Flood control levees in western Hidalgo County that were left breached by a halt in border wall construction earlier this year are expected to be repaired by the time hurricane season begins June 1, officials announced Wednesday.
But while the news was a cause for celebration for those officials, who have spent weeks pressuring federal authorities to fix the broken levees before the start of storm season, local environmentalists are continuing to raise alarms about breaches in other areas of the levee system that have thus far not seen any repair crews.
“I’m very excited and happy that our federal partners understood the need to repair the levees or put them back in their original state,” said Precinct 3 Hidalgo County Commissioner Everardo “Ever” Villarreal via phone Wednesday.
“The part of the levee that was completely breached has been repaired already. We’re just waiting for vegetation to be put on there to finish that part,” he said of a section of levee in Abram that drew particular concern from county leaders.
Just hours after taking office on Jan. 20, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation that put a 60-day pause to all border wall construction, while simultaneously putting the wall’s funding sources under review.
That proclamation left large swaths of wall construction abandoned mid-work — including several stretches in the Rio Grande Valley where earthen flood control levees were torn up to make way for the reinforced concrete and steel wall.
As the 60-day construction moratorium came and went, those sites remained abandoned. The yawning gaps in the levees remained unattended, and officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said as late as mid-April they had yet to receive guidance from the new administration.
Villarreal, along with Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, began to grow worried. The Valley’s rainy season typically begins in May, with the region historically recording its highest rainfall totals in May and September.
The Abrams levee soon became the staging ground for local and federal officials as, last month, they implored Biden to address the levee breaches ahead of storm season.
Officials gathered there on May 4 to announce that repairs would soon commence.
And on Wednesday, Villarreal announced the repairs should be done within a week-and-a-half.
Crews could be seen Monday at Chimney Park south of Mission working at a furious pace to pour concrete on the 1,700-foot stretch of wall there. Just feet away, mobile homes lay nestled in the shadow of the structure.
Villarreal said just 700 feet of concrete remain to be poured along that portion of wall.
But elsewhere along the levee system, the air has been strangely devoid of the sound of heavy machinery.
“It’s just torn wide open,” said Scott Nicol of a section of levee in rural Donna that lies about a mile west “as the crow flies” from the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge.
“Monday, after the weekend’s rain, there was just a huge puddle on both sides of the concrete. One of those puddles being in the middle of what’s supposed to be a flood control levee. It’s not looking like it’s working very effectively,” he said.
A member of the Sierra Club, Nicol has long opposed the border wall and advocated for the preservation of the Rio Grande’s natural ecology.
Nicol said the Donna site was empty, save for a pair of construction workers in a pickup truck who asked if he was a representative from the county.
“There wasn’t any remediation or construction happening there,” Nicol said.
Nor was that the only site that lay empty. In Pharr, Nicol noted that breached levee looked similarly unattended by the historic Eli Jackson Cemetery.
As another bout of torrential rain pelted the region Wednesday, particularly in the Mid-Valley, Nicol worried the broken levees are continuing to worsen, potentially exacerbating the flood threat to local residents.
“You can see places where you’ve got a hole in the levee and a bunch of rain falls in it and more of the dirt just kind of falls into that hole,” Nicol said.
“So, the levee is falling apart more and more during these rainstorms. So my concern would be that the longer they wait to fix them, the more rain hits them, the worse shape they’re in. And then if the Rio Grande floods at some point, it’s even more likely to get out,” he said.
Reached for comment Wednesday, Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner David Fuentes — whose precinct encompasses Donna — said he’s been in conversation with the International Boundary and Water Commission, which has authority over the levee system.
“My conversations with the IBWC, they don’t feel like there’s a big risk in the sense that it’s covered and they’re backfilling the area of concern,” Fuentes said, adding that Judge Cortez and Villarreal “have been at the forefront” of communicating the levee issues with federal authorities.
Fuentes said the issues with the Donna levee have been further complicated by a lawsuit regarding how the levee has been changed, but added an assurance that the IBWC is aware of the breaches that remain in eastern Hidalgo County.
For Nicol, the levees should never have been breached in the first place. Many of the breaches were made during the 2020 hurricane season, and now some of them are at risk of remaining through another hurricane season.
“I think it was really grievously irresponsible of the contractors to, when they were told they could make these sites safe, and that should have included making the levees whole again,” Nicol said, referring to a portion of the Jan. 20 presidential proclamation that allowed DHS to make some exceptions to the construction pause.
“The Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security may make an exception to the pause, however, for urgent measures needed to avert immediate physical dangers,” the proclamation read, in part.
For now, the work isn’t over — nor are the conversations between local and federal authorities.
Commissioner Villarreal said he and Judge Cortez are slated to meet with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Mission, later this month.
“We have a meeting on the 26th with the general for the Army Corps of Engineers and our congressman to discuss the project and also the emergency plan that will be in effect in case a hurricane or tropical storm impacts the Gulf of Mexico,” Villarreal said.