Border Report

South Texas leaders back county judge’s plans to go ahead and fix broken border levees without DHS approval

Border Report

'My duty is to protect the safety of the residents of Hidalgo County and, currently, that entails getting these levee breaches repaired,' Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez says

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Two South Texas congressmen back plans by Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez to send in county work crews to fix giant breaches in the earthen levees that were caused by unfinished border wall construction, and one told Border Report he has already requested $10 million for repairs.

Border Report on Friday was the first to report that Cortez planned to mobilize his own employees to fix the earthen levees and not wait for approval by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Cortez, in a statement after Border Report’s story ran, acknowledged he is moving forward with repairs before the June 1 start of hurricane season. He says he is taking authority as director of emergency management for the border county and working with legal counsel on how to access federally-controlled property.

“My duty is to protect the safety of the residents of Hidalgo County and, currently, that entails getting these levee breaches repaired,” Cortez said.

Abandoned heavy equipment is seen in Palmview, Texas, on April 14, 2021, where construction was halted by the Biden administration but four giant breaches in the dirt border wall remain, which South Texas officials could cause the region to flood. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“This is very simple: the federal government does not seem to have the same sense of urgency that I have. So I have asked county work crews and some independent contractors to begin to assess the process and the costs of fixing four major breaches in our protective levee system that were caused by federal contractors. Should we find it necessary to use local resources to fix the damage of these federal contractors, it is my intent to seek reimbursement from the federal government of any cost incurred to our taxpayers,” Cortez said.

I have asked county work crews and some independent contractors to begin to assess the process and the costs of fixing four major breaches in our protective levee system.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from South Texas who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, told Border Report on Friday that he has already requested $10 million in federal funds for the repairs. And he says he has submitted language to his subcommittee on the urgency and necessity for immediate approval.

“I have made an appropriations request to have up to $10 million to be used to reimburse the County of Hidalgo, so they can rebuild the dirt levee that the Army Corp of Engineers tore down to help build Trump’s wall,” Cuellar said.

The earthen levees — built years ago to prevent the delta region from flooding — are owned by the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission, which is charged with controlling the mighty Rio Grande water flows. But DHS officials say that agency is now in control of the borderland area because U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been tasked with hiring contractors to build the border wall under the Trump administration.

When President Joe Biden took office, he halted border wall construction but four truck-sized breaches remain in Hidalgo County where crews had cut through the earthen wall to move heavy equipment south of the levee to build the wall barrier.

The cuts have gone unrepaired for three months, and hurricane season begins in just four weeks. Cortez told Border Report that if both regional dams begin to release water or if northern Mexico has a significant weather event, and if South Texas receives as little as 5 inches of additional rain, then the entire region could flood south of the main east-to-west expressway, putting hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses in danger. The Rio Grande Valley is home to an estimated 1.6 million residents in multiple counties that span east to the Gulf of Mexico.

A 25-foot-tall earthen mound levee is seen April 14, 2021, with a cut as large as a road, which construction crews used to build the border wall in Palmview, Texas. The area is less than a mile from the Rio Grande and could flood if heavy rains hit and it is not fixed, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“The Army Corp, IBWC, and Department of Homeland have not taken a single step to rebuild the dirt levee even though we have requested them to do so. This is a potential danger to Hidalgo County communities. We have to take the steps to rebuild the dirt levee at a local level because the federal government has not listened to us. I look forward to working with County Judge Richard Cortez, County Commissioner Ever Villarreal and the rest of our stakeholders,” Cuellar said.

We have to take the steps to rebuild the dirt levee at a local level because the federal government has not listened to us.”

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

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat from McAllen, told Border Report he fully backs Cortez and would submit legislation to help the county get reimbursed.

“I’ll be more than happy to take the reimbursement bill for repairs to DHS. I commend Cortez. He is being precautious in taking care of Hidalgo County residents,” Gonzalez said.

I commend Cortez. He is being precautious in taking care of Hidalgo County residents.”

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-TX

McAllen Mayor Jim Daring told Border Report on Friday that he also supports Cortez’ plans, and hopes he will “coordinate the repairs with the IBWC,” which has “ultimate responsibility for the floodwaters system.”

Cortez made the decision a week after a frustrating phone conversation with U.S. Army Corps Brig. Gen. Christopher Beck, who told him and Cuellar that it would take the federal government three to four weeks to call back the original border wall contractors, and six to nine months for them to finish the repairs.

Hidalgo County Commissioners on Tuesday passed a unanimous resolution leaning on the federal government to move quickly and asking local congressmen for their assistance.

IBWC officials also have weighed in on their concerns that the region could flood and repairs must be made.

Both Cuellar and Gonzalez told Border Report that they have spoken independently to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, but still no repair schedule has been forthcoming.

Border Report has repeatedly reached out to DHS officials and asked whether they plan to repair the breaches and what would happen if county workers were to begin construction on an area that currently is under DHS jurisdiction.

DHS officials have not responded. This story will be updated if they do.

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