Hidalgo County Drainage District No.1 was created on April 9, 1908 by Order of the Commissioners’ Court of Hidalgo County, Texas pursuant to an election held within the territory affected on March 24, 1908. Originally organized under provisions of Article III, Section 52 of the Constitution of Texas, the District was later converted to a Conservation and Reclamation District under the provisions of Article XVI, Section 59 of the Texas Constitution. In 1939, County Commissioner T.I. Hester presented to the court a resolution, in which under Article 817a of the Revised Civil Statutes of Texas, the management and control of the District could be transferred to the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court. The resolution was passed.
The initial bond issue of the District, dated November 10, 1908, was in the amount of $176, 000.00. Additional bonds were issued from time to time. The District experienced problems in meeting payments on its indebtedness around 1930 and several refunding transactions were undertaken. Since that time, the District has rebuilt its bond rating to an “A”.
Hidalgo County Drainage District No.2 was created in 1968. Flooding problems associated with Hurricane Beulah indicated the need for more of Hidalgo County to be included in a drainage district.
The original Drainage District No.1 contained an area of approximately 508 square miles, including all of the major cities in the County with the exception of Edinburg. Drainage District No.2 contained an area of approximately 203 square miles.
On September 3, 1975, an election was held in both Districts to see if the voters wanted to combine Drainage District No.2 and Drainage District No.1. The voters were very much in favor of this proposition. Annexation of the additional territory to Hidalgo County Drainage District No.1 was declared, and the boundaries of the enlarged District were defined in an Order passed by the Commissioners’ Court on September 15, 1975.
In 1955 Hidalgo County Drainage District No.1 requested the Bureau of Reclamation to undertake a jointly financed drainage study. This study proposed widening and improving the existing North and South Main Drains, the construction of the main channel using the Donna Drain to Panchita and a new main drain from Panchita to the Laguna Madre. The design criteria for this plan was the removal of a 9.5 year frequency storm within 48 hours. The cost of this project was estimated to be 15 million dollars. This project was presented to the voters in 1958, but failed to pass. (This is basically the route our Master Drainage System later followed).
In 1965, Hidalgo County Drainage District No.1 and other agencies requested the Soil Conservation Service to study the flooding, surface and subsurface drainage problems of the area. The SCS plan proposed improving the Arroyo constructing two drains to the Laguna Madre. One drain would go north of Raymondville and the other south of Lyford (where our present Main Floodwater Channel is located). This project would have cost 200 million dollars, but died due to the lack of funding.
After Hurricane Beulah in 1967, the Commissioners’ Court passed a resolution accepting the services of Charles L. Melden and Sigler, Clark, Winston and Greenwood and Associates to prepare a preliminary report and of feasibility study for proposed drainage facilities of Drainage District No.1 to drain the urban and irrigated lands of the county. This report was completed and submitted to the Commissioners’ Court in February, 1969. The report was prepared in cooperation with the Soil Conservation Service and the I.B.W.C. and followed the Soil Conservation Service plans for the development of the drainage system, including Phase I, II and III. This report was submitted to the Congress by the Soil Conservation Service. Numerous attempts by the Commissioners’ Court of Hidalgo County through our representatives in Washington failed to persuade the O.M.B. to recommend that Congress should provide funding for the federal portion of this project. The cost of this project was estimated to be 30 million dollars of which 17 million was to be funded by the SCS and 13 million to be funded locally.
After the failure to implement the Soil Conservation Drainage Plan, our Washington representatives approached the Corps of Engineers and asked them to consider a flood project for the Lower Rio Grande Basin and suggested that in the interest of time the Soil Conservation Report could be used. A public hearing was held by the Corps of Engineers in Hidalgo County in the summer of 1974 regarding a proposal for the Corps to study the problem. At that meeting, Col. McCoy, District Engineer for the Corps said that the Corps would have to make its own study of the project and estimated this would take approximately 5 years. He estimated that it would take at least another year and a half for the Corps to prepare the plans and specifications to be presented to the Congress, making a total of seven years which could elapse from the time the study was begun until it could be presented to the Congress for funding. The Corps had no time frame or an estimate as to the possibility of having the project funded by the Congress.
