-Market 1015, marked the first project to get underway. What is currently a flat expanse of grassy field nestled between two north Weslaco neighborhoods will soon be transformed into a 10-acre detention pond capable of holding 21 million gallons of water.

Officials expect the construction project will take about five months to complete. In addition to the detention pond, the project will also include five miles of ditch improvements.

Sesin said the facility will be built using a “hundred-year design.”

“Just to put that in perspective, our current system is only a 10-year design,” he said. “Our requirements for the county are 50-year for any new development. So, we’re designing to a hundred-year level, which is a very, very high design capacity.”

The two neighborhoods on either side of the improvement site were among the hardest hit by last summer’s storms. Homes stood flooded by several feet of water, forcing the emergency evacuation of local residents.

Precint 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes speaks about the county’s slate of drainage improvement projects during a groundbreaking in Weslaco Wednesday morning.
Photo by Dina Arévalo | darevalo@mvtcnews.com

First responders and local volunteers used boats and vehicles with high ground clearances to evacuate residents from flooded neighborhoods across the county. Recalling the experience, Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes became visibly emotional.

“We felt helpless. We wanted to do so much to help,” Fuentes said, adding that seeing the magnitude of the flood firsthand had brought him to tears.

“Our kids and our families deserve better than that,” he said.

Mercedes Cortez was one of the residents whose home was impacted by the storm. She has lived in the neighborhood next to the project site for 25 years and had never experienced flooding as severe as the June 2018 event, she said.

“Nos inundamos más de lo (que) debido. Fueron como siete pies de agua acá y … mucho gente perdió todo,” Cortez said shortly after the ceremony.

“We flooded more than we should have. There were about seven feet of water here and … many people lost everything,” she said.

Cortez described how her neighbors saw water fill their homes and rise above their kitchen stoves. Her home, which sits slightly higher, was flooded by about two feet of water, she said.

She said she’s hopeful the new project will protect her neighborhood from future flooding. “Nos han dicho que va mejorar nuestra situación. Y esperamos que sea,” she said.

“They told us it will help our situation. We hope it will.”

Commissioner Fuentes, who took office in 2017, was also hopeful for the future. He spoke of the county’s new commitment to bettering its public infrastructure planning, especially in places that have seen little regulation in the past, such as colonias.

“It certainly seems like in the past that there was not sufficient attention put to drainage and making sure that our developments, the neighborhoods that were being put up, had sufficient drainage,” Fuentes said.

“We’re in the process, we’ve already done assessments to try to fix that … how can we make that connectivity between colonias that were developed 20, 30 years ago and get them connected to a drain system,” he said.