Thursday, August 30, 2012

Border fence worries residents

Associate Press
August 29, 2012
by Christopher Sherman

RIO GRANDE CITY —Officials from a U.S. agency that monitors the U.S.-Mexico border faced residents Wednesday who are worried about a decision to allow the construction of fence segments in the nearby Rio Grande flood plain.

Engineers from the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission told a citizens forum that hydraulic modeling led the agency to drop its opposition to the project.

But the highly technical explanation did little to allay residents' fears of flooding and concerns that the agency had caved in to pressure from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"How can you really tell us it's going to work 100 percent?" said Aleida Garcia, of Los Ebanos, a small community surrounded on three sides by the winding river and completely in the flood plain. "Because we're talking about people, communities, families."

Jose Nunez, supervisory civil engineer with U.S. IBWC, said "whether the fence is there or not, you're still in the flood plain." The agency's engineers said the modeling indicates that the fence will not be a significant obstruction, a position opposed by their Mexican counterparts.

The decision affects about seven miles of fencing planned in the flood plain out 14 miles planned for the three combined sections near Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos.

The U.S. has built about 650 miles of border barriers along the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico boundary. In Texas, the fence segments have been built more than a mile from the river in some rural areas, but the three segments recently reviewed by the commission would be built closer because all three communities abut the river.

On Wednesday a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman corrected a statement last month in which the agency said no additional fencing in Hidalgo County — where Los Ebanos is located — was necessary, but reiterated there are no current plans to build the three segments because there is not funding. The final fence segment design drawings would still have to go back to IBWC for approval before construction.

Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal said he had been worried coming into the meeting, but after 30 minutes of technical presentation, said "now I'm frightened to death." Most attendees, including the mayor, expressed concern about border security, but called for more personnel, not a fence.

The proposal continues to draw opposition from Mexico and its side of the binational IBWC as well.
A 1970 treaty between the United States and Mexico called on both countries to prohibit the building of anything that "may cause deflection or obstruction of the normal flow of the river or of its flood flows."

In July, Jesus Luevano, secretary of the commission's Mexican section, said in an email to The Associated Press that Mexico's position is that the "wall constitutes an obstruction of the normal current ... in terms of the 1970 Boundary Treaty, therefore we continue fighting its placement with respect to the Rio Grande flood zone."

One of the agency's own engineers said as much to a similar forum in 2008.

Al Riera, then the principal operations engineer for the U.S. IBWC, said, "If they (Department of Homeland Security) don't show us they have something in place to guarantee removal of the (fence) panels ... the commission would never agree to something like that."

That movable fence was planned to involve a base of concrete barriers topped with about 15 feet of tightly woven steel fencing that could be removed in advance of floodwater.

The fence that the IBWC approved in February is not movable. It is an 18-foot-tall fence made of 6-by-6-inch steel bollards with four inches between.

Scott Nicol, founder of No Border Wall, a group opposed to the project, said the agency's modeling was built on flawed or wishful assumptions. He showed a large photograph of debris stacked nearly six feet high along a fence segment in Arizona.

"It seems like the change (in the IBWC position) has more to do with pressure from above than facts on the ground," Nicol said.

A July 2010 presentation made by CBP to the State Department noted that these three segments were the agency's highest tactical infrastructure priority. It also stated that "hydraulic modeling is not an exact science."

Forum on border fence plan gets cool reception in RGC

The Monitor
August 29, 2012
by Gail Burkhardt

RIO GRANDE CITY — Many residents, activists and community leaders left Wednesday’s meeting on a flood study for the proposed border fences still full of questions.

The International Boundary and Water Commission, or IBWC, gave a presentation on a flood modeling study that showed that a border fence in Los Ebanos, Rio Grande City and Roma would not cause flooding. About half the proposed 14 miles of fence would sit on a flood plain.

IBWC, the bi-national agency with components in Mexico and the United States that oversee water and boundary treaties on the Rio Grande, hosted the meeting in the Holiday Inn Express in Rio Grande City after receiving questions and concerns from area residents who believe debris would clog up the fence and cause flooding. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, would be in charge of the fence.

