Levee project expanded, start date delayed

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A windfall of $10 million from the federal government means the first two phases of the long-awaited U.S. Corps of Engineers Rio Grande Floodway levee project are now funded, nearly doubling the length of the river levee to be re-engineered in the next two years, according to project manager Jerry Nieto.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Engineered levees in Socorro can be found on either side of the Socorro Diversion Channel. Pictured here is the right upstream levee, seen looking west.

A windfall of $10 million from the federal government means the first two phases of the long-awaited U.S. Corps of Engineers Rio Grande Floodway levee project are now funded, nearly doubling the length of the river levee to be re-engineered in the next two years, according to project manager Jerry Nieto.

Until the additional federal appropriation was secured, only Phase I had been funded — an approximate 3.2 mile portion from Otero Avenue north to the Socorro Diversion Channel. With the additional federal monies in place, an additional two-mile section from Otero south to Brown Arroyo has been given the green light.

A request for proposals will be issued in August, according to John D’Antonio, the Corps’ deputy district engineer for civilian programs. The project should break ground by November or December and be completed in one to two years, he said. When Phase II is completed, most of the city of Socorro will be protected from flooding, according to Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker.

The project will remove existing “spoil banks” — dirt mounds on the west side of the Rio Grande — and replace them with engineered levees designed to withstand a catastrophic flood event. The new levees will meet Federal Emergency Management Administration requirements for flood protection. As a result, properties in these areas will benefit from reduced flood insurance rates.

According to Bhasker, homeowners may see possibly $200 to $300 reductions in yearly premiums, and businesses, from $1,500 to $2,000.

The initial construction phase will create a mini-economic boom in Socorro. The contractor will need to employ 58 to 70 full-time employees, which is good news for Socorro’s work force, according D’Antonio.

“The contractor is likely to hire local people,” he said.

The new levee will be the same size or smaller than the existing spoil banks, according to an official from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, a project funding partner. Fifteen feet of cleared space on the river side of the “toe,” or base of the levee, is needed to keep tree roots from compromising the effectiveness of the structure. Clay and rock incorporated into the levees will prevent seepage and erosion during high-water events.

The entire 43-mile project will take approximately 19 years to complete and will extend from San Acacia Dam to south of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.