Stemming the tide: Sen. Cornyn gets first-hand look at RGV’s flood control efforts

Hidalgo County judge Richard Cortez and Senator John Cornyn tour the Raymondville Drainage Project on FM2812 and Seminary road on Monday, Oct.14, 2019 in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor

Sen. John Cornyn spent the first leg of his Rio Grande Valley trip Oct. 14 touring regional flood control projects that are currently under construction but still need funding to complete.

Dozens of elected officials and stakeholders from across the Valley joined him on a caravan tour — which included three stops along busy construction sites near Edinburg and La Villa — and then spoke to him directly during a roundtable discussion in Weslaco. This in hopes the Texas senator can intercede for South Texas and draw down federal funding for ongoing flood mitigation projects during the next legislative session.

Cornyn, who is up for re-election in 2020 and has visited the Valley seven times this year, took in as much information as possible as he walked through the mouth of what will one day be the Raymondville Drain near Edinburg Lake, the existing Panchita Structure near La Villa and the nearby Delta Water Reclamation project site.

Afterward, Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner David Fuentes welcomed the senator to his headquarters in Weslaco, noting the conference room where they gathered was a product of the Great June Flood of 2018.

The 500-year rain event inundated the precinct offices and forced him and his staff out for about eight months, he said. And when it came time to reconstruct, he wanted a conference room.

“We wanted to create a center that would allow us to host events like this, specifically for purposes like this, where we could share ideas or come together as a group to pass along information that we think is critical to our area,” he said.

The Valley has experienced two 500-year weather events in as many years, and it’s had a huge impact on the county, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said.

“We are putting our own money into solving these problems, but there just ain’t enough money, locally, for us to do that,” he said, referencing the millions of dollars taxpayers have passed in drainage bonds. “We need the help of the federal government and others to do that.

“And what better person to call on, than one of the most senior members of the Senate,” Cortez said.

Cornyn has previously advocated for disaster relief funding for the area and has been a strong voice in asking the federal government to release disaster funds quickly.

He joined a Valley delegation just a few months ago in Dallas, where they met with representatives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to ask for disaster relief funding for the June 2018 flooding.

Drainage is very much an economic issue, Cortez added, “because not only does it cause misery to the people who are touched by it, but it’s also bad for the economy.”

One by one, farmers and ranchers spoke to Cornyn about the lay of the land, the state of the existing infrastructure, and how it affected their crops and cattle.

Mike England, a rancher and a representative of Hidalgo & Cameron County Water District 9, said his district used to irrigate about 80,000 acres of farmland.

“Today, that number is around a little over 50 (thousand acres). Where did the other 30 (thousand acres) go? Pavement and cement,” England said. “Where does the water drain? Through the old farm pipelines. And that’s where a lot of the bottleneck is today. It takes an extreme amount of time to get the water off. And in the meantime, my crops’ ruined (and) cattle are belly deep in water.”

The Raymondville Drain, a federal project that is already 30 years in the making, would alleviate some of that flooding, officials said. But the project — a 63-mile channel that would take water from Hidalgo County through Willacy County and out into the Laguna Madre — is estimated to cost about $417 million, with Hidalgo County taxpayers shouldering $240 million and Willacy County $177 million.

Cornyn said he was prepared to pen letters to the Assistant Secretary of the Army and the Office of Management and Budget in support of the project, as well as push for funding through congressional authorization.

“My job in Washington, D.C. is not only to make sure that federal priorities are adequately funded, but that things like the Raymondville Drain improvement project is included in the Water Resources Development Act bill (WRDA),” he said.

And though the federal money is not yet there, the wheels of the project are already turning.

The county most recently submitted an environmental study to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for approval Oct. 9, Hidalgo County Drainage District Director Raul Sesin said. Once approved, Cornyn can push for it to be added to WRDA.

Cornyn also said he would push to fund the International Boundary and Water Commission after learning Monday it was “vastly underfunded.”

Jayne Harkins, the IBWC commissioner who was appointed by the president last year, spoke out about her budget during the roundtable discussion.

“My budget is about $78 million a year — so not billions, nothing with a “B” — $78 million,” she said. “We have about $48 million in our salaries and expenses — that’s all of our operations and maintenances that we do — and about $28 million a year in our construction projects and it’s not enough.”

Cornyn appeared to agree.

“One of the things that I take away from this is that we need more resources from the federal level to deal with international issues, by definition those are federal responsibilities,” he later said.

The Texas senator also learned about other non-federally designated projects, such as the Delta Water Reclamation project, which would serve two purposes: flood mitigation and water conservation.

The project would mitigate flooding by creating capacity along the North Main Drain — which carries the bulk of the water from Hidalgo County into the Laguna Madre — by pumping water out of it at three extraction points along the drain and into three detention ponds.

Once there, the water would be treated and either merged with irrigation water or filtered into potable water, thus conserving the natural resource.

It’s a project unlike any other in the country, Fuentes said, adding he hopes to find ways to work with the Army Corps of Engineers on that project as well.

“Everything takes a long time when you’re talking about infrastructure because we’re competing with jurisdictions all around the country for the same attention by the Corps of Engineers and the same dollars,” Cornyn said about the long-awaited funding for the Raymondville Drain. “So the good news is we’re on the cusp of getting it done. The bad news is it’s taken longer than any of us would have liked.”