Dr. Padinare Unnikrishna, the lead hydraulic engineer for the U.S. division of IBWC, presented a detailed and technical PowerPoint on the flood study that used two-dimensional modeling.

But about 35 minutes into the presentation, one meeting attendee echoed the sentiment of many in the room of more than 50 people.

“Can I ask a question?” he said. “Does anyone understand any of this?”

And so without further ado, the questions from residents began:

>> “How can you assure us that it’s going to work 100 percent?”

>> “Could that fence actually extend the flood plain?”

Others asked about the possibility of drainage being blocked from going into the river.

The IBWC and CBP officials said drainage systems would be accounted for when the fence is designed.

Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal criticized IBWC for leading with a confusing technical explanation and not communicating well with the public.

“Your presentation has been lacking in the communication side,” he said. “I was scared walking in here. Now I’m frightened to death.”

Los Ebanos resident Aleida Garcia said she’s seen how her small community, which sits completely on a flood plain, has been affected by water.

“The debris is bad,” she said. “We saw it. We lived it.”

Jose Nuñez, the supervisory civil engineer, said debris is only projected to build up in 10 percent to 25 percent of the fence, thus not changing the flow of water or causing flooding. The flood study used a model of waters rising to higher than Hurricane Beulah levels in 12 hours.

But Scott Nicol, of the Sierra Club environmental group, questioned why the IBWC did not look at other, lower levels of water or higher levels of obstruction of the fence. He also noted that officials from the Mexican IBWC projected that debris would obstruct 60 percent to 70 percent of the fence and push floodwaters into Mexico.

Nicol, who pushed for the meeting in Starr County, said he’s glad the IBWC and CBP officials held the meeting, but he didn’t leave the event more enlightened.

“They did not answer any of my questions,” he said.

He also noted the reactions of residents who were frustrated they weren’t able to give their input before the study was completed.

“It would have made a lot of sense to have the meeting before the decision was made,” he said.

He challenged the Department of Homeland Security to host public forums about the fence, given that IBWC was only doing the study and does not actually build or fund the fence.

Abel Anderson, the division director of tactical infrastructure for CBP, said the agency has public meetings for the fence once they are in the design phases. Currently there is no money available to build the 14 additional miles of the fence.

Donnie Valdez, a member of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Citizens Forum for IBWC, asked Anderson how the public could give its input on the border fence. Anderson suggested going through the local Congress member’s office.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Meeting this week for new Starr, Hidalgo border fence

The Monitor
August 25, 2012
by Gail Burkhardt

ROMA — “I’ve got all kinds of questions, but I’ve never gotten any answers.”

Noel Benavides summed up the sentiment of many residents when asked about new stretches of border fencing proposed in Starr and western Hidalgo counties.

Representatives for the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) hope to clear up some of those concerns and questions at a public forum Wednesday in Rio Grande City. The meeting will address an IBWC study that examined a proposed border fence made of vertical posts spaced 4 inches apart near Rio Grande City, Roma and Los Ebanos. IBWC is a bi-national agency with components in Mexico and the United States that oversee water and boundary treaties on the Rio Grande.

The study found the fence would not cause flooding on the U.S. or Mexican sides of the river. About 7 of the 14 miles of proposed fence included in the study would sit on the flood plain.

However, no timeline has been set for when the new stretches of fence would be built.

“There is a requirement for an additional approximately 14 miles of fence, segments O-1, O-2 and O-3 in Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos,” an email from a Customs and Border Protection spokesman sent to The Monitor states. “However, there are currently no plans to construct that fence as funding is not currently available.”

>> View interactive maps of the proposed border fences in Rio Grande City, Roma and Los Ebanos


The IBWC study results have prompted complaints from residents, lawmakers and activists who point to the commission’s previous reservations about building a permanent fence on the flood plain.

But those views changed after the most recent study was completed.

