December 26, 2008
The border fence is nearly done in Hidalgo County.
The vertical posts required by the federal government for border security are in place along almost all of the 20.26 miles of levee-fence, and the concrete barriers intended for flood protection are up in more than 80 percent of the project.All that remains in those places is welding steel caps onto the posts, sodding the ground along the fence and putting down caliche roads for U.S. Border Patrol agents.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security declared four segments of the county's levee-fence substantially complete in the past month, and county officials say the remaining six segments should be done by Jan. 31.
That timeline would mean Hidalgo County would barely miss the upcoming Wednesday deadline set by Congress when it passed the 2006 act mandating construction of 670 miles of fence along the southwest United States, but the levee-fence would be finished days after President-elect Barack Obama takes office.
Obama said in early December that he wants to evaluate what's working along the border before considering whether to finish what remains to be built of the fence when he takes office.
Along most of the border, there may not be much left to reconsider.
Nowhere has construction on the border fence been slower than in the Rio Grande Valley.
Homeland Security has met widespread opposition in Starr and Cameron counties as it contended with hundreds of condemnation lawsuits and flood-control issues along the Rio Grande.
But progress in Hidalgo County has been steady since the department compromised with county officials earlier this year to fold levee improvements and fence construction into one project.
Under the levee-fence plan, Hidalgo County agreed to contribute $44 million to the project - or about 24 percent of its cost - with the county's Washington representatives promising to support a bill in Congress that would reimburse the county.
With the funding in place, Homeland Security agreed to incorporate its fence into the International Boundary and Water Commission's levees to bypass land acquisition battles and make improvements to levees the IBWC claims are unsafe.
Comprised of a U.S. Section and a Mexican Section, the IBWC is responsible for coming up with bi-national solutions to issues that arise during the application of treaties between the United States and Mexico regarding flood control and other issues in the border region. The U.S. Section is a federal government agency and is responsible for maintaining the flood control system in the Valley.
The levee-fence that has been built in Hidalgo County incorporates the Border Patrol's tactical requirements - a wall of posts sunk deep into the earth and rising up to 18 feet from the ground - into concrete levees meant to keep at bay a swollen Rio Grande and expensive flood insurance premiums.
Hidalgo County officials said throughout construction that they were opposed to the border fence for social and economic reasons, but they argued it was best to partner with Homeland Security to make improvements to the levees.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced last year that parts of Hidalgo County south of Expressway 83 would be designated a special flood hazard area if the levees were not fixed, potentially costing property owners up to $150 million in annual premiums.
With the 20 miles of levee-fence and improvements to an additional 13 miles of regular levees scheduled to be complete by mid-January, the western portion of Hidalgo County will be protected from Rio Grande flooding, said Godfrey Garza, the general manager of Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1.
About 20 miles of river levee on the eastern side of the county still need improvements to avoid the FEMA flood designation.
"For us, it's a levee project. It's all we care about," Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas said last week. "Hidalgo County is not in the business of American immigration. We're in the business of protecting our residents from floods and protecting our economic development."
Despite starting construction a month behind schedule as the county reached a final agreement with Homeland Security on the levee-fence plan, the construction crews building the structure have run into few problems, Garza said. Permit issues relating to gas lines did slow construction, however, on two segments near Peñitas that will be the last to be finished.
The only border fence segment in Hidalgo County not scheduled for completion by the end of January is one Hidalgo County isn't building.
Homeland Security halted a two-mile segment of standalone fencing near Los Ebanos in November because of flooding concerns.The department also halted about 13 miles of fence in Starr County because of similar concerns.
The biggest question mark in border fence construction lies with Hidalgo County's neighbor to the east.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced this week that it had completed 526 miles of the border fence by Dec. 12, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said 600 miles should be complete by the time Obama takes office.
Of the remaining 70 miles of fencing expected to be left along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, almost 40 of it will be in Cameron County.
The work in that county has stalled as landowners fought condemnation suits in court and its government tried, unsuccessfully, to mimic Hidalgo County's levee-fence.
Homeland Security said Cameron County's proposal to combine the Rio Grande's levees with the planned border fence was not feasible with the International Boundary and Water Commission already planning levee improvements in the Cameron County area.The decision to reject Cameron County's request also came back to the issue of funding: Hidalgo County went to the feds' table with $100 million in bond money, but Cameron County did not offer any funding in its proposal.
With the levee-fence alternative dead in Cameron County, Homeland Security awarded three contracts worth a combined $37 million to build the 15- to 18-foot-tall steel barrier.
Border fence opponents took Obama's appointment of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to be homeland security secretary as a ray of hope that fence construction would be halted, and the Cameron County Commissioners Court even took the step of writing a letter to Obama requesting its stoppage.
But Homeland Security officials insist there will still be a fence built along the rest of South Texas' border with Mexico.
"We're still planning to build fence there," CBP spokeswoman Angela de Rocha said. "We've got contracts for them. Once you sign a contract, you're obligated to do that work."
A line of 18-foot posts encased in an imposing concrete barrier stretches on for two miles on both sides of the Progreso-Nuevo Progreso International Bridge.
The two segments - a total of about 4.5 miles split only by the bridge that allows American access to an array of touristy goods on the other side of the border - were declared "substantially complete" by Homeland Security earlier this month.
With the levee-fence nearly finished in Hidalgo County, officials said they will turn their focus toward getting reimbursed for the $44 million they invested in the project.
Even with the delays in Cameron County and the slim possibility that a new presidential administration could change course on the fence, Hidalgo County's Salinas said his county made the "hard decision" to partner with Homeland Security on the levee-fence.
"If they were going to spend money in Hidalgo County, we might as well make it a project that's going to hold water," Salinas said. "And that's what we tried to do."