Editor’s Note: In a follow-up to our series on New Mexico history and the Centennial of Statehood, Frontera NorteSur begins a new round of articles focusing on community issues in the southern New Mexico borderland. Today’s piece looks at flooding problems in Sunland Park, especially as they pertain to the low-income neighborhood of Anapra. This series was made possible in part by grants from the McCune Charitable Foundation and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
A casual visitor might never imagine there would be a flooding problem in the U.S.-Mexico border town of Sunland Park, New Mexico. Set under the parched peak of Mount Cristo Rey and its towering Christ statue which attract thousands of pilgrims every year, Sunland Park gets an average annual rainfall of approximately 10 inches. Running alongside the growing town a withered Rio Grande kicks up dust, an environmental condition likely to be more common in the future if the projections of continued drought by climate scientists hold up.
Indeed, environmentalists like John Horning of New Mexico’s WildEarth Guardians have warned that the Rio Grande is in danger of becoming yet another “ghost river.”
But Paloma Rodriguez and Frank Hernandez know it’s a ghost that can suddenly spring to life. The operators of a convenience and liquor store that serves as a community hub, the couple recently remembered that first day of August in 2006 when the clouds exploded and deluged the desert land. Nervously watching from the premises of her business just yards from the Rio Grande, Rodriguez recalled seeing the river rise and swell to the point that it reached the top of its banks.
The real trouble, however, arrived when run-off tumbled down from the border hills and entered Rodriguez’s elderly parents’ home next door, flooding the residence with three feet of water and forcing a month-long stay in the daughter’s home. “That was horrible for me,” Rodriguez said of her family’s experience. “I’ve never seen rain like that.”
In a precautionary move, New Mexico state authorities temporarily evacuated 1,200 people from Anapra, the original settlement of Sunland Park located across the road from Rodriguez’s store, and two other Sunland Park neighborhoods. The residents were lodged for the day at Santa Teresa High School before being allowed to return home.
Quoted in the Albuquerque Journal right after the storm, Sunland Park Police Lt. Billy Padilla said ten people were injured and 56 homes and businesses damaged.
A subsequent report from the Dona Ana County Flood Commission noted that the Rio Grande reached 9.3 feet on August 1, 2006-its highest level in 50 years, when up to three inches of rain drenched the southern portion of the border county.
Monetary damages from the flooding were calculated in the ballpark of three million dollars for Sunland Park and three other south county communities- Anthony, Chaparral and La Union.
If the rain had continued, Anapra could have been submerged in water, since the neighborhood is built below the river. “I don’t know how they let it develop, because it’s always been below the river,” Rodriguez questioned. To answer the friendly woman, one must delve into regional geography, history, economics, sociology and politics.
Called home by several hundred people who reside in modest site-built houses or mobile units, the low-income, Spanish-speaking community sits on the New Mexico-Texas line, snuggled by the Rio Grande and shadowed by the hilly northwestern edge of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Documentation of Anapra’s history is sketchy, but most accounts place its beginnings around the middle of the last century.
In an interview with FNS, Dr. David Henkel, professor emeritus of the University of New Mexico and a former director of the New Mexico Economic Development Department, said Anapra emerged as a low-income suburb of neighboring El Paso, Texas, an out-of-the-way place where people found cheap land to realize the American Dream. A community and border planning specialist, Henkel first visited Anapra in 1977.
“It was a satellite, informal community of residents, most of whom worked in El Paso, as far as I could recall,” Henkel said. On his first visit, Henkel added that he noticed very little infrastructure and a sparse population, “almost entirely Mexicano.”
Anapra was in the forefront of a border-wide development pattern later termed colonias, a name used by government officials to designate and fund underdeveloped communities that lacked wastewaster treatment, paved roads, adequate drainage and other essentials.
As Anapra and nearby neighborhoods grew, residents saw incorporation as the path to grants and loans vital for infrastructure improvements, Henkel said. By the early 1980s, a grassroots movement was underway to incorporate Anapra and four other neighboring colonias as the city Sunland Park.
Rose Garcia, executive director of the Las Cruces-based Tierra del Sol housing development corporation, was a volunteer in the campaign.
Remembering the difficult but spirited times of three decades past, Garcia portrayed a place where sewage ran in the streets, the people lacked potable water and children, “many of them sick or dying,” suffered Third World-like disease and illness in the world’s supposedly most developed nation. But stressing that the people had a “can do attitude,” Garcia said residents met regularly to advance their cause, which finally achieved success when Sunland Park was incorporated in 1983.
The community activism, she said, paid off when the state and federal governments stepped in to help fund vital upgrades. Drainage ponds were put on Mount Cristo Rey and roads paved so water would drain toward the Rio Grande, according to Garcia.
Although the infrastructure and population of Anapra and Sunland Park changed dramatically, tripling from about 5,000 people to approximately 15,000 by the 2010 census, the community’s physical exposure to flooding did not.
