Army Corps of Engineers tells officials breaches in border levee can’t be fixed without OK from DHS

Border Report

Concerns that a rain event with compromised levees 'could just flood everything south of the expressway,' Hidalgo County judge says

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — South Texas officials told Border Report on Friday they have “a lot of concerns” after a conversation earlier this week with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials, who told him they can’t fix gaping breaches in the earthen border levee wall caused by border wall construction until the Department of Homeland Security approves the fixes.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, and Hidalgo County Commissioner Everardo “Ever” Villarreal were among those on Thursday’s phone call. Cuellar and Cortez told Border Report it left them frustrated and they said searching for folks in Washington, D.C., to understand the imminent danger that the Rio Grande Valley is under with the compromised levee system as hurricane season quickly approaches.

“This is just taking too, too long,” Cuellar, who represents this region, said Friday.

Cuellar, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, said he wants immediate action and he told Border Report he is preparing a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to prompt action because hurricane season is rapidly approaching this flood-prone region. He said the letter also will go to the Department of Defense, which the Army Corps is under.

“What they’re saying is, ‘We’re going to monitor it and make sure there’s not a problem.’ And we said, ‘Well what we want is we want the dirt levees back to prevent any large-scale flooding in Hidalgo because it’s not effective in its current state.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, we understand but there’s no plans to correct that from either DHS, CBP or the Army Corps of Engineers.” So basically what he said is we’re waiting for instructions before we can do anything,” Cuellar said.

We want the dirt levees back to prevent any large-scale flooding in Hidalgo because it’s not effective in its current state. And they said: ‘Yeah we understand but there’s no plans to correct that from either DHS, CBP or the Army Corps of Engineers.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-TX

“They basically said ‘until I get instructions from the Department of Homeland Security my hands are tied,'” Cortez told Border Report.

In recounting the conversation with Brig. Gen. Christopher Beck, who is the commander and Division Engineer of the Southwestern Division of the Army Corps, Cortez said it went like this: “I said, ‘I have a lot of concerns,’ and he said, ‘We understand it perfectly. We know exactly what the problem is. But we cannot move until we get authority.’ And, apparently, that authority comes from the Department of Homeland Security.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez on April 14, 2021, explains to Border Report his concerns regarding four giant breaches in the earthen border wall levee in his South Texas county, which were caused during border wall construction. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

At least four gaping breaches exist in the earthen border levee wall in Hidalgo County in deep South Texas and hurricane season begins on June 1. One breach south of the small town of Palmview, Texas, is as wide as a road and big enough for 18-wheelers and heavy equipment to drive through. And Border Report has been told even larger gaps exist in the county.

The levee system parallels the Rio Grande and is important for controlling the river. The giant cuts in the levee were made during the construction of the border wall during the Trump administration. But construction was halted when President Joe Biden took office and since then no activity has been authorized to shore up the breaches.

Cortez said the Army Corps general told him “that part of every construction project there is an emergency provision that the contractors have to take precautions to keep everything safe and that is still in place.” However, he said he left the conversation not feeling secure for his county’s nearly 1 million residents, at all.

“I asked him, I said, ‘I need to know what your meaning of safe is OK? Because to me it’s just common sense if we have a levee and that levee has been breached or holes in it then it tells me it’s not going to operate so what are you going to do? What do you mean it’s going to be safe?’” Cortez said.

Beck told them if DHS approval was given to re-start construction, it would take three to four weeks to re-mobilize construction crews and six to nine months to complete the work, Cuellar said.

“We’re saying hold it. Three to four weeks to mobilize and six to nine months to complete? This is just taking too, too long,” Cuellar said.

Contractors had made the “cuts,” in the earthen levee in order to access the southern side of the border levee wall as they built the 30-foot steel border wall, as well as all-weather road, underground sensors and floodlights associated with the border barrier system that then-President Donald Trump had ordered. When Biden took office, he paused all border wall construction. And that essentially left the breaches as they were.

Border wall construction was halted in late January when President Joe Biden took office. That included this area south of Palmview, Texas, which is seen on April 14, 2021, where heavy equipment is still located. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission oversees the earthen dirt levees, which were designed to prevent flooding in the region. IBWC officials earlier this month told Border Report they were “concerned” with the breaches, but that construction fixes would be under the purview of DHS, which was building the border wall.

On Friday, Sally Spener, the U.S. Secretary Foreign Affairs Officer for the IBWC based in El Paso, told Border Report that her staff were not on Thursday’s phone call between the Army Corps and Hidalgo County officials. She reiterated that every construction plan must have a flood mitigation emergency plan in place prior to any building on the levee system, and she suggested requesting the flood plan.

“The importance of having a flood protection plan and that is a standard requirement for anyone who is doing work that affects our levees. So even if the levee isn’t fully reconstructed or restored to its previous condition you need to have a plan in place so that if there is an eminent flood you can take action to ensure that there’s flood protection provided,” Spener said.

A flood protection plan … is a standard requirement for anyone who is doing work that affects our levees.”

IBWC U.S. Secretary Sally Spener

Border Report has asked DHS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials for the flood mitigation plan, and which contractor was hired for construction in the areas where the breaches are located in Hidalgo County. This story will be updated if information is received.

Spener was unaware of the specifics of the flood plans for these particular areas but said emergency plans could include sand bagging, or filling in with dirt, depending upon the terrain and weather conditions.

A giant crane is poised over a section of an earthen border levee in southern Hidalgo County near Palmview, Texas, as seen on April 14, 2021. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Cortez, who was formerly mayor of McAllen, said he learned from past experiences during the 2005 Hurricane Emily how vulnerable the Rio Grande Valley is when it comes to extreme weather events and flooding. The region is essentially a delta that is at the mercy of the winding and mighty Rio Grande, which Mexicans in this part of the Southwest call the Rio Bravo due to its ferocious and deep undercurrents and unpredictability.

Cortez said he was told that if the two regional reservoirs are full and water is released and then the region receives just five inches of rain it could cause catastrophic flooding.

“I was told that the combination of the water being released by the reservoirs and just five inches of rain would basically flood everything south of the expressway,” Cortez said.

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