Water Control

Entire text taken from "A Study of Frank Selden Robertson" by Minnie Gilbert

High water or low. No one knew better than Frank Selden Robertson of San Benito the threat that either extreme in the level of the Rio Grande held for Valleyites. All too often he had seen flood water spread over thousands of acres, ruining crops, canals and other property. Equally disastrous were the times when no water flowed into the irrigation ditches and the main channel of the lower Rio Grande became "the dustiest river in the world."

Frank S. Robertson

The veteran manager of the San Benito irrigation district (1920-43) was the most widely known and probably the best informed of the Valley's early leaders in the long fight of water conservation and flood control. His was the first Anglo family to settle in San Benito. Arriving in 1907, Mr.and Mrs. Robertson and their five-year-old daughter Merry lived in three tents near present North Bowie Ave. The only building in sight was the newly built railroad section house.

The railroad building boom was in full swing when young Frank reached manhood, and he soon became an able railroad construction engineer. Later, he turned to irrigation and other construction work. He was engaged in building irrigation plants and canal systems and levees on the lower Brazos and Colorado Rivers prior to moving to San Benito from Bay City. He worked as engineer for various Valley irrigation and drainage projects and also was in charge of construction of the feeder railroad known as the Spider Web, which later was assimilated by the Gulf Coast Lines. As an independent engineer from 1915 to 1920, he engaged in reclamation works involving irrigation, drainage and flood control.

Like the rest of the Valley, San Benito grew rapidly. Living up to its slogan "We Grow It First," the shipping point took an early lead in carrot produce shipments. The first brick school buildings were completed while Frank Robertson was a member of the school board. In warm weather, his preschool daughter, Kate, used to trudge alone down the board sidewalk to Valdetero's Drug Store. After being seated by either Mr. or Mrs. L. M. Valdetero on a high stool at the first soda fountain in San Benito, she was ready for her daily ice cream cone. The Valdeteros had been in San Benito since 1909.

In 1919 Frank Robertson accepted the post of engineer for the San Benito irrigation district (Cameron County Water Improvement District No.2). After three months, he became general manager and within a few years, succeeded in bringing the 70,000-acre district out of severe financial straits that had verged on bankruptcy. Inevitably, he also became one of the most effective leaders working for Valley-wide drainage and flood control. His unchanging premise was that greater cooperation for the general good was the key to the Valley's success.

From his office in the Water District Building, which dates from 1909, flowed an unending stream of correspondence, phone calls and telegrams-all stressing the imperative need of an adequate water supply to maintain Valley development. From 1919 until his death in February 13, 1943, he served almost continuously as executive secretary or chairman of every group organized to alleviate and/or solve the water problem. Year after year, poring over their maps and charts, he and W. E. Anderson, engineer for the International Boundary Commission, exchanged ideas and information about flood control. In the legislative phase he worked closely with John Garner, Morris Sheppard, John Connally, Milton West and others. His factual reports on the normal flow of the Rio Grande and the Valley's urgent need for water storage and flood control appeared in numerous widely read engineering journals.

He sometimes pointed out that B. F. Yoakum, president of Gulf Coast Lines (formerly St. B.L.&M. Ry.), foresaw the importance of impounding water for irrigation when he extended his railroad to Brownsville. In a recorded interview with Brad Smith, August 2, 1939, Frank Robertson said:

"My brother, Col. Sam Robertson (who built the railroad into the Valley) had definite ideas about water storage and urged it upon Yoakum. The U.S. Geological Survey's gauging station reports showed that any real development would probably create a water shortage. It was Yoakum's dream to build the Gulf Coast Lines from New Orleans to Mexico City with a water level grade at least as far as Tampico.

"While discussing his railroad with President Porfirio Diaz in Mexico City, the two also discussed storage of Rio Grande water behind great dams. As a result of these discussions between 19O9-1910, Diaz and Yoakum were in virtual agreement on water storage and irrigation development in both nations. But the Madero revolution in 1910 put an end to the railroad dream."