It was estimated at that time that the cost to the Hidalgo County Drainage District No.1, the sponsor the project, would be approximately the following: 3 million dollars for rights-of- way, 12 million dollars for new bridges and other structures necessary, plus at least 30% of an estimated 72 million dollar excavation cost. This cost to the Drainage District No.1 of Hidalgo County in 1974 would have been a little over 36 million dollars.
In September, 1974, giving consideration to the time frame involved with the Corps, the Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court engaged Melden and Hunt, Inc, and Sigler, Winston, Greenwood and Associates to prepare an interim plan for a project which would be affordable by local government and which could relieve the severe flooding conditions until plans could be implemented to affect the construction of the major flood project. This study was completed and presented to the Commissioner’s Court in January, 1975. Basis for this report was taken from all the previous reports which had been prepared and submitted relative to the drainage for the area. The project provided for the disposal of excess storm waters from a 9.5year storm within a 48-hour period. The estimated cost of this project in 1975 was 26 million dollars. The funding for the project would have been borne entirely by the taxpayers of Hidalgo County.
A Drainage Steering Committee was appointed by the Commissioners’ Court in 1974, and in January, 1975, several of the Committee met in Galveston with the Corps to discuss the Lower Rio Grande Project. They specifically needed to know the estimated cost to Hidalgo County and the time frame. Col. McCoy stated emphatically that the Corps could not recognize the study made by the Soil Conservation Service. He stated that it would be necessary for the Corps to make their own study, and stated that the cost to the local sponsor would be 50% of the excavation, plus the cost of the right-or-way and cost of bridges and structures, which would, as of that date, have raised the cost of the project to approximately 51 million dollars for the County’s portion after the Corps completed their plans and received the necessary appropriation from the Congress.
The Commissioner’s Court decided that the time frame set out by the Corps was longer than would be required if no Federal funds were involved. It was assumed that problems relative to Federal permits and other red tape would be a minimum and work could be started several years sooner if the project was done completely by Hidalgo County Drainage District No.1. The Drainage Steering Committee recommended that the Commissioners’ Court call a Bond Election to implement the interim drainage plan as proposed by the Melden and Hunt – Sigler, Winston and Greenwood Report. This plan would be financed 100% by local funds. On November 15, 1975 an election was held and the voters approved the 26 million dollar bond issue to construct the project.
Immediately after the passage of the bond issue, the Engineers for the Drainage District approached the owners of the H. P. El Sauz Ranch, over whose property the proposed ditch would have to be constructed to reach the Laguna Madre. The new owners of the ranch at first were hesitant to allow Engineers access to make preliminary surveys, but eventually agreed to meet the representatives of the Drainage District in the middle of February, 1976. During this meeting, the attorney for the H.P. El Sauz Ranch did talk with the representatives of Hidalgo County Drainage District No.1 relative to the ditch, but stated emphatically that the ranch was indeed hesitant in constructing another ditch across its property.
During the following months meetings were scheduled with the owners and attorney for H.P. El Sauz Ranch. After several meetings, the ranch attorney indicated that they might accept the ditch if it were located on the existing small trickle ditch dug for Willacy County Drainage District No.1 by the Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Beulah. In accordance with this suggestion, the Drainage district changed its plan and moved the outfall of the proposed ditch to the outfall of the existing ditch. In 1976, Willacy County Drainage District No.1 entered into cooperative agreement to jointly seek the required permit.
While representatives and attorneys for Hidalgo County Drainage District No.1 were attempting to negotiate with the owners of the ranch, the Engineers for the District proceeded to make an application with the Corps of Engineers for a Section 404 permit to discharge stormwater into the Laguna Madre. This report was formally submitted on May 14, 1976. In June, the Drainage District received a letter from the Corps of Engineers’ District Engineer advising that the permit application had been circulated to the various government agencies, that these agencies had no adverse reactions to the permit, and stated that it would not be necessary for an environmental assessment to be made. Again, the owner of the H.P. El Sauz Ranch expressed his hesitation towards the construction. The Corps, after 8 months of deliberation, decided that an environmental assessment would be required, to be made by a third party, and notified the Drainage District.
In the spring of 1977, the Corps engaged Espey, Huston and Associates to conduct an environmental assessment. The preliminary draft was to be in the hands of the Corps of Engineers in October, 1977. This deadline was not met and extensions for presentation of the preliminary draft were granted. The Corps required that other pesticide tests be made, and other studies be run.
The tests continued into late 1978 and the Corps was still undecided as to whether to issue a permit or continue with the environmental report. A decision promised in January, 1979 did not materialize by March, 1979.
