Our Once Wild & Untamed River


The flooding events of 1922 gave engineer Sam Robertson an opportunity to air his views. He had conducted survey work for Closner and Sprague when they had wanted to build their canals and giant reservoir near Mission. He was also well aware of Chatfield’s work and surveys.

Robertson proposed a great system of dike works that would relieve the river of some water at Granjeno and divert it in a system to Llano Grande Lake and thence via the Arroyo Colorado to the Laguna Madre. This was, in part, the route of the flood control system which eventually would be put into place incrementally, this portion by 1939 and another branch, only after the horrendous flooding incurred after Hurricane Buelah in 1967.

Back in March of 1920 the Reclamation Bureau had belatedly offered to make a Valley flood control survey. It also wanted the Valley to come up with $10,000. Two years later on 5/23/22 a final contract was signed by the Service and Valley water districts. After the flooding occurring a month later, the contract was amended to have the Bureau of Reclamation survey the ten irrigation districts representing 330,000 acres. The districts would appropriate $12,000, a decision made by water improvement district managers and engineers who were mandated to formulate plans for flood control.

The Valley Press Association led by Ralph Buell of the Mercedes Tribune quickly endorsed the effort. After the passage of another month the need for an additional $5,000 to complete the survey was made known. By the first week of September, the Flood Control Committee of Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy Counties met to investigate a levee establishment law.

H. B. Seay was chairman. Unified plans for Valley flood control were what Arthur Stiles, state reclamation engineer, who had been here in 1917, urged. The Valley moved to push the state legislature for action.

The wheels of progress move very slowly at times as attested by this story. A small newspaper article appeared on 9/23/22. It related that considerable flooding of residences had occurred after a recent rainstorm over San Benito. The problem was connected to an undersized culvert under the railroad tracks adjacent to the old sugar mill (now the Las Palmas plant of CPL).

This poorly designed drainage structure had impeded the flow northward from the affected area. Sixty years later, a once-in-a-lifetime rain dropped nearly 20 inches in less than a 10-hour period. This same area flooded even more extensively due to the very same under-sized culvert restriction at that location.

With the coming of the railroad to the LRGV in 1904, the area became open to exploitation as whatever commodities could be produced there now had an economic avenue for shipment north. Entrepreneurs soon purchased large tracts of land, many which had formerly been Spanish and Mexican land grants. To further enhance their resale value, major gravity flow agricultural irrigation canals were constructed and pump stations erected on the river. Such canals were built near the recently foundered towns of Mission, McAllen, Pharr, Donna, Mercedes, La Feria, Harlingen, and San Benito. Parcels were then offered for purchase to homeseekers and speculators alike. Land companies enticed and promoted mid-west buyers with low-priced excursion fares.

When persistent flooding put the irrigation investments at risk, the national government was asked to assist in alleviating the flooding problems. The United States Reclamation Service had been foundered in June 1902. It was assigned the task of investigating the flooding of the river and recommending solutions for a cure.

In 1921 it produced its massive, comprehensive, and informative Report on the Lower Rio Grande Project. This report included 14 pages of synopsis and conclusions, an 189 page report with an appendix of 16 exhibits and eight tables. The whole was provided an alphabetical index. Included were a number of photographs, maps, and river flow height graphs for the years 1901 through 1910. In its conclusions were a recommendation for a new water treaty between the U. S. and Mexico and the establishment of a board or commission from both countries to investigate the status of existing water rights and other issues.

There were some possibilities floated including a large retention lake between Rio Grande City and Camargo.

Some others had alternate ideas as a relief mechanism. Organized in July 1914 first as the Southwest Texas Progressive League, Mission area farmer commenced what became popularly known as the “gravity canal movement.” They wished to draw water from the river at Peñitas, store some in a reservoir west of Mission, then carry it in a large canal which would allow gravity flow eastward in the mid-belt of the Valley. Such a system would in part eliminate the need for secondary lift stations on the north ends of the existing canal systems.

The idea for a gravity system was nothing new.

Chatfield had conceived the idea as early as 1893.

