Sunday, February 8, 2009

Levee-wall almost done, over budget

February 8, 2009

The Monitor

By Jared Jones

EDINBURG — The Hidalgo County levee-wall project came in way over budget and slightly behind schedule.

But as far as Hidalgo County is concerned, that's mostly the federal government's problem.

Touch-up work is all that remains on eight segments of the project — which combines a federally mandated border barrier with needed levee enhancements — said Godfrey Garza, the manager of Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 and the county's point man on the project.

Two segments near Peñitas, slow to start due to unexpected expenses, should be done within three weeks, about two months behind the original schedule, Garza said.

Delays in constructing the levee-wall project usually came down to costs.

Construction crews ran into snags that increased expenses, and work temporarily stopped until officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security were notified, Garza said. The cost overruns were entirely picked up by the federal government.

"It was not within the budget," Garza said. "(The total cost) adds up when you start putting all the numbers together."

According to the latest figures available, Hidalgo County's 10 segments will cost $80 million more than budgeted.

In the original cooperative agreement to roll the security barrier and levee upgrades into one project, Homeland Security agreed to pay 57 percent of the $114 million cost. The increased expenses — all covered by the department — expanded its contribution to 76 percent.

County officials are waiting to see whether Congress approves measures requiring the feds to reimburse the county for the $44 million it invested in the project. Similar bills failed to make it out of committee last year.

Once the levee-wall and county-funded improvements to river levees are completed, about 33 miles on the western side of the county will be protected from river surges, Garza said. Levees along the entire floodway system and about 20 miles of river levees on the eastern side of the county still need to be raised to meet safety standards.

While the county's test of its improved levee system may not come for years, Border Patrol agents are already testing portions of the wall for their purposes.

Dan Doty, a local Border Patrol spokesman, said the levee-wall has allowed his agency to scale back the number of agents assigned to patrol some of the completed segments at any given time, including four miles of wall near Hidalgo.

Instead of assigning five agents to patrol the western side of Hidalgo County, Border Patrol is now able to make do with three.

Some evidence suggests the wall is stopping illegal crossings and smuggling attempts, particularly in urban areas, Doty said. But the barrier's real effect won't be known until the agency can compare months of pre-wall statistics to post wall-statistics.

Even if it does prove to work, he said, agents will continue to patrol the river side of the 20.26 miles of levee-wall that stretch along the county's southern border.

"It's not a one-stop solution," Doty said. "It was never meant to be. It's part of our overall plan."

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