“They are at extreme risk,” said Paul Dugie, director of the Dona Ana County Flood Commission, the local agency tasked with identifying, analyzing and mitigating flood hazards.
It’s small wonder, then, that some locals recently began questioning why a major Rio Grande levee improvement project undertaken by the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) did not initially include Anapra.
Budgeted at approximately $9.25 million and paid for with Obama administration stimulus monies from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the project is in the final stages of raising 11.8 miles of levees and constructing 7.3 miles of canal embankments from the Borderland Bridge to the big El Paso Electric Company plant behind Anapra. An El Paso-based company, Ultimate Concrete, LLC, is the contractor for the work.
Overall, the USIBWC received $220 million in stimulus money for levee improvements in New Mexico and Texas. Of the amount, a total of $43,109,747.18 was allocated for the USIBWC’s different levee projects in Dona Ana County, including the one under completion upstream from Anapra, according to a tally of stimulus money prepared by the investigative reporting outfit ProPublica.
The numbers reported on the journalists’ website show that nearly one in every six dollars of federal stimulus money which went to Dona Ana County from 2009 through the second quarter of 2012 was for the USIBWC’s levee work, which was carried out by various private contractors.
Cited in the current Dona Ana County hazard mitigation plan, a 1998 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded that “some reaches” of the Rio Grande levees which extend from Percha Dam above Hatch, New Mexico, to the American Dam just below Anapra will be “overtopped in a 100-year flood.”
It took more than a decade, the 2006 floods and a major economic crisis before significant action on the Army Corps’ finding was forthcoming.
Now in its final stages, an upgraded levee system is visible near the more affluent subdivisions that border Sunland Park and El Paso, as well as close to horse stables associated with the racing industry at the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino, a local economic engine.
So far, said USIBWC civil engineer Andrea Glover, the levee system has been raised up to four feet in some places, depending on the potential flooding estimated by a 100-year flood model. According to Glover, improvement of the levee stretch closest to Anapra could begin in the 2018-2020 time frame, with non-stimulus money set aside for the work.
Taylor Moore, retired attorney and longtime Sunland Park community activist, is outraged by the USIBWC’s exclusion of Anapra from the current round of levee upgrades. The octogenarian mentor of Sustainable Sunland, an organization made up of dozens of children from Anapra and Sunland Park dedicated to ecological gardening and community economic development, Moore brought out the troops to a USIBWC citizen forum held last July in the county seat of Las Cruces. There the children held up signs that read: “What’s going to happen to me? I can’t swim.”
Moore recalled: “I asked why did you put Anapra last when you should have put it first? They should have come here immediately and taken care of it. Anapra was the only community in serious trouble.”
The updated, five-year all hazard mitigation plan from Dona Ana County offers a different assessment.
According to the study, the only serious risk to Sunland Park is in “the small growth area” around the upscale Country Club area upriver from Anapra where the levee reconstruction is almost complete. Flood Commission chief Dugie said the plan’s conclusion came from information previously gathered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The 406-page document, which covers conditions across Dona Ana County, details the five-year hazard mitigation plan FEMA requires from local governments. The plan was submitted to the federal agency this past August- two years late- because of “paperwork” problems, said Dugie, who declined to go into more detail about the delay, other than to say the tardiness was “outside of my control.”
The plan notes that Sunland Park doesn’t have sources of income like development impact fees available to pay for flood and other hazard mitigations, making the city reliant on Community Development Block Grants and Capital Improvements Projects.
Sunland Park participates in the financially-challenged National Flood Insurance Program, but counts only 10 insurance policies valued at $2,820,0000. The only locally-generated mitigation project identified in Dona Ana County’s five-year plan was a proposal to relocate Sunland Park’s city hall at an estimated cost of $2.5 million.
Like other participating entities in the five-year plan, Sunland Park committed to making the document available to the public for comment and review. According to the plan, the document was to be displayed at Sunland Park’s public library. Trouble is, the library is now closed following the arrest of the librarian in connection with recent political scandals.
Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea, who assumed duties earlier this year amid the political and legal turmoil, told FNS that he hoped to have a new city manager who could hire a new librarian and other vacant positions by the end of the year.
Following last summer’s Las Cruces meeting, Moore said he pressed the USIBWC for answers on Anapra, but got nowhere after a series of contentious encounters. The USIBWC’s website contains minutes of the Las Cruces as well as other, regularly-scheduled citizen forums sponsored by the State Department-affiliated agency, but makes no mention of the protest conducted by Moore and Sustainable Sunland.
In comments to FNS, IBWC spokeswoman Sally Spener said Rio Grande future levee improvements projected from Anapra downstream to El Paso’s American Dam have been complicated by “additional environmental and engineering evaluations,” as well as the need for a flood wall, a narrower type of water barrier where right-of-way issues often involving roads or rail lines interfere with levee raising, and the necessity for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 404 permit required for dredging and other construction-related activities in wetlands, streams and other waters.
