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Entities come together to find solutions to county flooding problem

Street flooding in Socorro (KFOX14/CBS4)

It has been a tough monsoon season in El Paso County. The county has seen flooding, evacuations, sinkholes and severe damage the past month.

In a closed-door meeting Thursday, the county, the outlying cities and all of the local water districts started working together for the first time on the path to a long-term solution.

County Judge Veronica Escobar and Commissioner Vince Perez met with the various Borderland water districts Thursday. The county is working with the all the outlying cities, the Lower Valley Water District, Tornillo Water District, El Paso County Water Improvement District and others to come up with a plan to solve the area's flooding problems for good. They all decided they need to find a way to legally create a stormwater authority.

"I noticed that the flooding was on that side, and now it's been flooding on the side. But yeah, it's always been there," said resident Danny Ramos, who was born and raised in Socorro. "Every year is the same thing. I'm just expecting it. I think they are a little bit ignored and I think they need to do something about it. It's the people who pay taxes and stuff like that. Something has to get done."

"We've never had stormwater infrastructure of the magnitude that we need out in the outlying areas," Escobar said. "We know what the problem is. We know what the solution is. We know how much the solution will cost. The challenge is getting that money."

Escobar said problem is major flooding in the outlying areas of the county. She said the solution is permanent infrastructure. She said the cost is more than $100 million and years of work.

"At least $150 (million) if not more. And it's not just the construction of the storm water infrastructure. We have to find maintenance and operations in perpetuity," Escobar said.

The water retention pond that is adjacent to I10 under the Spaghetti Bowl costs $1 million to clean every time it gets filled with silt. That's just one pond one time.

"We need to get water retained and other water to flow to the river. We need to get it out of the path of private property or we might need to buy private property and create water retention where there is chronic flooding. Clearly the water wants to go there," Escobar said. "Maybe there is a way for us to all collaborate. Including the jurisdictions, the cities of Socorro, Horizon, Vinton."

The county explored other options before this meeting was called. Escobar said the county tried for the last few years to access federal funding through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps said the cost benefit isn't worth it because it's too much investment by the federal government for too little property value.

"The feds invest when there is going to be massive amounts of property damage or when they can save lots and lots of properties," Escobar explained. "Out in the outlying areas, there's not a lot of personal property and in addition, we have working-class families so they don't have very expensive homes."

The county also considered a holding an election to impose a countywide stormwater fee. But both Escobar and Perez have said that is not a viable option either.

"Even if the voters said yes, the money that we collect has to be proportionate to the contributors," Escobar explained. "So that means most people live in the city limits, that's where most of the money would have to go. So that's completely contrary to what our needs are."

On Thursday, the various entities decided that the water districts and the cities involved will have to impose some kind of fee on neighbors.

"I'm cautiously optimistic. This is the beginning of a long-term process, which we hope will address the long-term needs of the community," Perez said. "We can't continue to be reactive every monsoon season. We need some permanent infrastructure in place that helps us to mitigate this flooding."

"It will take years. But we've got to start," Escobar said. "The areas south of the freeway need it most. There is new development that has moved the natural flow of the arroyos. The developers did that without consultation with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), and now the county is dealing with the aftermath."

If approved, that fee would exclude neighbors living inside the city of El Paso because they already pay a stormwater fee. The fee would not require a referendum.

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