Unstable conditions in Mexico delayed united Valley efforts to enlist U.S. government participation in a flood control and water conservation program. In 1909 the river lived up to the reputation that gave it its Mexican name Rio Bravo by going on a rampage. Another flood, less rambunctious, occurred the next year. The 1909 flood followed the natural topography of the region, since there were few canals or obstructions to confine it, and spread over almost the entire Valley. There were other great floods in 1919, 1922 and 1932.

"One of the large boat locks on the Main Canal open for boats to pass through"

Photo courtesy of San Benito Historical Society


In times of flood, everybody turned out to help. Once the turbulent Rio Grande threatened to cut off the San Benito pumping plant. Sometimes swirling currents and whirlpools changed the course of the river by cutting across a narrow neck of land. Areas that were left with new boundaries were called bancos. All able-bodied men and boys in the San Benito community rushed to the river front to toil day and night stacking sandbags and piling brush and logs to prevent what could have been a major catastrophe. Women brought food for the volunteer workers whose only payment was the satisfaction of having helped save the pumping plant.

During another flood crisis, Frank Robertson and his work crews came from San Benito to help Harlingen's Lon C. Hill battle a flood pouring down the arroyo. Uprooted trees carried swiftly in the rolling stream were battering a metal flume built from bank to bank across the arroyo to carry water for irrigation. When a lasso caught one, there were many pairs of hands trying to pull it ashore. Miss Paul Hill recalled that iron hooks were hastily forged in her father's blacksmith shop to attach to the rope ends. Long after their hands were raw and bleeding, the men kept fighting but giant trees kept sailing past, some with perching birds eating fish caught in the branches. The flume was lost and had to be rebuilt.

One Sunday noon word came that Mercedes had been marooned by the flooding Rio Grande. Leaving their wives at church, men took off in the family flivver to help rescue residents being evacuated by boat. Twice when the Arroyo Colorado overflowed at Rio Hondo, volunteers from the rest of the county manned sandbag crews to protect the down-town section. (The last great arroyo flood, an aftermath of Hurricane Beulah, occurred in 1967 and caused enormous residential property damage in Harlingen along the south bank.) Valley efforts for flood protection were suspended during bandit disorders on the Texas side of the Rio Grande (1915-16) and World War I.

The river ran dry in 1917. The least water in the stream bed, according to Robertson's records, was in 1938. Usually such periods were relatively short. However, water shortages were all too common. Until Falcon Dam was completed in 1954, summer usually brought a general ban on lawn watering and other restrictions. Each crisis-drought or flood-renewed Valley appeals to Washington for government action.

By 1920, leaders had succeeded in getting authorization for a survey by the Bureau of Reclamation. The completed report, released after several months, called for dams at Mariscal Canyon and on the Devil's River. Another dam was proposed at Sabinero above Roma and a series of huge canals in the Valley. Estimated cost was $87,500,000-an amount that, at that time, stamped it as an impossible dream.

Nevertheless, the Valley's stubborn fight went on. There were many farsighted leaders from one end of the Valley to the other who worked year after year toward the increasingly important, but always seemingly, far -off goal. In 1922, Valley irrigation districts formed a joint association to consolidate conservation efforts and to enlist support from state and national officials. In 1932, the Water Conservation Association was formed.

As a representative of these and similar groups, Frank Robertson made many trips to Washington. In his mind was a tremendous store of data that was instantly available without reference to tables and charts. His straightforward personality and unfailing Southern courtesy no doubt helped him press the Valley's case. A single thread running through innumerable conferences and planning sessions was: the paramount importance of early steps to negotiate a treaty with Mexico regarding division of international waters. While he did not live until the Falcon Dam project was definitely assured, other dedicated leaders at local, state and national levels carried the Valley's 50-year fight to final victory.

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