Over the course of eight days, officials in Hidalgo County thrice received good news that will hopefully mean the region will see a lot less damage the next time a big rain occurs.
During those eight days — the county, along with Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 — got word that it had been approved for three different flood infrastructure improvement awards totaling just over $52 million.
Of that, nearly $30 million is in the form of grants — money neither the county or the taxpayers will have to pay back. The remaining $22.9 million will come from zero interest loans.
“It was years of work and it just happened that all of it transpired within eight days. So, it was a fantastic week for Hidalgo County and the drainage district,” Precinct 1 Commissioner David Fuentes said Friday. “(There are) roughly $30 million in grants. We don’t have to pay any of that back. And then an interest savings of $10 to $12 million — (it’s) really exciting.”
It was March 3 that Fuentes first received word that the Texas General Land Office had awarded the county nearly $9.9 million in grant money related to flood damage from 2015.
Then, in an announcement that caught officials by surprise, the GLO awarded an additional nearly $10 million related to 2016 flood damage.
“We were totally caught off guard. We were hopeful that we would be considered, but because of the 2015 award… we were not thinking we had a great shot with 2016,” Fuentes said.
But after taking all the applications into consideration, the GLO ranked Hidalgo County’s application among the top three priorities.
The funds are part of some $28 billion in nationwide disaster relief appropriated by Congress in 2018 — largely as a result of the massive damage wrought after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 — but also as a result of an increasing number of costly natural disasters throughout the country.
A large bulk of those disasters occurred in Texas, leading to some $4.3 billion of the relief appropriation being carved out specifically for the Lone Star State.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development partnered with the GLO to administer the monies here via Community Development Block Grants.
However, the county’s largest award — about $32.7 million — is coming from the state of Texas itself via the Flood Infrastructure Fund and administered by the Texas Water Development Board.
The fund was created after the passage of state Senate Bill 500 in 2019, which seeded the fund via a one-time transfer of $793 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.
State officials opened up the application process in early 2020, Fuentes said. The county submitted an application to fund a series of projects known collectively as the Phase 1 Flood Control Project.
The $36 million price tag for the expansive plan is divided into multiple smaller projects that allows the county to distribute the work among multiple contractors, shortening the overall time needed to complete the improvements. The group of projects stretch throughout Precinct 1, from Interstate 2 north to La Villa.
After putting in $4 million worth of engineering fees, hydrological studies, and other preparatory work, Hidalgo County’s application asked the Texas Water Development Board to fund the remaining $32.7 million.
On Wednesday, officials received the news that the award had been granted. Some $22.9 million of that will come from zero interest loans, while the remaining nearly $10 million is a grant.
As a result of the award, the county will not have to seek funding via the bond market and its associated interest costs — an option Hidalgo County voters authorized officials to do in November 2018 when they overwhelmingly supported the passage of a $190 million bond election.
“This is good because it opens up a pathway, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 to $15 million of functional dollars that we can put into new projects because of the grant and the interest component that we’re gonna save,” Fuentes said.
The scope of the water development board project is massive.
As Raul Sesin, general manager for the drainage district explained, it will stretch north from about Mile 10 Road to Mile 15 North road, and from Farm-to-Market Road 493 east to the International Boundary and Water Commission floodway.
“We’ll be constructing about 200 acres of detention facilities,” Sesin said Friday.
“We’re doing around 10 miles’ worth of drainage improvements … widening existing systems. We’re adding two new structures at the IBWC, and we’ll be putting two new pumps, as well, at the IBWC to manage all that water,” Sesin said.
The work will be divided into multiple projects costing about $3.5 million each. Sesin said he hopes the first portion will be under construction by the end of the year, with additional projects being put to bid over the next year-and-a-half.
Meanwhile, the two GLO grants will go toward funding a single project that has been divided into two distinct phases.
There, about 7.5 miles of existing drainage ditches will be widened, expanding their capacity nearly 300%. The ditches will be widened from their current 100 feet to 300 feet, Fuentes explained.
Fuentes also spoke about the piecemeal nature of the projects’ progress.
The Rio Grande Valley’s flat geography — combined with a development boom — has only exacerbated the drainage problems that the region’s decades-old infrastructure has long struggled to handle.
Over the last several years, the county has identified dozens of projects it hoped to fund via the 2018 bond, as well as additional sources, such as the GLO and TWDB awards. The myriad projects are part of a massive undertaking to overhaul that sagging system.
But so much existing infrastructure needs fixing, and so many new locations need all-new infrastructure that it can’t all be done at once.
For places like Mercedes, where residents bore the brunt of the flooding in 2015, 2018, 2019 and again during Hurricane Hannah last summer, that bit-by-bit progress can seem frustratingly slow.
“They’re not forgotten,” Fuentes assured. “I know that they tend to feel like, if they’re not … seeing those improvements happening, that they’ve been forgotten, but I can assure, that’s not the case. Every one of my projects is important,” he said.
Instead, officials are working at chipping away at large-scale projects by completing smaller bits at any one given time. The hope is, those smaller-scale projects will have impacts in the short term while the county inches toward its long term goals.
Fuentes used the Las Brisas and Las Chapas neighborhoods in north Weslaco as an example.
In June 2018, more than 300 homes in those neighborhoods flooded. After the county installed a 10-acre, 10-foot deep retention pond just outside Las Brisas in 2019, just 30 homes flooded during Hurricane Hanna.
But retention pond isn’t the end of the work in the area. Rather, it’s a small portion of a larger $12 million project.
“As we move these projects along, our goal is to continue to make these improvements so that we can at least get water out of people’s homes. … That’s what we’re after in the very short term,” Fuentes said.
“This is going to be a drawn out process and it’s not something that we can do overnight, but as the projects become available for construction, we’re putting them out as quickly as we can,” he said.