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Emergency Levee Repair Saves a Lot of Grief

HIDALGO COUNTY, TX – Federal and local agencies worked against the clock to keep the citizens of Hidalgo County safe from the raging Rio Grande River in July 2010. The residents of the small town of Peñitas had no idea they were so close to danger. When Tony Pena, Hidalgo County emergency manager, got the call that there was water seeping through the levee located next to the Edinburg pumping station at Peñitas, he rushed to the area to check it out. “I stood over the levee and it was hollow underneath,” said Pena. The levee had eroded due to the rise in the Rio Grande River.

Large amounts of rainfall had fallen for more than 2 weeks, bringing widespread flooding in the Rio Grande Valley. The rain was due to Hurricane Alex, which made landfall 110 miles south of Brownsville and continued as a tropical depression, forcing water to be released from dams in the U.S./Mexico border.

The Edinburg pumping station at Peñitas was built in 1925 and provides water and irrigation to approximately 150,000 people primarily in the McAllen-Edinburg area. The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) already had a contract in place for levee repairs as part of the Lower Rio Grande Flood Control Project in Texas. The Peñitas site was one of the last scheduled to be repaired, but work wasn’t supposed to start for another 20 days. Because of the imminent danger, the current contract was approved to be used for the emergency repair work needed. “There was concern that the 85-year old wall of the pump house would not withstand the flood,” said Sally Spener, spokesperson for the USIBWC. “Once the concern was identified, the county and the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission quickly got to work. “

“Within hours, tons of trucks and equipment started rolling in,” said Pena. “Everybody pulled together.” Work was done through the night to reinforce the eroded sections with riprap and the emergency repair was completed within 20 hours. The operation used 120 loads of riprap, totaling 14,000 cubic yards of fill. County officials are looking at all sources of funding available in order to cover expenses and materials.

Among the entities that supported this effort in the form of equipment and personnel were the Hidalgo County Irrigation District 1, Drainage District 1, County personnel including Emergency Management, Planning, Commissioner Precincts and Constables Office, the cities of Peñitas, McAllen, Mission, Pharr, Edinburg, the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, the USIBWC, DHS-Border Patrol, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with the private contractor that was awarded the contract for the repairs.

“Not only did they reinforce the levees, they built a whole new one that made a horseshoe around the plant, as a contingency plan to protect the people of the Valley,” said Rusty McDaniel, general manager for Hidalgo County Irrigation District No. 1. “Had water come in through this location, in the worst case scenario, it would have flooded a lot of cities.”

Additional work is scheduled to be done in the area to ensure a long-term solution. A new levee will be built between the pumping plant and the river with a gated crossing at the pump’s intake channel.

“Hidalgo County and all the entities involved came together to ensure the safety to the biggest extent that we could,” said McDaniel. “A lot of people pitched in. The whole county worked really well together.”

Last updated June 3, 2020