The study employed advanced two-dimensional computer modeling to show that even with record high flood levels like those of the infamous Hurricane Beulah of 1967, the fence would not cause flooding in either country, according to IBWC reports.

But Mexican IBWC officials object to the fence, noting that it could cause flooding in Mexico if debris caught in the fence make it impermeable, thus pushing floodwater south. Correspondence between the two entities obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made by environmentalist group Sierra Club shows Mexico’s dissent.

Jesús Luévano, the secretary of the Mexican section of IBWC confirmed that position in an email to The Monitor, but Sally Spener, the foreign affairs officer for the U.S. IBWC, said the study included specifications for debris and still showed that it would not cause flooding.

But Scott Nicol, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club conservation chair, cited cases in the deserts of Arizona where heavy rainfall has deposited dirt, plants and other debris to a height of 6 feet along the border fence with a construction similar to the fencing planned in Starr County and Los Ebanos. He also questioned the methodology of the study and said he plans to raise those concerns again Wednesday.

Benavides, a Starr County Industrial Foundation board member and former Roma city commissioner, wants to know how a Texas Department of Transportation drainage project will be affected by the proposed fence. TxDOT plans to widen Arroyo Roma to aid proper drainage and prevent flooding, which commonly occurs in Roma with heavy rainfall.

While good for the city, Benavides worries that the extra water from the creek that flows into the Rio Grande could get stopped up in the border fence.

But Spener said the modeling was tested for much more water and the arroyo plans will not cause flooding. She also noted that gates in the fence are an option for arroyos.

“When we modeled the impact of flood flows we took into account what is considered a major flood, which is the Hurricane Beulah flood,” she said. “We took into account that very volume of flow into the river. It’s a huge volume. It’s far in excess of what any single arroyo would contribute.”


Starr County and western Hidalgo County residents remember the big floods well.

Police evacuated Los Ebanos, a small unincorporated community south of Sullivan City, in July 2010 during Hurricane Alex. Flood waters swelled hundreds of yards past the river, which surrounds Los Ebanos on three sides.

Rio Grande City resident Jose Roberto Molina, who lives on Water Street about a quarter of a mile from the river, said he remembers floodwaters from Beulah reaching his yard.

The 56-year-old said he would worry the fence might obstruct water that drains naturally downhill toward the river and near his house. But he also is concerned about what he perceives as an increased number of illegal immigrants running through his neighborhood.

“Before, you could sleep with the … door open. Now there’s people coming by every day,” he said, adding that he locks the gate to his driveway each evening.

Rio Grande City school district Police Chief Hernan Garza said immigrants occasionally run through the district’s Fort Ringgold campus, which abuts the river. School police also recently stopped a large drug load passing through the campus. A deflated raft even sat near the river’s edge near school property Thursday.

“I think (a fence) would be a good deterrent,” he said.

Border Patrol agents frequent Benavides’ land, where at least three deflated rafts, presumably used for illegal crossings, were visible along a stretch of the riverbank Thursday.

Still, Benavides is vehemently against the fence. He has been voicing his concerns and requesting information on the topic from federal authorities for years.

“I personally don’t see any use for it,” he said, explaining that he believes the current fences in Hidalgo and Cameron counties aren’t effective at deterring illegal traffic.

He said the fence would cut off about 35 acres of his ranchland, which sits near the adjoining cemeteries on Grant Street southeast of downtown. Benavides, who has allowed the land to revert to its natural state after being farmed, worries about the environmental impacts of a fence.

The Department of Homeland Security waived the normal requirement to conduct environmental studies when building the fence along the river.

Benavides said there is evidence of ocelots and other native threatened species on his 150 acres of land.

“They did not do an environmental study. … Why are they exempt from doing that?” he said, voicing one of his many unanswered questions aloud. “Will it affect the environment? I think it will.”

A Customs and Border Protection representative is scheduled to be at Wednesday’s meeting to answer additional questions, but the bulk of the gathering will include presentations on IBWC’s study.

