Brownsville, Texas, works to improve drainage system
Located on the western Gulf Coast of South Texas and adjacent to the Mexican border, Brownsville is one of the southernmost cities in the contiguous U.S. It is a 146-square-mile community that is situated at the intersection of several climates and boasts an idiosyncratic network of resacas — or oxbow lakes — that feed into the Rio Grande. It is also prone to a lot of flooding. However, Brownsville is working diligently to finish over $25 million in street and drainage improvement projects to mitigate flooding in the area and improve the quality of life for residents throughout the region.
According to Brownsville City Manager Noel Bernal, the plan to mitigate flooding and improve drainage capabilities has been a long time coming.
“It’s been a couple of years in the making,” he said. “It goes back to 2019 when the city retooled its capital, which gave them some capacity to move forward with some long-standing projects that have been on the back burner for a while. Since 2020, we have been in the planning and construction phase, and we hope to be finished by the end of 2023.”
For residents, that may not be soon enough, especially for those who have dealt with neighborhood flooding time and time again. They have grown tired of short-term fixes and thousands of dollars in property loss, and they hope that this investment in drainage solutions will lead to proper resolutions for Brownsville citizens everywhere.
The projects are being funded locally along with $13 million in federal grants and include a diverse set of improvements. Approximately $1.3 million will improve the drainage infrastructure in the West Brownsville District, which will help relieve flooding throughout a 10-block radius. This area is at risk every time it storms, keeping residents at a standstill. The upgrades will limit the distance that stormwater has to travel in order to reach an outlet — in this case, the Rio Grande.
An additional $1 million will be used to replace three culverts at both the Recasa de la Guerra and Recasa de Rancho Viejo in addition to two culverts at the North Main Drain, which is a primary drainage basin. The old manual equipment will be replaced so the city can more effectively raise and lower flood gates with new supervisory control and data acquisition equipment — a state-of-the-art remote monitoring system. Brownsville is also replacing the pump at the Impala Station, which was originally built in the 1950s and has never been upgraded. The new pump will double its capacity to transfer water out of the city.
The $13 million Brownsville received from the American Rescue Plan Act will be used to create a regional drainage facility near the pump — a need originally recognized in the 1980s but heretofore unfulfilled due to funding issues. When this project is completed, standing flood water will flow into the detention pond and then be pumped out by the new system. Another $1.8 million of the ARPA funds will create a 10-acre Southmost Waterplein Park, which will serve as a detention pond when heavy rains fall and double as a traditional park when it is dry. Although there still may be some flooding during times of intense rainfall, the park will provide significant alleviation to the flood prone Four Corners area.
“It’s a holistic approach that sought to create synergy between different projects,” Bernal said. “There is a significant amount of work going on at any point and time.”
This holistic approach proved instrumental when competing for federal funding in order to complete the various projects. With so many worthwhile communities vying for the same pot of money, Bernal said Brownsville had to show that it was creating harmonized initiatives that were taking an innovative approach. This made leaders think deeper about what it was proposing to do and combine the best strategies to get the job done.
(Thinking this way) helped us work across all departments, not just engineering or public works but also management and consultants to share the best practices and be open to innovation,” Bernal said. “That doesn’t happen organically. There must be cooperation. You have to have the willingness to share ideas and then let the best one win.”
What stands out the most to him is the fact that some of the best ideas for these projects did not come strictly from the top project managers and engineers, but rather those who have been the closest to the issues for years and were ready to take on the challenge. This was encouraged by a previous city manager, and Bernal is happy to continue this approach. “You have to be willing to optimize the available funds and look at doing things a little differently in order to address those infrastructure needs,” he said. “Once these projects are finished, residents will notice a significant difference.”
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