Saving Southern New Mexico from the Next Big Flood

Nestled below desert hills, the Hatch Valley of southern New Mexico sparkles in the late days of summer. Nourished by irrigation water from the Rio Grande (and increasingly groundwater)  commercial agriculture has dominated the life of this region for almost a century now, first with a celebrated cotton crop and then bountiful harvests of chile, onions, pecans and dairy products.

Though situated in an arid land, the Village of Hatch sits on a floodplain that periodically gets deluged. For instance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) calculated damages from flooding in 1988 at $1.4 million and $1.75 million in 1992.  In an overview of Hatch’s flooding risks, the USACE noted that Hatch’s underground storm drainage systems, dating back to the 1950s, were built on the cheap and are of “little use in a major flood event.” More than half of Hatch’s buildings are at least 50 years old, according to the federal engineers.

By far the worst episode in memory, the 2006 flood, or Little Katrina, hit Hatch on  August 15.  Subsequently, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance to individual victims and the State of New Mexico exceeded $1.9 million. That figure does not include payouts from private insurers or the estimated $30,000 raised by a community-based flood relief campaign.

Personal losses suffered by impacted families, together with disrupted municipal services and schools hit by unexpected enrollment declines because of population displacement added to the other social and economic costs-in many ways incalculable-of Little Katrina.

All this, ironically, in a town that gets an average of 9.77 inches of rain per year, according to a USACE report.  When rain does fall, however, it frequently arrives in intense, seasonal monsoon bursts that can quickly tax the watershed. For the future, climate scientists project drought splashed by heavier rains and runoff that could be more destructive because land parched from the scarcity of rainfall has less ability to absorb moisture.

“This can lead to flash floods, as happened in 2014, when 90 percent of New Mexico experienced extreme or exceptional drought…” reads an April 2016 report on climate change in the Land of Enchantment authored by the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Such extreme events are projected to become more common, forcing communities to prepare for both extreme droughts and extreme floods.”

Although dam construction and canalization have largely tamed the historic Rio Grande-driven floods, flooding from other sources continues to take a toll. Little Katrina had nothing to do with the Rio Grande that flows past Hatch.  Rather, the flood originated from the rain-drenched Placitas Arroyo that runs below Highway 187 on the other side of town. For days, the arroyo was filled by run-off from the nearby Las Uvas Mountains.

Locals blamed debris and old railroad ties for backing up the Placitas Arroyo, disturbing the water flow and triggering the flooding. In a phone interview with FNS, Hatch Mayor Andy Nunez said invasion of the arroyo by recreational “four-wheelers” also played a role by damaging the embankments.

While the Placitas Arroyo was cleaned of debris after the 2006 flood, it’s taken a full decade to begin addressing the overall condition of a stream bed that’s dry most of the year but channels water in the rainy season. The big reasons?  Legal considerations related to private property ownership and right-of-way access.

As it turned out, adjacent property owners effectively “owned” the Placitas Arroyo, complicating municipal efforts to maintain and improve it.

“Nobody had the authority to do it. That was the crux of the problem,” said James L. “Slim” Whitlock, owner of Jim’s Supermarket and member of the Hatch Board of Trustees (the local city council) from 2012 to 2016.

Hatch Village Clerk Pat Banegas informed FNS that the municipality recently spent $140,000 purchasing the arroyo and right-of-way access from “10 or 15” owners. Banegas said Hatch will contract maintenance work out to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID), the quasi-government entity responsible for distributing irrigation water from the Rio Grande and administering the ditches that honeycomb the Hatch, Rincon and Mesilla valleys.

The needed tasks include widening the arroyo, building up its shoulders, cleaning the arroyo bed and working on the berms, or sides, according to Banegas. While the EBID will concentrate on arroyo maintenance, bids will be solicited for engineering work “to solve the flooding long term,” said Paul Dugie, director of the Dona Ana County Flood Commission (DACFC).

Three arroyo bridges standing as points of debris accumulation but not owned by the municipality also require attention from the responsible parties: Dona Ana County (one bridge) and the New Mexico Department of Transportation (two bridges), Dugie added.