The International Boundary and Water Commission is not in charge of building the fence and conducted the study to comply with a 1970 treaty between the U.S. and Mexico that prevents anything from being built along the river that would obstruct or deflect normal or flood flows, Spener said.

Merino, the U.S. IBWC principal engineer; Jose Nuñez, the supervisory civil engineer; and Padinare Unnikrishna, the lead hydraulic engineer, will present on the study and answer questions at the forum.


Gail Burkhardt covers Mission, western Hidalgo County, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. She can be reached at and (956) 683-4462.


WHAT: Public forum on United States International Boundary and Water Commission's hydraulic analysis of proposed border fence near Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos, TX

WHERE: Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites, 5274 East Hwy 83 in Rio Grande City

WHEN: Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m.

>> Those with questions can contact Jose Nuñez, Chief of the US IBWC's Engineering Services Division, at (915) 832-4710

Friday, August 24, 2012

IBWC to hold public forum next week to discuss border wall plans

Rio Grande Guardian
August 22, 2012
by Raul de la Cruz

RIO GRANDE CITY, August 22 - The No Border Wall group is urging South Texas residents to attend a key public forum being held next week to disseminate more information on new border walls.

The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission has approved new border walls for Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos.

“This may be the last chance for Rio Grande Valley residents to ask hard questions of the U.S. IBWC before border walls are built in the floodplain,” said Scott Nicol, a co-founder of No Border Wall.

The public forum is being hosted by the U.S. section of the IBWC. It will be held next Wednesday, Aug. 29, at the Holiday Day Inn Express Hotel & Suites, 5274 East Hwy 83, in Rio Grande City. The forum will start at 6 p.m.

The welcome and introductions will be made by John L. Merino, an IBWC principal engineer. The project description will be made by Jose Nunez, an IBWC supervisory civil engineer. The hydraulic modeling analysis discussion will be led by Dr. Padrinare Unnikrishna, an IBWC lead hydraulic engineer.

Nicol said that when U.S. Customs and Border Protection built identical border walls to those planned for Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos in Cameron County, the U.S. section of the IBWC forced CBP to erect them behind the levees, cutting off thousands of acres of private land and wildlife refuges. “So, why is U.S. IBWC now saying that these border walls will not pose a flood hazard and can sit in the floodplain?” Nicol asked.

Nicol recently visited the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in Arizona to view similar border walls to those being proposed for Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos. He provided the Guardian with a photo of the border wall in San Pedro.

“In one instance, debris is (as of last Saturday) backed up six feet deep behind the wall. Sediment has filled in behind the debris, raising the floor of the wash to a height around four and a half feet higher than it is on the downstream side,” Nicol said.

“It will be interesting to see how IBWC explains how the Rio Grande during a hurricane-induced flood will deposit less debris than a wash in the sparsely vegetated Sonora desert.”

Nicol questioned analysis by the U.S. section of the IBWC which says the border walls proposed for Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos will block no more than 25 percent of water during a hurricane.

“The flood model that U.S. IBWC's decision is based on claims that these walls will only block ten to 25 percent of flood waters after a hurricane swells the Rio Grande. But, it never explains where that figure came from,” Nicol said.

“Walls already standing in Arizona have blocked floodwaters and caused millions of dollars in damage so why does U.S. IBWC think that nearly identical walls in South Texas will have a different impact?”

Nicol said residents of Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos who have friends and relatives living in neighboring cities across the Rio Grande should press the U.S. section of IBWC about the risk of floodwater being deflected into Mexican communities.

“This is the reason that the Mexican half of the IBWC, showing more concern for the safety of Mexican citizens than the U.S. half is showing for citizens of the United States, continues to reject walls in the floodplain,” Nicol said.

Nicol noted that the IBWC is supposed to be a bi-national organization, with approval of structures that can impact the Rio Grande agreed to by both nations. “In unilaterally approving border walls that Mexico rejects the U.S. section is violating the treaty that established the Rio Grande as the border,” he said.