It was resurrected by John Closner, W. L. Lipscomb and J. R. Alamia when in 1908 they incorporated the Rio Grande Valley Reservoir and Irrigation Company with grandiose plans to initiate a giant reservoir and canal systems near Mission. Its plans were never executed.

Interest in the new initiative grew over the next few months. By September 11, l9l4, 600 people met in Mission to consider the establishment of the Gravity Irrigation District of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The gravity canal agitators transformed themselves once again. By January 1915 they organized into the Gravity Irrigation Association. Its secretary S. A. Pipes requested that federal engineer Henry P. Corbin make observations of the river in order to gather more useful data upon which to base decisions.

Gravity canal proponents were unrelenting. In April l9l8 they formed a new cover group and named it the Rio Grande Conservation Association. Politicking ensued. At the onset of 1919 the group, with Selig Deutschman of San Antonio as its secretary, convinced the Reclamation Service to conduct a gravity canal study. The cost would be $30,000, half of which would be from local sources. Shortly thereafter fourteen Valley towns agreed to sign on to guarantee $15,000 for the survey fund. Three Valley bankers were named to collect the monies. They were R. E. Horn, McAllen, J. T. Lomax, San Benito, and C. H. Pease, Raymondville. By March the survey was underway in the Marfa section.

Over the next few months verbal crossfire arose between contending irrigation proponents. Matters needed to be put into perspective. In August C. B. Gore, an engineer from Austin wrote a two part article for the Brownsville Herald. In it he set forth Rio Grande water figures and noted that any reservoir near Mission must be very large.

He suggested that the agitation stop and that engineering logic be initiated. When in January l920 the preliminary federal river irrigation report came out, it hedged in its conclusions. The U.S. Reclamation Bureau engineers had conducted a gravity flow feasibility survey. The study covered flows, storage possibilities, possible control stations, flooding and much more. It ended by suggesting the need for gathering additional data. In June l92l formal approval was given to a 600 page report on the gravity plan. Its costs were forecast to be $72 million from its Peñitas area intake to points east. Such an exorbitant price tag (for the time) cooled but did not quench the heated discourse of the movement’s promoters.

Fred Rusteberg of Brownsville and A. B. Jacobs of Donna returned to the Valley at the end of May l922. They had visited Washington, D.C. to feel out the political situation regarding water development appropriations. They then dropped hints of abandoning the gravity canal crusade for other water conservation alternatives. Two months later Lower Rio Grande Valley Water Users Association manager, C. H. Pease, pointed out the need to work with the gravity canal people only to be squelched the next day by engineers who stated that they would turn down any further investigations. The engineers feared that there was not enough water in some periods to satisfy both present use and that of the proposed gravity canal

The untamed nature of river flows wrought difficulties in delineating the border between the United States and Mexico. While the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, officially entitled the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic was signed on February 2, 1848 to officially end the state of war between the two nations, set the border in part at the Rio Grande in Texas and designated it an International Waterway the river itself was subject to course changes.

Finally, after a convention in 1905 the International Boundary Commission of the United States and Mexico conducted a survey that assigned bancos (former river course now cut off from the main stream) to one nation or the other. The straight line distance from Rio Grande City to the river’s mouth was 108 miles while the river with its numerous meanders had a travel distance of 240 miles. It took until 1970 before 241 bancos had been sliced and their area assigned to one nation or the other.

The United States got 18,505 acres, and Mexico received 11,662. The mapping of these bancos is available in a series of books published by the government, the first in 1910.

The November 1922 application to construct a power dam above Laredo apparently went no where. Had it been constructed it might have been a welcomed predecessor to Amistad and Falcon Dams and all the good which they have wrought. Flood protection for the lower Valley was slow to be effected. To quote from The Handbook of Texas Online: In 1924 and 1925 bond issues of more than $3 million on a tax-remission basis were voted to build levees from Donna to Brownsville, but the 1932 flood demonstrated that levees built on the American side only could not give sufficient protection.

On September 3, 1932, The International Boundary Commission recommended the construction of floodways on each side of the river; both countries agreed, and American construction to include 300 miles of river and floodway levees, improvements, and control works was begun in December 1933 and completed in 1951.