Amid concerns over breaches in the river levee system, which were caused during border wall construction on the west side of Hidalgo County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are now awaiting direction from U.S. Customs and Border Protection over how to proceed.

Earlier this week, Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Commissioner Everardo “Ever” Villarreal held a news conference on the situation, explaining that breached levees could leave nearby communities vulnerable to flooding.

“We’re in a delta so we flood very easily, and it is a big concern,” Villarreal said Thursday. “Precinct 3 has a lot of our community members that might not afford or can’t afford to have insurance.”

Villarreal said many residents there dealt with flooding last year because of Hurricane Hanna, which caused the loss of possessions, furniture, and appliances.

“So I just don’t want that to happen again and I’m trying to prevent that from happening,” the commissioner said.

Villarreal said he’s made efforts to raise the alarm on the ongoing situation, speaking with U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen. He added he also arranged a meeting with Sen. John Cornyn about the issue.

“We have no authority to work on that levee because it belongs to (the International Boundary and Water Commission) and right now, the people that have access to it is Homeland Security, so they’re pretty much in charge,” Villarreal said. “We have no authority to work on the levee unless they give us, obviously, written permission and, well obviously, the funding.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez says that there are at least four breaches in the levee system protecting Hidalgo County’s low-lying region from floods during a major storm. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

He added that if assistance from his office was ever needed, he will work with federal officials to resolve the issue.

“I am more than willing to work side by side with them to restore the levee back to its original state,” he said. “The majority of the issues, to what I know, is only affecting Precinct 3. No other precinct in the rest of the county has been affected, so I am taking the lead on this because it’s directly impacting Precinct 3 only.”

The breaches in the levees are a result of excavations done by contractors working on border wall construction directed by former President Donald Trump. Following a proclamation issued by President Joe Biden upon his inauguration, that border wall construction has since stopped but the levee system remains weakened.

“The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) is very concerned about the existing levee gaps in the Lower Rio Grande Valley,” said Lori Kuczmanski, the public affairs officer for the USIBWC, in an emailed statement. “The USIBWC understands the critical nature of the situation and has reiterated to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection the immediate importance of providing flood protection to the local community prior to hurricane season which begins June 1.”

The brushy area in the background is the original height of the existing levee compared to the new levee in the foreground seen on Thursday in Madero. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

“Pending the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Custom and Border Protection’s direction to being able to return to work, USIBWC has advised the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S Custom and Border Protection to review and update their emergency flood protection plan in addition to the planning of repairing the affected levees,” Kuczmanski added. “As a general practice, the USIBWC requires anyone doing work on USIBWC levees to have a plan in place to ensure levee integrity for any flooding that could occur during the hurricane season.”

In their own statement, a spokesman for the USACE said they were awaiting direction from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“In support of CBP’s border infrastructure program, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is providing design and construction support,” Bobby Petty, public affairs officer with the Army Corps of Engineers, wrote in a statement. “As part of this CBP effort, some IBWC levees in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have been excavated where required for border infrastructure construction.”

“In 2019, before any excavation began, CBP, IBWC and USACE approved and continue to validate emergency flood protection plans for flood risk reduction during construction,” he added. “CBP, the IBWC and USACE continue to remain in constant communication about the condition of the excavated levees.”

“DHS is developing a plan in accordance with the Presidential Proclamation,” Petty continued. “USACE remains poised to execute DHS’s direction when received.”

The Monitor reached out CBP but did not receive a response.


bereniceg@themonitor.com