DALLAS – Officials in Hidalgo County on the Texas-Mexico border think they can leverage the Trump administration’s desire for a border wall to get federally funded flood protection on the Rio Grande.

They expect to boost their request to extend a federally funded levee by adding a request for a border barrier atop the structure.

“Due to the importance of protecting our borders for illegal immigration, as well as from flood waters from the Rio Grande River, we feel that the continued partnership is essential to protecting the State of Texas, as well as the United States,” says a letter from County Judge Ramon Garcia to U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

The county’s Drainage District No. 1, governed by the county commissioners acting as the district’s board, has completed 20 miles of levee using $58.2 million of local bond funds and $174.5 million of DHS funding.

The 20 miles of the completed project was designed to fulfill President George W. Bush’s 2006 Secure Fence Act, which accounts for much of the fencing that currently exists at certain border points.

“This idea developed from the original work that was done,” Raul Sesin, general manager of the drainage district, told The Bond Buyer. “If the federal government decides to put the money into security, we would ask for additional money for the levees.”

Dannenbaum Engineering Corp. worked on Rio Grande flood walls that doubled as border security in Hidalgo County in 2007.
Dannenbaum Engineering Corp. worked on Rio Grande flood walls that doubled as border security in Hidalgo County in 2007. Customs and Border Protection

While the 2008 project included local bond funds, the proposal to complete the next 30 miles of floodwall would not use local money, Sesin said.

“We haven't really submitted any plans, so we don’t really have a timeline,” Sesin said.

Noe Hinojosa Jr., chief executive of Hidalgo County’s financial advisory services firm Estrada Hinojosa & Co., said the plan to combine Homeland Security and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funding for the levee is in the “embryonic” stage.

“There’s a push by this administration to build a wall,” Hinojosa said of the Trump Administration. “The county has a plan along the riverbanks and sees that they have an opportunity to use those funds to achieve another objective.”

Trump is seeking $2.6 billion from Congress to begin building the wall, starting in the Rio Grande Valley, which includes Hidalgo County.

At a conference on border security in San Antonio this month, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection department said that it currently has only $20 million for the border wall. That would provide funding for about 7 miles of wall, based on estimates of existing fencing cost of $2.8 million per mile.

The section of Rio Grande levee in Hidalgo County features a thick cement wall to keep the river within its banks, with metal fencing embedded atop the concrete.

Rep. McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, has expressed skepticism about the proposed wall.

"We have 1,200 miles out of a 2,000-mile border, and I don't think a 30-foot concrete wall is going to be the answer,” McCaul told an audience at Lone Star College April 12.

"We're not going to write a blank check," McCaul added. "And me working with the appropriators, we're basically going to put conditions on it that better define how this thing is accomplished."

The Hidalgo County Drainage District proposal estimates that building the combined levee and border barrier would cost about $12 million per mile.

The proposed levee would have seven segments, including the longest of 10 miles between the Hidalgo and Donna toll bridges. The plans were drafted by Houston construction firm Dannenbaum LLC, anticipating completion of the project by November 2019.

The next phase comes on the heels of a financial controversy in which Sesin’s predecessor directed project funding to companies headed by his wife, according to reports to the district board.

The board has hired an attorney to investigate former Drainage District director Godfrey Garza and millions of dollars in commissions received since 2007.

Garza was drainage district manager when contracts were awarded to Integ Corp. and Valley Data Collection Specialist Inc., where his wife Annie Garza was president and director.

Attorney Michael Lee, an independent investigator from Corpus Christi, reported that Integ received more than $3.7 million in commission fees for the border levee project, which included $100 million from a county bond issue.

Officials in Hidalgo County, whose county seat is McAllen, view the levee as an economic stimulus program that would increase employment during construction and provide flood protection to promote development in the area.

A 2009 study by the University of Texas Pan American said that the previous program created more than 3,000 jobs and had an economic impact of more than $317 million in the area.

“Using a similar method of analysis, it is projected that Phase II would create over $500,000,000 of economic impact and over 5,000 new jobs,” the report said. “Needless to say, this would be a tremendous economic stimulus and jobs program for Hidalgo County and the Nation.”

Since Homeland Security requested preliminary proposals in March, about 200 companies from 41 states have indicated interest in being selected to work on the border wall.

The pre-solicitation posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website says DHS plans to build “concrete wall structures, nominally 30 feet tall, that will meet requirements for aesthetics, anti-climbing, and resistance to tampering or damage.”

Later DHS added that the department is updating the request for proposal and contemplate releasing two requests for proposals, “one focused on concrete designs, and one focused on other designs.”

The drainage district has about $100 million of authorized but unissued debt, Hinojosa said.

Moody’s Investors Service rates the drainage district’s $146 million of outstanding debt Aa2.

The district manages a drainage system that consists of numerous unlined ditches that gather storm drainage water from the urbanized areas and agricultural areas and convey these to one of several regional ditches that eventually empty into the Laguna Madre.

“Given that district encompasses the urban areas of the county, including the Cities of McAllen, Mission (A1), and Edinburg (Aa3), the district’s tax base is substantial at $29.8 billion,” Moody’s noted.

“Officials anticipate the need for $300 million in projects over the next several years,” analysts said.

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