Mayor Nunez, who also represents the Hatch area in the New Mexico House of Representatives, said he and New Mexico State Senator Lee Potter obtained appropriations for the Placitas Arroyo, spending $500,000 so far.
Besides the upcoming work, Nunez said the town government will take extra measures to keep the motorized thrill-seekers out of the arroyo. “We’ll fence it out,” he vowed. “Our police are monitoring that pretty close.”

Reached by phone, Senator Cotter sounded out on the time required to resolve the Placitas Arroyo issue. “Unfortunately, I already thought it would be finished, but it isn’t. I’m hoping..,” Cotter said. The Republican lawmaker said he was moved to lend a helping hand by Little Katrina’s destructive power.

“I felt the flood was significant for their economy. I watched the school district get devastated,” Cotter said.

Their lives turned upside down by the overflow of the Placitas Arroyo, some Hatch flood victims turned to the courts for justice. Filed in New Mexico State District Court by multiple residents and business owners, a 2007 lawsuit accused Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Dona Ana County and the New Mexico Department of Transportation (the Santa Fe Railroad Company was later added as a defendant) of responsibility for flood damages due to negligent actions such as the alleged abandonment of old rail ties that washed down the Placitas Arroyo and wound up lodged against the New Mexico Highway 187 bridge over the arroyo,  contributing to the breach of water that swamped Hatch, according to a story in the Albuquerque Journal. The plaintiffs sought $3.5 million in property damage and an additional $10.5 million in punitive damages, the newspaper reported.

The story of the Las Cruces lawsuit constituted a whole chapter in a polemical 2011 book published by plaintiffs’ attorney Rita Nunez Neumann. In her book, Nunez Neumann disputed the narrative of high amounts of rainfall as precipitating the flood, instead laying the blame for the disaster on the negligent clogging of the Placitas Arroyo.

The Las Cruces lawyer cited eyewitness testimony and resident statements claiming water had topped the bridge two months prior to August 15, and that the New Mexico Department of Transportation had been warned of problems.  As further proof of her case, Nunez Neumann noted that the Placitas Arroyo did not overflow during a heavy storm in September 2016, after it had been cleaned.

But the lawsuit, Village of Hatch vs. Faught, soured on the plaintiffs. According to Nunez Neumann, in-fighting undermined the plaintiffs’ team. New Mexico District Court Judge James T. Martin eventually dismissed the case, monetarily sanctioning Nunez Neumann and remaining plaintiffs for serious discovery violations. In June 2012, the New Mexico Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal but tossed out the monetary sanctions.

In a 2-1 decision reached by New Mexico Court of Appeals Judges Linda Vanzi, Cynthia Fry and Michael Vigil, the justices declared that their court “amply supports the district court’s exercise of its discretion in dismissing the complaint as a sanction for the repeated efforts of Plaintiffs to thwart discovery in this case.”

Yet another- and much less publicized- flood threat to Hatch exists: the Spring Canyon. Originating in Las Uvas Mountains outside Hatch, where runoff tumbles down to the floodplain, the upper part of the canyon contains an old concrete dam located about a mile and a half from town.  According to a 2015 book on the Hatch Valley by Cindy Carpenter and Sherry Fletcher, the New Deal era Civilian Conservation Corps constructed the dam in 1940.

Currently, the Village of Hatch and the DAFC are working with the USACE to construct a new earthen dam in the same canyon below the old one. Is a new dam in Spring Canyon, estimated to cost about $10.6 million according to Paul Dugie, truly necessary?

Lynette Giesen, acting chief of environmental services for the USACE’s Albuquerque District, hesitated to call the old structure obsolete but said “it’s not built to today’s standards,” and contains a “significant” amount of sediment. “It’s certainly not functioning like when it was built,” Giesen said. The USACE official said her agency has documented flood disruptions and property losses from Spring Canyon dating back more than 100 years.