In an effort to move things along more swiftly, the Commissioners’ Court asked our Senators and Congressman to set up a meeting with the Corps of Engineers in Washington. In May, 1979, the Commissioners’ Court, representatives of Willacy County Drainage District No.1, engineers for the District and other interested persons met with the Corps and our Senators and Congressmen. After a strong rebuke by Senator Bentsen, seconded by Senator Tower and Congressman Kika de la Garza, the Corps representatives agreed that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement would be issued the last of June, 1979. The report was distributed at the time promised. The Draft Report contained information relative to pesticides which disturbed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and other agencies. During the remainder of 1979, the Engineers for the District met with the various governmental agencies and worked out mitigation procedures which would satisfy the various government entities, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine and Fisheries Service, the environmental Protection Agency, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Service so that these agencies could approve the final environmental impact statement which was to be issued in the spring of 1980. The Environmental Impact statement was finally issued in April, 1980.
In the early part of 1980, the owners and attorney for the H.P. El Sauz Ranch, seeing that the final environmental impact statement would be issued in March, 1980, agreed to meet with the District to negotiate ditch right-of-way. During the time since 1976, when the initial request was made, a great deal of the ranch land had been cleared for agriculture. The farmers who rented the land had borne the cost of clearing and in return had received three years free rent. In 1979, most of this land returned to a cash rental for the owner and the financial benefits to be gained from agriculture began to override the ranching priorities. The ranch then became interested in the possibility of drainage to improve the farming potential. The Drainage Districts and the ranch entered into an agreement whereby the ranch would not enter protests regarding the final environmental impact statement, and set cost for right-of-way and damages for right-of- way as needed. In return, the Districts would attempt to amend the permit after it was approved in order to construct dual outfall discharge ditches, thereby providing more drainage facilities for the ranch.
This agreement was signed and an amendment to the permit was submitted to the Corps of Engineers for the two ditch outfall system. Before circulation of the amendment to the permit was made by the Corps, the representatives of the District, the ranch and the Drainage District attorney met with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service several times regarding the amendment. The Fish and Wildlife strongly opposed any additional outfalls into the Laguna Madre, especially the outfall proposed for the South branch which would have been into an unpolluted estuary, and stated that they would oppose any change from the existing permit. Repeated meetings and requests failed to convince the Fish and Wildlife Serve of the merit of the change. The agreement with the ranch contained an option whereby the ranch would be provided drainage by one outfall ditch, if the two outfall scheme failed. The one ditch could then be placed along the location of the Drainage District’s choosing which would be shorter and less expensive than the previously proposed route along the Willacy County Drainage District No.1 trickle ditch. The agreement was finalized on the one ditch option. Plans and specifications were prepared for the first ten miles of the project. The ranch, in the agreement had the right to hire its own engineers to review the plans and specifications of the Engineers for the Drainage District to insure that the ranch would be protected from flooding and would be assured of access to drainage for their properties. These differences in plans and concepts were worked out with the ranch Engineers over a period of several months. The original permit from the Corps of Engineers was issued on April 9, 1980, with a renewal issued in 1986 to enable the District to complete its Master Drainage Project.
In August, 1981 the final agreement with the H.P. El Sauz Ranch was signed, the easement was conveyed, and the advertisement for bids for the first phase of the project was made. Bids were received on September 28, 1981. The low bidder for the excavation, H.B. Zachary, Inc. of San Antonio, and Withers Construction Company of McAllen, low bidder for bridges, were authorized to proceed with the construction. The Commissioners’ Court had directed that until the Corps of Engineers issued the permit and the right-of-way was secured across the El Sauz Ranch, no right of way would be acquired in Willacy County. The easement from the Ranch was executed on August 4, 1981 and work was immediately started on acquiring right of way through Willacy County.
From the time the first construction contracts were let, work progressed at a steady pace and Hidalgo County Drainage District has completed excavation of over 200 miles of drainage ditches and related structures. In connection with the Master Drainage System, the Drainage District has constructed over 120 bridges and/or crossings and the State Department of Transportation constructed approximately 65 bridges and/or crossings.
Hidalgo County has completed its Master Drainage System. Total cost of the entire project was approximately $68,000,000.00, and was financed entirely by Hidalgo County Drainage District No.1 with no federal funds involved.