Can flood control and cultural preservation find harmony in the South Valley?
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, October 13, 2005
By the time I arrived at Gloria Maldonado's house, the rain had almost stopped. Yet evidence still remained in side-street puddles and muddy ditches, making it easy to imagine what 2.3 inches of rain could do.
That's the magic number: 2.3 inches of rain within 24 hours. Hit that mark and we've got ourselves Albuquerque's own version of the 100-year flood (referring to the 1 percent chance of a flood occurring in a given year). Pass that threshold and the South Valley becomes a small-scale version of New Orleans. Sitting three feet below the bottom of the Rio Grande, this area of our city is a prime target for flooding. Dropping only one foot in elevation for every mile you progress downstream, the whole South Valley has only an approximate three-and-a-half foot difference in elevation from one end to the other, which means it's basically flat. It also means that if water pours in, it's not going to be easy to get it out.
Gloria Maldonado is well aware of the threat. Having grown up in the South Valley, she is familiar with the soggy front yards and flooded roads often left in the trail of a storm. She's also well aware that flood control in the South Valley is necessary to prevent her neighborhood from being flushed out, and is excited about emerging joint efforts on the part of the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority (AMAFCA), Bernalillo County and the Army Corps of Engineers to waterproof her streets.
But in the midst of the long-awaited effort, Maldonado has a concern. Sitting adjacent to her home is a 25-acre plot of prime agricultural land, which has been tilled and hoed and harvested for over 250 years, and to this day remains lush with Sudan grass, which is sold to the Rio Grande Zoo. In an attempt to mitigate floodplains, AMAFCA wants to buy the land to build a drainage pond; but Maldonado is concerned that building the pond could lead to more harm than good.
When It Rains, It Pours
The South Valley is perhaps more susceptible to flooding than any other area of the city. It is also the least prepared. Wedged between the river and 62 square miles of watershed on the West Mesa, it's a sitting duck for the next big storm.
If—or, statistically speaking, when—the South Valley floods, it could have devastating effects. Nearly 2,000 acres would be immersed underwater, and damage to houses and roads, along with contaminated wells and overflowing septic tanks would present a nightmare for inhabitants. According to Jerry Lovato, field engineer with AMAFCA, it would take millions of dollars to repair.
In order to skirt such a catastrophe, AMAFCA, Bernalillo County and the Army Corps of Engineers are now working to eliminate floodplains in the South Valley, with the cooperation of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. In order to accomplish this, said Lovato, they are left with a couple options, which have been employed in other areas of the city. One option is to install pumps in target areas; an effective but costly procedure. The other option is to install gravity systems such as drainage ponds.
According to Lovato, constructing a drainage pond involves carving out the ground to create a basin-like depression, but at a mild slope. Lovato said that many drainage ponds are built to be multiuse and, even though their main purpose is to hold water in the event of a flood, in the meantime they can also be made to accommodate other uses such as soccer or little league fields, or used be agriculturally.
Flood-proofing the entire South Valley would take a grand total of $120 million. For now, $19.5 million has been approved for the project in a bill recently passed by the House of Representatives, an initiative that was pushed by New Mexico's congressional delegates. The bill is currently waiting to be signed by the president. The federal money will be used to create what Lovato refers to as the “backbone” of the drainage system, which will later be built upon to augment the system. Danny Hernandez, AMAFCA director, said AMAFCA will continue to work to generate funds to complete the project.
Within the plan to quell flood threats in the South Valley lies Pond 187. Or, should we say, the future Pond 187; currently, there's nothing pond-like about it. A large plot of land resigned to germinating Sudan grass, it's also an annual migration point for Canadian geese and the occasional crane, and has been in cultivation for more than two-and-a-half centuries as part of the old Atrisco Land Grant. And it lies right outside Maldonado's back door.
“We need a drainage system here, we're way behind the rest of the city,” said Maldonado, “but my concern is that we'll do it at the cost of losing prime agricultural property; that has an impact on neighborhoods, communities and the environment.”
Maldonado discovered that AMAFCA was looking to purchase the 25 acres when she was walking outside one day and came across surveyors on the land. When she asked what they were doing, they informed her of the proposal and said things were in negotiations.
Not knowing who the owner of the property was and not knowing the effects of a potential drainage pond being built on the land, Maldonado went door-to-door with a petition, asking people to sign in opposition of the proposal. One of the doors she knocked on belonged to Ann Terpstra, an elderly woman who happened to own the land. According to Maldonado, when she asked Terpstra if she intended to sell, she replied that she had no idea anyone wanted to purchase it.
Terpstra declined to comment on the matter to the Alibi, but, according to Rep. Miguel Garcia, who is heavily involved in neighborhood discussions over the proposal, she informed him that she is not interested in selling.
Garcia, who was contacted by Maldonado when she discovered AMAFCA's plans, is strongly against constructing a drainage pond on the site, mainly because of the site's cultural significance. “[The] proposal to place a drainage pond on the existing twenty-five acre field is devastating. It is almost like cultural genocide on our community,” said Garcia, who added that a drainage system needed to be generated for the South Valley, but that it should be done in a way that “protects cultural and historical properties at all costs, protects key commercial property and has a minimal negative impact on private property and existing agricultural lands.”
AMAFCA's Hernandez and Lovato said that if the owner agrees to sell the land, it would be developed in a way that respects what she wants to happen with it. Currently, they said she has expressed interest in it continuing to be used as agricultural land; something that Lovato said is possible.
“Assuming that we purchase the pond, we are adamant that it will [remain] agricultural,” said Hernandez.
Lovato added that the reason the site is being considered is because it's in a naturally low-lying area already that would attract water and serve well as a drainage pond. He said that if the owner decides not to sell, he's not sure what a backup plan will be yet, but said one would be found, although it might be more expensive.
Garcia, Maldonado and other residents, however, said they're concerned because, even though AMAFCA claims to build multiuse ponds, they've seen other areas purchased by the authority which were intended to be turned into drainage ponds, such as a plot of land on Isleta and Bridge and the old Sanchez Farm, which have been neglected and turned into eyesores instead.
“In the history of AMAFCA, it seems like it's philosophically easier for them to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission,” said Miriam Benedict, another concerned neighborhood resident. “As neighbors, we have a right to say what goes in there; we're not going to let them dig [things] up, and spend an awful lot of money, if they're not going to maintain it.”
But Hernandez and Lovato took offense to such a statement. They said the Sanchez Farm was designed based on community influence and that, although it got a late start in the growing season this year, it will be running next season and generating money for the community. They added that the plot of land on Isleta and Bridge, which was acquired two years ago and remains undeveloped, will be taken over by Bernalillo County and developed in a multiuse way that honors the fact that it is located in what many South Valley residents refer to as the gateway to the Valley.