Agreeing with Giesen about the sediment build up in the old dam, Dugie said a good reason to build a new dam below the existing one is that “rainfall could fall downstream and cause problems in the village.” Spring Canyon was included on a list of high hazard state dams issued by the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer in 2011. Three additional arroyo dams in the Hatch area also made the list.

“They’ve just outlived their life span,” contended Slim Whitlock, who serves on the Board of Directors of the Caballo Soil and Water Conservation District. “It takes money and a lot of work with different government agencies…”
Banegas concurred, arguing that arroyos have been neglected for 50 years and the overall watershed calls out for action. “It’s a serious matter. It’s going to take quite a lot of funding to take care of things,” he said.

Giesen said the push for a new Spring Canyon Dam dates back to 2004 but was “shelved several times” because of USACE policy changes and cost-sharing issues.

“Unfortunately, it’s not a good example of efficiency,” Giesen conceded, adding that the mismatch of the federal and New Mexico state fiscal years is another complicating factor in getting a project of this nature off the ground.

Dugie said addressing related watershed issues, most importantly the Placitas Arroyo, was another precondition for the Spring Canyon project. “We have to show that we are getting the Placitas Arroyo under control. We have to have something in progress,” Dugie said, stressing that concrete actions on the Placitas Arroyo were well underway.

Under federal rules, cost-sharing requirements apply to a project like Spring Canyon. Broken down between the USACE and a local sponsor, in this instance the DACFC , the tab for a feasibility study is split 50-50, while construction costs are sliced up 65 percent federal and 35 percent non-federal.

Dugie said he expected the non-federal share for building a new dam would come from the DACFC, state legislative appropriations and the New Mexico Water Trustee Board. No plans are on the drawing board to tear down the old dam.

Giesen outlined a multi-layered review process- and competition with other possible Army Corps projects- before a new Spring Canyon Dam could get the go-ahead at higher levels in the federal agency. Giesen said she expected a public review opportunity, including a possible public meeting in Hatch, to happen within the next six months. She added that the USACE would release its threat assessment of Spring Canyon flooding during the public review period.

Influencing the future of Hatch is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood map for the town, a critical document that determines whether a mortgage holder is required to carry potentially costly flood insurance. While updated FEMA flood maps for the rest of Dona Ana County were posted July 6, the one for Hatch, which identifies the major part of the village as being in the highest risk zone, Zona A, remains the old one.

Like the Placitas Arroyo and Spring Canyon Dam, the Hatch flood map issue is taking years to settle. According to FEMA, part of the reason involves a 13.69 mile Rio Grande levee on the edge of Hatch that was rehabilitated by the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC)  as part of a larger $220 million regional flood control project funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, better known as the Obama stimulus.

“FEMA is still awaiting information of operations/maintenance, interior drainage and crossings and for someone to put together a package certifying that the levee meets federal design, construction, maintenance and operations standards to adequately reduce the risk of flooding from a major flood. That’s a flood with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year,” Earl Armstrong, spokesman for FEMA Region 6, wrote in an e-mail to FNS.

The IBWC originally submitted a packet in 2013 but FEMA requested additional information, which was sent last December,  Sally Spener, the IBWC’s  spokeswoman, told FNS. Spener said the IBWC is not responsible for “interior drainage” matters that could include runoff from arroyos or hillsides.

“It’s the local entity’s responsibility. Our jurisdiction is Rio Grande flood control,” Spener said.

Armstrong later clarified that the IBWC “has done what they legally can do, now the local communities need to form a working group to gather the information needed to complete the certification package.” He said FEMA has been discussing with the IBWC and local communities “ways in which they can put the information into a package and have an engineer sign off on the certification…when it is accredited the levee can be put on the (FEMA flood map) as providing protection.”

Armstrong confirmed the Hatch flood map is indeed slated for updating, but “there is currently no timetable…”

An $8 million endeavor, the Hatch Rio Grande levee rehabilitation took place between 2010 and 2012, according to Spener; the project contractor was Milestone Excavation.  In areas of Dona Ana County identified as having special flood hazards based on a FEMA study and maps, new construction and substantial improvements to existing buildings will be subject to new, detailed standards proposed by the county government under the Unified Development Code (UDC).

