Marfa council takes action to combat flash flooding risks

MARFA — Marfa City Council proposed a sweeping set of actions in response to last month’s flash flooding event, calling a special meeting on Tuesday to learn about potential infrastructure improvements from the city engineer and to make updates to the area hazard mitigation plan at the same time.

City Engineer Ramon Carrasco walked the council through a variety of options to fight the hazards posed by flood waters in Alamito Creek. While the creek is most often completely dry, when waters rise rapidly or storms set in upstream in the Fort Davis area, the water poses a danger at four low water crossings in the city at Lincoln, Dallas, Nevill and Waco streets in the southeast edge of town.

That section of the city has no available public roadway in or out of their area, so emergency services would need permission to use a private road to reach people in case of a medical emergency. High flood waters last month also posed a danger at the four road crossings, and ultimately swept away a vehicle, taking the life of one Marfa community member.

The city discussed some of the prevalent issues at those crossings: low lighting makes it difficult to gauge water level. There isn’t signage warning of potential flood or water gauges to indicate how deep flood waters are. Ingress and egress are difficult with no publicly accessible roadway out of the area when floods rise.

Carrasco’s safety recommendations included educating the public, adding flood warning signage, implementing flood warning systems like sensors and barricades and changing the engineering with upstream retention or a bridge.

Each of those plans require various amounts of labor and money, and the council determined its best path forward would be to pursue a variety of the options.

“Educating the people, having these pamphlets out, putting it in the website and making people aware of flooding situations at the water crossings is what’s going to help,” Carrasco told council, who later voted to add flood information to the city website.

Ahead of the meeting, the city had already ordered eight 5-foot water gauge signs, which will be installed on each side of the city’s four low water crossings. Carrasco said water gauges could help, but also acknowledged that in such high flooding like the storm that happened in June, the 5-foot signs could be completely underwater when a driver arrived at the crossing.

It will cost the city $70,000 to $100,000 to install signage at all four crossings. That would include software that would gauge flood levels, trigger lights to flash when there was water flowing and send data to the city for their website.

An additional $15,000 would get automated gates that would drop like railroad crossing gates,  blocking the roadway when water levels were too high for crossing.

“If there’s anything I know from 25 years of water planning, just put it in the plan,” City Attorney Teresa Todd said. With that in mind, Councilmember Johnston added that the city should put a bridge in the plan, despite the high price tag of such infrastructure.

Earlier in the meeting, the Rio Grande Council of Governments’ hazard mitigation coordinator Ray Resendez gave a presentation to Marfa City Council about the region’s five-year hazard mitigation plan, which is currently going through a round of updates. An up-to-date plan can be a crucial tool for the city and county to access funding for infrastructure improvements that combat natural hazards.

The plan addresses floods, fire, hail, winds and more, documenting hazard mitigation tactics that could be put into action if a hazard struck the area. If a hazardous event hits somewhere in the United States and the Federal Emergency Management Agency opens up funds for the disaster, a percentage of that funding is sent into other communities so they can preemptively mitigate that hazard — but only if they have included that hazard in their five-year plan.

“If monies become available, counties and cities can only tap into that mitigation funding if the hazard is included in their five-year plan,” Resendez explained. “If you have a flood issue, you need to build an action on it.”

“The hazards are getting worse, the flooding is getting worse,” Resendez said. “These communities need as much help as they can get.”

Todd and Johnson’s recommendations to include water monitoring sensors, signage and a bridge in the hazard mitigation plan could help the city eventually get FEMA funding to purchase and install the system.

The cost to construct a bridge, Carrasco estimated, could be up to $3 million. If the city pursued that plan, Carrasco said, they would likely need to seek funding from the Texas Department of Transportation to create a feasibility study, looking into whether a bridge is the best solution and how that construction might impact the environment and the flow of water through the creek below it. Feasibility studies can open up TxDOT funding for something like bridge construction or other engineered alternatives.

“There’s dams we can build upstream that can try to mitigate this, but that requires more cost and maintenance,” the city engineer said. Carrasco believed the high waters in Marfa last month were potentially worsened by trash, trees and brush downstream, which could have bottlenecked the water, pushing the water level higher upstream. He recommended downstream maintenance to clean up the creek bed.

Marfa resident and Tourism Director Abby Boyd attended the meeting and spoke up about how dark the crossings are at night. Mayor Manny Baeza responded in agreement, advocating for improved lighting at the four crossings. The city attorney indicated there is an exception in the city lighting ordinance for lighting at the water crossings.

Wrapping up the meeting, Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda motioned, and council unanimously approved, that city staff and the city engineer will solicit bids for a system that would include lighted signage and a monitored alert system at four water crossings, including gate systems that would activate when sensors detected high water. At the same time, the city will contact TxDOT and their area engineer, Chris Weber, to seek opportunities to fund a bridge feasibility study through TxDOT funding.

Another motion by Irma Salgado urged action to improve lighting at all four crossings, to add flood safety information to the city website, and to generate letters to representatives like state Senator Cesar Blanco asking for support on flash flood mitigation projects in Marfa. The message Salgado said she hoped to convey to Sen. Blanco was, “We’re making progress, we’re trying to get it done, but funding is what we need. That a death was caused by this, maybe he might push it forward a little.”