GOP platform gets tougher on immigration

August 21, 2012
by James Hohmann

TAMPA, Fla.— Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach persuaded the Republican platform committee Tuesday to toughen its language on immigration.

“We recognize that if you really want to create a job tomorrow, you can remove an illegal alien today,” he told the 100-plus representatives to the committee. “That is the way to open up jobs very quickly for U.S. citizen workers and lawfully admitted alien workers.”

The committee agreed to restore 2008 platform planks that didn’t appear in a draft prepared by Republican National Committee staff, who worked in close consultation with Mitt Romney’s campaign.

The platform committee overwhelmingly voted to add language proposed by Kobach calling for the completion of a border fence, the end of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and an end to sanctuary cities. It also voted to support national E-Verify, an Internet database run by the federal government that makes it harder for undocumented workers to get jobs.

Trying to make inroads with Latino votes, Romney has toned down the hardline rhetoric he used in the primaries. The GOP convention is also being held in the key state of Florida, which is home to a large population of Hispanic voters that Republicans realize are key to the party’s electoral chances and future.

Kobach, who wrote Arizona's and Alabama’s controversial immigration laws, reminded the group of Republicans in a ballroom at the Marriott hotel here of Romney’s stated positions on the hot-button issue

“These positions are consistent with the Romney campaign,” he said. “As you all will remember one of the primary reasons that Gov. Romney rose past Gov. [Rick] Perry when Mr. Perry was achieving first place in the polls was because of his opposition to in-state tuition for illegal aliens.”

Kobach quoted a passage from Romney’s website that says the soon-to-be GOP nominee will build a high-tech fence and eliminate the magnets for illegal immigration.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Feds pay $1 million for nature loss

San Antonio Express News
August 7, 2012
by Lynn Brezosky

BROWNSVILLE — Some four years after then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived dozens of environmental laws to expedite construction of the controversial border fence, the federal government has paid just short of $1 million for an 8.31-acre slice of land cutting across the northern edge of the Nature Conservancy's Southmost Preserve.

The preserve is home to one of only two large stands of native Mexican sabal palms remaining in the country.

Court documents show the government initially offered $114,000.

“The settlement represents an agreement on compensation for the land that was used for the border fence,” said Laura Huffman, state director for the Nature Conservancy. “That was never intended to and doesn't represent the conservation losses that we've experienced.”

On Monday $978,650 was deposited, just a few weeks before a jury trial to  determine the value of the land.

The settlement agreement was reached July 9.

Huffman said a jury decision likewise would have been based on what could be proven in terms of the value of the land and the structures atop it, with conservation losses remaining an unknown, if not priceless, factor.

The Conservancy purchased the 1,034-acre tract for $2.6 million in 1999, but figures its total acquisition cost to be about $3.1 million, not counting hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in equipment, stewardship, staff and outreach.

“The border fence has fragmented the preserve, from the standpoint that 800 acres of our preserve are now on the south side of the fence,” she said. “And fragmentation of heritage ranches and landscapes throughout Texas is one of the biggest issues and challenges that we face today.”
Some things still need to be worked out.

A gap in the fence, one of the last segments to be completed, has allowed for easy access for preserve caretaker Max Pons, his family, and workers including restoration technicians who care for the native plant seedlings in the preserve's nursery.

Customs and Border Protection plan eventually to install a gate.

“We do not know that they're planning,” Huffman said when asked about keys or access codes. “They've indicated they would be cooperative with us to the strike the right balance, making sure people who need to have access, have it, but not everybody.”

The house where Pons and his family have lived more than 10 years will be moved to the north side of the fence, meaning an end to the round-the-clock, on-site management he provided, particularly for the seed farm.

It will no longer be feasible for university students conducting research in one of the world's most ecologically diverse tracts to stay in lodging that at night will be locked in the no man's land.

Pons on Tuesday joked about being in a "gated community," but said life on the preserve so far has remained much the same in the year or so since the fence was completed.

