BELEN — The monsoon season has once again ravaged the Hub City as between 2.95 and 3.2 inches of rain fell in a matter of two hours Tuesday night, causing flooding throughout Belen.
The excessive amount of rain that poured down in such a short amount of time caused a breach of the Highline Canal at Delgado Avenue, sending water into Belen and damaging roads, residents and businesses.
The downpour began around 8:40 p.m., and city crews were immediately out mitigating the emergency situation. Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova said as soon as they realized the strength of the storm, they acted.
“We realized (the rain) was heavy and sustained and we began mobilizing immediately, even though we didn’t have flooding at that time,” Cordova said. “Usually when we get seven or eight minutes of sustained rain like that, we know we’re going to have a problem.”
As the storm continued, emergency services such as police and fire personnel were out, blocking roads where there were significant water flows. There were reports of a lot of stalled vehicles on roadways, causing crews to rescue people from their vehicles.
“There were a lot of homes and businesses taking on water, and we were doing our best to help in those situations but it was so significant we obviously couldn’t get to all of them,” the mayor said.
At about 9:30 p.m., Tuesday, the city received reports that the Highline Canal at Delgado Avenue (near Belen High School) had been breached, sending tons of water into the city.
“It busted a huge hole on the east side of the Highline Canal, and it took us about seven hours to repair,” Cordova said. “We had the city of Belen and the village of Los Lunas on site immediately, Valencia County was assisting as well.”
The mayor said crews with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which owns the canal, was working on other overflow and silt situation, but did help with the breach at about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Because of the breach, residents on Delgado, Castillo and parts of Gilbert did take on significant water. The water flowed through those streets down to Main Street and continued down Reinken, Dalies, Becker and east to west from Second to Sixth streets. The water, Cordova said, reached as far as Ross to the north and Bernard to the south.
While the breach of the Highline Canal caused water to flow into and flood the streets of Belen, there were other areas of the city that were affected directly from the heavy rains, such as Impala, DeSoto and others.
A new breach was discovered Wednesday morning along the New Belen Ditch on Mesa Road, about a quarter mile from the city’s northern boundary in the county. This contributed to continuing water flows in the areas of Impala and Aragon.
Mike Hammon, chief engineer and CEO for the MRGCD, said the district’s primary concern was the two breaks in the Highline and the two in the New Belen Acequia. There were also small breaks in the Garcia Ditch and other ditches throughout the county, Hammon said, totaling about 20 breaks in total for the event.
“We knew the storm was coming so we had evacuated about 90 percent of all the irrigation water before it hit; the Highline was running at about 23 (cubic feet per second),” he said. “We did what we could but these ditches are for irrigation. They’re built for small flows. Two year storm events we deal with all the time, but when you have huge storm cells like we did last night and in 2018, 100, 200 year events that overwhelm everybody, our little canal can’t stop that.”
Photos courtesy of Jerah R. Cordova
Becker Avenue in Belen was covered in water Tuesday night, with water flowing into private businesses and several city-owned buildings.
Photo courtesy of Jerah R. Cordova
On Wednesday, many businesses and public facilities, such as the Belen Municipal Court and Magistrate Court were closed due to the flood. Cordova said some water did get into the old Belen fire station on Sixth Street, but not much damage was done.
The New Belen Ditch, which runs long Mesa Road, was topped but not breached, but did overflow into Our Lady of Belen Memorial Gardens cemetery, Cordova said.
“Last night was all about providing emergency services, making sure everyone was safe,” the mayor said early Tuesday morning, “in addition to making sure the Highline Canal was shored up. The village of Los Lunas and Valencia County stepped up immediately to assist and we were very grateful for that.”
As the sun rose Wednesday morning, the city crews pivoted from the emergency situation to cleaning up debris from roadways and pumping water in multiple areas of town.
The Highline Canal was breached three years ago on July 5, 2018, at Hanson and Castillo, which has since been built up. When comparing this storm damage to the one three years ago, Cordova said this one was “significantly worse.”
“Last time, the damage was on Hanson to Castillo, Main Street and portions of the historic district, which were hugely affected,” the mayor said. “This was much broader; the breach on Delgado spread the water to a wider area of town. More business and residents were affected.”
Since the flood three years ago, the city has been planning for flood mitigation, having received $1.7 million in 2019 from state capital outlay funding, and another grant from Homeland Security for restoration of a pond. Cordova said the city also needs a pond on Aragon Road, which historically has problems during the monsoon season.
“What we really need is a permanent solution, which Councilor (Frank) Ortega has been working on,” Cordova said. “That solution would be a diversionary channel that would run from one end to the other of town that would catch the water before it hits the Highline. Unfortunately, it comes at a cost of $65 million.”
Another part of the long-term solution should be the establishment of a local flood control agency, similar to the ones in Bernalillo and Sandoval counties, Hammon said.
“(The district) is not a flood control agency. Our ditches can do that for a little while, but then they fill and spill over,” he said. “I think they are going to have to bite the bullet. We’ve taken the lead on one area of the Belen Highline. The district has been awarded a grant of about $500,000 to do improvements to the Highline from the city of Belen to the Socorro County line, more or less. We need the county to come on and we want them to maintain that under their flood control authority.
“This isn’t as bad as 2018 as far as standing water goes. It’s still a messy clean up but the drains are running well so they are helping evacuate water from low lying areas.”
Just after 1 a.m., Wednesday, the city of Belen’s governing body officially declared a flood emergency to begin releasing emergency funds and support.
The city of Rio Communities also had its share of flooding Tuesday night, causing the council to hold an early-morning emergency meeting to approve an emergency resolution.
The storm water rushing, and in some cases, roaring through the city of Rio Communities at 12:31 a.m., Wednesday, July 7, was “really interesting to see,” said City Manager Marty Moore.
A little more than an hour later, the Rio Communities City Council convened for an emergency meeting, passing a resolution declaring an emergency due to flood waters sweeping through the city.
“The fire chief contacted me and said we needed to declare an emergency,” said Mayor Pro Tem Peggy Gutjahr. “The chief, Councilor (Josh) Ramsell and the city manager went out to review the community and identify where the worst spots were. Today (Wednesday), we’ll be doing more assessment.”
While Belen’s flooding came from the west mesa, Moore said the majority of the damage seen across the river was due to storm water flowing through the area.
“In Belen, it’s kind of like the bottom of a sink and it’s just there. It was a different kind of damage for us,” he said. “It dropped a lot of silt on (N.M.) 47 and plugged up some of the major culverts. If we have a major rain after this, things will be much messier.”
Moore said most of the water damage he saw was in the area of Western Drive near the Tierra Del Sol Golf Club and on the east side of the city, down Hillandale and Goodman avenues.
“We checked for damage of power poles; there was one that was washed out around the base but it hadn’t fallen,” he said. “We’re going to have people with debris and silt. A lot of soil came down with that rain.”
Moore said if residents see downed power poles or lines they should contact PNM immediately, 888-342-5766, and if there are issues with the water system, New Mexico Water Service, 864-2218, should be contacted. All other issues in relation to the flooding and rains can be directed to city hall, 861-6803.
The New Mexico Chapter of the American Red Cross shelter is now open at the Dennis Chavez Elementary School, 19670 N.M. 314, Los Chavez, for those affected by the flooding. They may go to the shelter for a safe place to stay and to get information. For additional assistance call 1-800-842-7349.
The city of Belen has established a flood assistance line — (505) 966-2734 —for whoever needs help.
(News-Bulletin assistant editor Julia M. Dendinger contributed to this report.)
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.