Drawing from recent events, officials aim to mitigate hazards through deeper planning

Illuminated by candles and the light of recently charged electronic devices, Alexia Melendez, 8, and her brother Aiden, 6, huddled in the living room of their southside apartment on Tuesday as the family prepared for another cold night without power. For warmth, their mother Rosa, who lives at the home with her own mother and five kids, had set some pots of water to boil on the stove. Rosa was worried about carbon monoxide poisoning if the gas flame went out — but with the coronavirus pandemic still raging, she didn’t see any better options. “I guess we have no other means,” she said. “I hope it doesn’t last that long.” Photo by Maisie Crow

PRESIDIO COUNTY – Hazards ranging between a winter storm, a drought, a flash-flooding creek and a deadly pandemic have impacted Presidio County in the past year, and each has posed challenges to both county infrastructure and citizen safety. Now, two state laws are pushing the area to brainstorm on the future hazards it might face and what mitigating plans could be put in place with the help of government funding.

Last Thursday, stakeholders from Presidio County, Presidio city, the Rio Grande Council of Governments and two concerned citizens joined in on a meeting to discuss the state’s first ever push to create a flood mitigation plan. Later in the evening, a few from that group met again to discuss the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan document, which is updated once every five years.

The state has long assembled a water plan among its states, but for the first time in its history, the state Legislature has decided the state needs to address flooding after 2017’s Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast. A bill that passed in 2019 requires a statewide flood plan based on regional flood plans.

“We have a lot of focus on coastal Texas areas,” Richard Bagans from the Texas Water Development Board told attendees, “but flooding happens everywhere around Texas. In Marfa, in El Paso, everywhere.”

The sentiment rang true as both officials and citizens brought up recent flash flooding that originated in Jeff Davis County, coursing southward through Alamito Creek and resulting in a deadly flash flood in Marfa this June.

At the first Marfa meeting, there was an emphasis on local officials and residents voicing concerns to planning group members who were in attendance in person or virtually.

Presidio’s interim City Manager Brad Newton challenged the flood planning group to help small towns get updated floodplain maps. Presidio’s are decades old, predating the time the city was incorporated, and without updated maps, locals struggle to secure flood insurance they can afford.

“We’re dealing with two or two and a half rivers,” Newton said, mentioning the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos which intersect near Presidio, and Cibolo Creek which is dry but can flow during flash floods. “It’s less of a cost to FEMA if instead of depending on FEMA relief, people are able to afford flood insurance,” he told the planning group, mentioning an incident in 2008 when the Rio Grande flooded from its banks into Presidio.

Bagans encouraged this kind of local insight. “Through this process there may be additional funding or other state financial systems that can all chip in together to pay for the updated maps,” he said. However, while new maps could be helpful, the final result wouldn’t be the type of regulatory maps needed for FEMA-related uses.

“We do have significant water events,” Newton expressed. “We just lost someone over here in Marfa, my condolences. Mother nature always wins when it comes to water and we’ve been lucky so far, but to be prepared for that, that’s why we need to have maps, that’s why we need to have approvable locations for the insurance companies to properly insure property,” he said. He wanted to ensure that if people are buying land and building, that it isn’t in a flood plain, and instead “the growth of the city is going to safer places.”

Rosie Garcia and Sovelia Bowman, longtime Marfa residents, also drew the working group’s attention to Marfa’s recent creek flooding incident in June. “My main concern is the flooding that we had two weeks ago,” Garcia told them.

“I do believe that the city and county should, by now, have made it a safer place. It’s not the first time someone was swept away. The first time, the utility company was able to hold the vehicle in place until they got the person out,” Garcia said. “That should’ve been a wake up call for city and county administration that they know to address that problem.”

When the usually-dry Alamito Creek starts to run, residents can also become stranded on the southeast corner of town, with no bridge crossings to bypass the flowing creek, she told them. She was concerned that residents stuck on that side of the creek could not access emergency medical care, since ambulances cannot come or go during the times the creek rises.

“One bridge on one of the three streets would be sufficient,” Garcia said. “I worked for the government when I was working and I know how slow the wheels turn. This is something our administrators should be focusing on and addressing immediately, not in ten years.”

County Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Mitschke said that having parts of the community isolated by flood waters happens in Ruidosa and Candelaria, and another attendee mentioned a neighborhood in Fort Davis that has the same challenge. “This is probably happening more often than one would think,” said Annette Gutierrez, the executive director of the Rio Grande Council of Governments. It was the kind of feedback the working group was seeking, where local insights can inform the regional and state flood plans.

Presidio County falls within the state’s Upper Rio Grande Region, and, Gutierrez said, “The regional plan will ramp up over a few years, ultimately being lumped into the state plan.”

Currently, there’s a patchwork of floodplain maps across Texas, mostly kept by cities or counties, but not shared or connected across a network. “The goal is digital, accurate maps for the entire region,” Bagans said, adding that Lidar technology could be used to collect data aerially, finding elevations and then using them to create effective flood models. Bagans said the goal of creating the flood plan is to reduce the loss of lives going into the future.

A few hours later, a handful of people gathered to discuss the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan. Rio COG Hazard Mitigation Coordinator Ray Resendez told the county officials who attended that it was crucial that all potential hazards be added to the plan, which can only be revised every five years. “Every time there’s a major disaster declaration order, 10% of the funds are allocated elsewhere for mitigation efforts,” Resendez said. That’s when the county can tap into funding to mitigate hazards. In the past, the county has had projects to address dam failure, drought, earthquakes, extreme cold, extreme heat, hail, tornados, wind, flooding, hazardous material spill, lightning, wildfire, and snow and ice, enumerating the many challenges the rural communities are up against.

While city and school district representatives weren’t in attendance at the Hazard Mitigation meeting, Resendez urged their participation in the planning process. Mitschke, the emergency management coordinator, honed in on the construction of a bridge or path of egress from the southeast part of Marfa that can be cut off by Alamito Creek.

“Another thing is a flood warning system for here that would notify us when we’ve got a surge of water coming down Alamito Creek, when it’s dry here and has rained up there,” Mitschke stressed. Rain from the Davis Mountains can rapidly flow south into Marfa, giving the town some lead time before a flood might arrive.

“If you guys send me the concept, we’ll figure out how to word it so it’s an action for the plan,” Resendez said.

Nearly 78% of county residents that completed a survey said wildfires were their primary concern in the area, with extreme heat coming in at a close second. Drought remained high on the list, with 65% listing it as a hazard they are worried about. The county remains in an “extreme” drought status even as the monsoon season has taken hold.

Resendez warned the group, “Two years from now you guys are going to be trying to get some monies and you aren’t going to be able to because you didn’t address it here.” With low attendance, the planner offered to come back to town to hash out and write up the action plan in a workshop. “Everyone that has a stake in all of this needs to be part of the actions.”