What’s more, “soil sampling of possible concentrations of lead and arsenic have to be taken into account,” Spener said, adding that “endangered species issues” related to possible nesting sites of the Southwestern Willow Fly Catcher are part of the equation.
In terms of comprehensive, multi-agency planning for Anapra’s protection from flooding, the problem of interior drainage on the land side of the levee likewise comes up as something that “would need to be addressed by the local government,” she said.
Spener’s references to environmental concerns are connected to two separate but nearby sites downstream from Anapra and in the direction of the American Dam. The first site, the mothballed Asarco smelter in El Paso, has long been identified by U.S. and Mexican health and environmental authorities as a source of lead and arsenic contamination in El Paso, Ciudad Juarez and Sunland Park.
The second site, almost hidden around a bend on the New Mexico side of the border, is a short drive down a dirt road from Paloma Rodriguez’s and Frank Hernandez’s store, where a visitor will see fenced-off, abandoned patch of land. Further investigation reveals the deserted property hosted a refinery a long time ago.
Colloquially called “The McNutt Refinery,” the site was once investigated for Superfund status by the predecessor agency to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), but not placed on the National Priorities List after a remedial probe in 1994. According to the NMED, the identified contaminants on the land include BTEX (benzene, toluene ethylbenze and xylene), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons and metals. Monitoring of the site is in the hands of the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division.
In response to the litany of issues delaying levee improvements around Anapra, Moore contended that the problems “should’ve been immediately addressed after the flood of 2006” As far back as 1958, he insisted, New Mexico officials knew Anapra was “the area of most concern” in terms of flooding.
The activist called for full disclosure of the pollution in and around Anapra, stressing that the contaminants are “right on top” of El Paso’s water supply. “Why are they keeping it secret?” he questioned. He charged that the IBWC’s treatment of Anapra in levee improvement was “deliberate.”
For Moore, the absence of flood containment in Anarpa could mean a future disaster which would expose the way in which the U.S. treats poor people to “people from all over the world”
“Let the flood take care of the problem,” is how Moore predicted the outcome of current policies.
Spener emphasized that the flood of 2006 did not flow over the local levee.
Moore was also recently miffed by comments he heard that it would be better to relocate Anapra’s residents away from a high-risk place. In fact, talk was rife among state and county planners 30 years ago of doing away with Anapra, according to Rose Garcia.
“The first strategy was to evacuate the people out of that area and move them somewhere else,” Garcia said. “We polled everybody, the 104 homes, and the people said, ‘No, these are our homes, and this is our lot, and it may be modest. We may have a trailer or a house or whatever, but this is our home. We do not want to move, and please find solutions’.”
In a phone interview, Mayor Perea said the geographic focus of USIBWC’S levee work in his community was “news to me.” Anapra, he agreed, was “an area of concern.”
Perea added that one of the items he discovered on his plate was an August 2012 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scheduling order for Sunland Park to take appropriate action on storm water issues, a matter which previous administrations had neglected and cost his city $5,000 in a fine.
Perea said his administration is working with the city council to get a Metropolitan Redevelopment Area status for Sunland Park, a designation which would make more money available for local initiatives to address flooding. “That would help us be able to invest in flood control in this area,” Perea said.
Sunland Park’s mayor said he hoped a resolution approving a redevelopment area would pass the city council in December. Meantime, Perea said he will meet with the Sunland Park Community Development Department to discuss the USIBWC project and Anapra.
For Dona Ana County’s Paul Dugie, the short-term solutions to potential flooding rests neither in costly flood containment projects, which are difficult to approve for smaller communities that must pass a cost-benefit test weighing investment dollars versus population served, nor in controversial relocation schemes. “(Evacuation) is just not a good thing politically or for the families that live there,” Dugie said.
And in Anapra’s case, the neighborhood’s vulnerability to run-off from the Mexican side of the border implies a binational flood control infrastructure project that is not currently on the cross-border agenda- at least to Dugie’s knowledge. “That’s one of the things we should be doing,” he contended. “There’s a serious flood potential in that area.”
For now, the Dona Ana County Flood Commission plans to have high-tech, early-warning rain gauges in place within a year so residents can be warned of pending flooding in a timely fashion, Dugie said. Not only in Sunland Park/Anapra but across the sprawling county, the need for an adequate early warning system is sorely needed, Dugie said. “We don’t have a good flood warning system in the county,” he argued.
Overall, the initial price tag for installing a county system of gauges, which start in price at around $2,000 apiece, comes to approximately $200,000. “Sunland Park will be one of our areas of interest,” the county official assured.
The likelihood that a storm and flood event like the one of 2006 will happen again? Dugie said it wasn’t a question of if but when.