The Border Patrol remains a constant presence on both sides of the fence.

“I'm not alone,” he said, watching two Border Patrol vehicles move along the dirt road leading to the preserve. As far as unauthorized immigrants? “I still don't see them like I see the animals.”

He said he communicates frequently with the Border Patrol, in part so they know when a new batch of footprints are from student biologists or bird-watchers and not unauthorized immigrants or drug smugglers.

While there are 107 acres of experimental farmland north of the fence, he said he was glad that the ponds, palm forests, and other native fauna — the entire habitat portion — remained intact.

Initial concepts for the fence would have placed it closer to the Rio Grande, a scenario that would have separated wildlife from their lifeblood.

“It's an extremely unique pristine area, made up of really interesting geological formations,” Pons said. “The hills that you see out there are referred to as ‘lomas,' Spanish for ‘active clay dunes.'” And it's part of 50,000 years of windblown and water-carried sediments piling up.

“One of the greatest feelings I have is when university classes come out and we go for a walk, and they look at me and say, ‘Wow, we didn't know this was here,'” he said.

The settlement is one of the last in a slew of condemnation lawsuits the government filed in 2008 to build the fence.

But even as it was reached, environmentalists have begun waging a fierce informational campaign regarding new segments planned to the west.

The segments have so far been stalled by concerns the fence's tooth-like structure could collect debris like a colander, creating flooding nightmares, said Scott Nicol of the group “No Border Wall.”

But the U.S. arm of the International Boundary and Water Commission, the binational commission charged with enforcing treaties sharing the Rio Grande, said recently it would not oppose the fencing, reversing its prior stance despite the Mexican arm's continued opposition.

“For years the U.S. half was telling Customs and Border Protection, ‘If you want to build this, you have to build something that can be removed, something that you can drag out of the floodplain within 72 hours of notice,'” he said. "Customs and Border Protection has said, ‘No, that's not feasible.' That should mean you just don't do it then.”

Monday, August 6, 2012

Government settles border fence land case in Texas

Associated Press / Houston Chronicle
August 6, 2012
by Christopher Sherman

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — The U.S. government paid almost $1 million Monday for part of a South Texas nature preserve taken for the border fence, ending nearly four years of litigation in one of the project's highest-profile condemnation cases.

The government deposited $978,650 with the court Monday, a month after notifying the judge it had reached a settlement with The Nature Conservancy and farmers who leased property there, according to court records. The settlement has not been finalized by the court.

The government took an 8.31-acre strip of land east of Brownsville for its fence, leaving most of the 1,000-acre property of sabal palms, oxbow lakes and citrus groves known as the Southmost Preserve in a no-man's land between the fence and the Rio Grande. The fence has already been constructed.

After going through a required mediation process recently, the two sides reached the agreement. If they had not, they would have had to argue the value of the condemnation in front of a jury.

Laura Huffman, The Nature Conservancy's state director, said the appraisals used in the mediation process included the value of the entire property and the buildings on it. The settlement reflected the estimated difference between the property's value without the fence and with it.

What the settlement doesn't include is the impact on the land's conservation value.

"This definitely fragments the land that's used by ocelots, for example," Huffman said. "And that's exactly the type of thing that you're trying to protect when you do this broad conservation is the habitat and the use of the habitat by the animals."

The organization is also moving the preserve's long-time manager, whose home was left between the fence and the river, off the property, Huffman said.

She said there were no immediate plans for the money, but a portion will be reimbursed to some who helped finance the land's original acquisition. Some of the land is leased to farmers and that will continue for now, she said.

The government has built about 650 miles of border barriers along the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico boundary.

The Rio Grande winds through South Texas, carving wide turns through rich farmland. The border fence was built in straight lines on or behind levees that protect against flooding, which left large tracts of land between fence and border.

In 2009, the government paid for about 300 mature sabal palms, a native species that once covered some 40,000 acres in South Texas and now exists only in pockets, to be moved and replanted elsewhere on the preserve and other properties to make way for the fence.