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 firstname.lastname@example.org and (956) 683-4462.
IF YOU GO:
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