San Benito has 45 days to complete wetland project

SAN BENITO — The clock is ticking. The city has about 45 days to use the remainder of an $86,000 state grant to complete a decade-old project to turn 12 old sewer ponds into a 40-acre wildlife sanctuary.

“We’ll close on time,” Bernard Rodriguez, the city’s planning director, said yesterday. Earlier this week, city commissioners awarded a $29,738 contract to Donna-based Saenz Brothers Construction to build an observation deck to stand over the wetlands area near the banks of the Arroyo Colorado.

In a special meeting, Rodriguez told commissioners the city had 45 days to use the grant money or lose it.

Still, Mayor Ben Gomez opposed the contractor’s selection because he believed the company failed to complete a city project in 2010.

However, Rodriguez said the company he recommended was not involved in the 2010 project.

“I have a reputable contractor,”Rodriguez said yesterday. “I believe the results are going to be very nice eco-tourism spot.”

Both Rodriguez, who took his job last year, and City Manager Manuel De La Rosa, who took office more than two years ago, said they did not have information readily available to determine why it took the city so long to use the grant money awarded in 2016.

After more than 10 years, the work on the observation deck will mark the completion of the wetlands project that aims to draw eco-tourists to the area off Line 20 Road near Williams Road.

The project calls for construction of a 13-foot by 13-foot observation deck and the renovation of two old wooden piers that run more than 200 feet along the wetland area, Rodriguez said.

“We’re looking to give eco-tourism visitors a better view of the wetlands,” he said. Rodriguez said the project’s third phase also includes development of two big ponds. “We’re looking at two much larger former holding ponds,” he said.

As part of the project the city will also pump more water into the wetlands.

“We have an unlimited source of water,” he said. “That’s a key component of the project.”

What is the project?

The wetlands will help clean agricultural runoff discharged into the Arroyo Colorado, the General Land Office states on its website.

The project “will restore the remaining 10 ponds at the 165-acre water treatment property along the arroyo and utilize them to water and treat nearby agricultural runoff before entering the Arroyo Colorado,” the website states.

“Evaporation and utilization by vegetation will reduce the amount of water impacting the seagrass ecosystem in Laguna Madre.” The 10-year project stems from the city’s response to a hefty fine.

In 2005, the state fined the city about $3 million for discharging inadequately treated sewer water into the Arroyo Colorado, officials said. As part of an agreement, the state agreed to waive payment if the city launched a project to turn its old sewer ponds into wetlands.

“Rather than paying the fine, we elected to invest in the wetland project to develop a tourism destination spot,” Rodriguez said.