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
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
>> “Could that fence actually extend the flood plain?”
Others asked about the possibility of drainage being blocked from going into
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
“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
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.