EXCLUSIVE: County judge to mobilize crews, won’t wait for feds to fix levees breached for border wall, source says

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Start of hurricane season June 1 threatens flood-prone region in South Texas; DHS officials say repairs would take 9 months

A U.S. Border Patrol agent stands guard at the top of a levee breach in Palmview, Texas, on April 14, 2021. The cuts were caused during border wall construction begun during the Trump administration. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A South Texas county judge will take matters into his own hands and fix massive levee breaches that were caused by border wall construction, and he plans to do it with or without approval from the federal government, sources tell Border Report.

An official familiar with Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez’s plans told Border Report that Cortez plans to go ahead and “mobilize county resources to fix the breaches in the levee system,” adding that “Hidalgo County road crews believe they can get the majority of the breaches fixed within two weeks.”

“The judge is preparing to move unilaterally to fix the breaches before the June 1 hurricane season,” the source said.

The move comes despite previous conversations that local leaders, including Cortez, had last week with U.S. Army Corps Engineers officials, who said they are not able to make repairs to the four giant breaks in the earthen border levee unless authorized by the Department of Homeland Security. DHS officials said it would take them three to four weeks to call back border wall contractors to the damaged sites, and six to nine months to complete repairs.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez speaks with Border Report on April 14, 2021, in front of a giant levee breach in Palmview, Texas (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“The judge is exploring whether he has the legal authority as an emergency management director to fix the breaches,” the unnamed source said.

He also is currently assessing how much that would cost and what resources would be needed, Border Report was told.

It is uncertain whether Cortez has the legal authority to have his workers operate machinery on the levees. The U.S. International and Water Boundary Commission (IBWC) owns the dirt levees, but the areas currently are under the purview of DHS, which had been building a border wall through South Texas as instructed by the Trump administration.

A 25-foot-tall dirt, earthen levee is seen on April 14, 2021, in Palmview, Texas. The cuts were used to drive heavy trucks through to build the border wall but were left unrepaired when border wall construction stopped by the Biden administration. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

When President Joe Biden took office, he paused border wall construction, and the levees were left with giant cuts that were made to drive heavy equipment through to build the wall from the south side.

Border Report has reached out to DHS officials and asked if they have decided to begin repairs. We also asked what would happen if a local entity began its own repairs. This story will be updated if additional information is received.

Border wall construction begun by the Trump administration was halted during the Biden administration. Heavy equipment and metal border wall bollards are seen on April 14, 2021, in Palmview, Texas, at a breach in the levee. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez).

Earlier this month, IBWC spokeswoman Lori Kuczmanski said the agency was aware of the situation and concerned due to the high potential for flooding in the region. In an emailed statement, Kuczmanski wrote:

“The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC)  is very concerned about the existing levee gaps in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The USIBWC understands the critical nature of the situation and has reiterated to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection the immediate importance of providing flood protection to the local community prior to hurricane season which begins June 1. Pending the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Custom and Border Protection’s direction to being able to return to work, USIBWC has advised the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S Custom and Border Protection to review and update their emergency flood protection plan in addition to the planning of repairing the affected levees.”

On Tuesday, Hidalgo County Commissioners passed a unanimous resolution asking the federal government to urgently begin repairing the broken earthen levee, which protects this delta region from the Rio Grande.

The resolution also asked local congressmen to actively push the Biden administration to take this matter seriously and to begin repairs. U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez, two Democrats who represent South Texas, have both said they have spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to ask him to authorize repairs to begin.

“That’s not acceptable. It would be a lot easier if they put forth the effort to get the contractors out there. It’s just a bunch of mud and dirt that needs to fill in those gaps and we need to get it done before hurricane season,” Gonzalez told Border Report on Wednesday. “I’ve talked to Secretary Mayorkas about it. They’re well informed of it. I don’t know if they think this is not a major issue. It is to me and my district and I expect it to be resolved soon.”

Cortez earlier this month told Border Report that if both regional damns release water and the area were to get just 5 inches of additional rain, the entire region could flood south of the expressway.

The Rio Grande Valley is home to 1.6 million residents in several counties from the Gulf of Mexico west. The current breaches in Hidalgo County are located in the small towns of Mission and Palmview and near McAllen. Hidalgo County is home to nearly 1 million residents and the entire county borders the Rio Grande.

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