Dated August 5 and more than five pages long, the final draft of the UDC contains regulations that also apply to the placement of manufactured homes and recreational vehicles, two types of living quarters common in southern New Mexico. For development purposes in designated high hazard zones, the UDC will require a Floodplain Permit. The proposed regulations vest power in a Floodplain Administrator with the authority to review required permits and oversee corresponding rules.

The Dona Ana County government is accepting comments on the pending rules until Friday, September 2. Hatch’s location in a flood plain makes housing construction a sticky proposition.

“That’s an extra level that’s been added to land use,” said Rose Garcia, executive director of Las Cruces-based Tierra del Sol, a non-profit affordable housing developer in the Southwest. “If it’s on the (flood) maps it’s almost impossible to get a loan that’s federally guaranteed. The banks are very nervous…we don’t transact anything on a floodplain,”

Garcia knows Hatch: Tierra del Sol developed a multifamily rental apartment complex geared for agricultural workers and their families, Valle Verde Apartments in 1979, on higher ground three miles west of the Hatch village limits.

Holding that stabilizing housing for a rural workforce is an essential issue for economic development, the longtime southern New Mexico community advocate added that Tierra del Sol is contemplating the redevelopment of 18 existing vacant dwellings and land sites for new homes, as well as the construction of a new apartment complex for 40 low-income families that’s expected to get off the ground within the next two months or so.

The new complex is sited on higher ground near the 72-unit Falcon Ridge Apartments. “It’s not on the flood plain,” Garcia assured. By 2011, Falcon Ridge replaced the nearby, devastated Los Caballos Apartments, which were built by Las Cruces’ Crestline Building Corporation as a United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development project.

Falcon Ridge eventually provided a new home to flood victims, many of whom spent years of waiting in a FEMA trailer park outside Hatch.  Formed in 2007 as a limited partnership, the development was delayed by the Great Recession and credit freeze. A dose of creative financing mixing left-over loans and insurance proceeds from Los Caballos Apartments, as well as housing tax credit exchanges courtesy of the Obama stimulus, finally got the new apartments built, according to a report in

If Little Katrina upended the lives of Hatch’s residents, public attention soon shifted to the Great Recession, Rio Grande water shortages that forced cutbacks in EBID irrigation deliveries, and a drought that grinds on despite better rainfall during the last two years. Meantime, the temperatures are getting hotter and hotter. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July 2016 equaled July 2003 “as the warmest month of any month on record” in New Mexico.

Regardless of other priorities, the power of floods is certain to deliver another whammy.

“Most people see it as, “It will never happen in my lifetime,” lamented Slim Whitlock. On the other hand, in the post-Little Katrina era more locals are conscious of flood dangers and even pay attention to weather developments in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, a place where the fallout of stronger storms could blow into Hatch, Whitlock said.

In an effort to develop regional coping strategies, Whitlock’s organization, the Caballo Soil and Water Conservation District, has joined with the DACFC, EBID and other agencies in the New Mexico South Central Storm Water Management Coalition. Holding monthly public meetings, the Coalition brings together representatives of different political jurisdictions and organizations to share information and hack out solutions to costly, thorny problems often put off for another day.

“Recognizing that stormwater does not respect political boundaries, it has become evident that our efforts to meet the needs of the region can be improved through coordination and communication from a watershed perspective,” Zack Libbin, Stormwater Management Coalition chairman, wrote in a message announcing the group’s August meeting in Sunland Park.

A self-described “meat-cutter” by trade, Whitlock said the interaction between members of the general public like himself and professionals versed in technical and bureaucratic lingo can be challenging.

“There’s still a lot to be done, and it’s very frustrating to get things done, but we can’t give up,” Whitlock insisted. “We’re trying to understand what government is trying to say and we’re trying to figure out how to tell what we have to say.”

In Hatch and New Mexico, the big question is: Will enough preparations and flood control remedies be in place in time so damage from the next destructive event like Little Katrina is at least tempered?

For our first story on Little Katrina, please go here.

This story was made possible in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.