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."