December 1, 2010
by Jared Janes
More than three years after officials floated a plan to combine the county’s levee repairs into border fence construction, county commissioners are signing off on the concrete barriers that serve both as a deterrent to illegal border crossings and a barrier against a raging Rio Grande.
County commissioners have approved certificates of final completion on roughly 75 percent of the 20.26 miles of levee-fence that were given the green light by former Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff in spring 2008. Only paperwork remains for the last stretch of work done by Ballenger Construction before the barrier is officially complete.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Tito Palacios, who was on the Commissioners Court when the levee-fence compromise was proposed, said the barrier has helped limit drug smuggling and held back floodwaters this summer. Although county officials were adamantly opposed to the fence at the time because of its socioeconomic and environmental impact, Palacios said the county’s solution was a win-win.
"We were able to push the right buttons in (Washington) D.C. with our congressional people," Palacios said. "Without it, we would have been left without the levee work
Hidalgo County drainage district manager Godfrey Garza, the county’s director for the project, said all construction on the barrier has been complete for about nine months. The drainage district has been preparing the paperwork that is needed to certify the barriers as meeting the specifications of levees.
The International Boundary and Water Commission will use the county’s documentation to prepare the report that includes the barriers on the flood maps, said agency spokeswoman Sally Spener, whose federal agency manages flood control along the Rio Grande. The certification package will be turned over to the Federal Emergency Management Agency sometime early next year.
Constructing the barrier wasn’t a problem-free exercise. Hidalgo County’s hybrid levee-wall project cost roughly $9.5 million per mile — a $3.9 million-per-mile increase from initial estimates, increased costs that were covered by DHS. But the county still hasn’t been reimbursed by the federal government for the $82 million it invested in the hybrid barrier and other levee improvements.
Hidalgo County’s levee-fence barrier is part of 670 miles of security fencing constructed along the county’s southwest border. Only about six miles remain incomplete, mostly due to environmental or land acquisition problems.
But DHS officials consistently call it a crucial component of an overall border security strategy.
In the Rio Grande Valley, the number of illegal immigrants apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents dropped about 15,000 from 2008 to 2009, the first full year the barrier was complete. A weaker U.S. economy likely contributed to the drop in apprehensions as fewer had an economic incentive to cross, but DHS officials also believe that tough enforcement measures — including the wall — are deterring some would-be-crossers.
Rosalinda Huey, a local Border Patrol spokeswoman, said the levee-fence pushes illegal entries away from dense, brushy areas into gaps in the fence where they are easily spotted.
"With the agents we have out there, they’re going to be monitoring the wall," Huey said. "It does what it was intended to do, which is being a persistent impediment that pushes them out to open areas where we can apprehend them."
But Garza, the drainage district manager, said the barrier also had a significant impact in holding back the worst river flooding the Rio Grande Valley had seen since Hurricane Beulah. Without the attention that constructing the levee-wall barrier brought to the need for greater flood protection, Garza said, another $220 million in levee improvements might not have been included in the federal stimulus package.
Those stimulus package funds are being used to complete virtually all of the remaining work needed to bring the Valley’s levees up to certification. Certification will save residents in low-lying areas from having to pay expensive flood insurance premiums.
Preventing the high flood insurance costs mean most Hidalgo County residents will never see one aspect of the levee-fence, said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. Cuellar voted against the Secure Fence Act of 2006 that funded the construction of the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
He said he never believed the fence was a cost-effective security strategy, but he added that it worked as a two-prong approach here.
"(The levee-fence) is serving a dual mission," Cuellar said. "One mission is for border security and the other is protection of life and property from any flooding we might see."