September 1, 2012
by Lynn Brezosky
RIO GRANDE CITY — Some of the most outspoken opponents of the Department of Homeland Security's border fence are up in arms again over segments planned for the Rio Grande floodplains that, to them, seem certain to go up following an about-face by the U.S. half of the International Boundary and Water Commission.
The U.S. arm of the IBWC, the binational agency charged with applying boundary and water treaties concerning the shared Rio Grande, says hydraulic modeling shows the three segments can be built with minimal potential for exacerbating floods. Opponents, including environmentalists, city mayors and people who live and work along the river, fear the paced vertical posts will act as a strainer for flood debris, trapping and pooling water.
"There's a long history of modeling by DHS and by us since 2008," Padinare Unnikrishna, the U.S. IBWC's lead hydraulic engineer, said last week at a citizens' forum on the additional fence lengths planned for western Hidalgo and Starr counties. "It is not affecting the normal flow."
The segments are not currently funded, said Abel Anderson, U.S. Custom and Border Protection's division director for tactical infrastructure. Should they be, constructed contracts are in place to keep them clear of debris.
Residents took the tone of the forum as a sign the new segments were inevitable.
"I heard that the steel is already bought, so the fence is going to go through," said Aleida Garcia of Los Ebanos, a floodplain community where a 1.7-mile segment is proposed. "Actually, we're wasting our time here."
At issue is Mexico's steadfast opposition to the blueprints, as well as Texas communities' wariness of a barrier in a floodplain that just barely contained a 2010 deluge caused when remnants of Hurricane Alex, followed by a tropical depression, saturated the upper Rio Grande flood basin and sent record flows downriver.
Most existing fencing was erected either along Rio Grande levees or farther inland, which did not impede floodwaters. The three planned segments are in areas without levees.
"The Mexican half of IBWC has said no and the U.S. has said no, that this is a flood concern," said Scott Nicol of the Sierra Club's Borderlands Team. "For years, the U.S. half was telling customs and border protection, 'if you want to build this you have to make something that can be removed …' Customs and Border Protection kept saying they can't do that, it's just not feasible … that should mean you just don't do it, then."
The three segments, planned for Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos, total about 13 miles, seven of which are in the flood plain.
Nicol obtained documents in which CBP, stressing the security importance of the segments, in July 2010 urged the U.S. IBWC to find a way to get them built without the Mexican IBWC's nod.
The briefing noted the areas "have historically been subjected to significant illegal border activities" and called the three segments "CBP's highest tactical infrastructure priority."
CBP has said it needs support for a unilateral decision from IBWC and the State Department to proceed with construction.
The result, Nicol said, is a cave-in to DHS that's based on questionable hydraulic modeling.
He said models showing fencing could block no more than 10 percent to 25 percent of floodwater didn't hold up with what happened at a similar structure in Arizona, where fencing trapped a pile of debris 6 feet high.
It's a scenario that worries community leaders like Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal - who during the 2010 flood watched anxiously as waters coursed down Mexican mountains, a phenomenon he wryly refers to as "Mexico's Water Dump" - came dangerously close to rising over roadways and encroaching city homes.
"If Rio Grande City ever had the potential of being inundated by water that was it," he said. "It didn't happen, but that taught me the possibility that it can happen."
According to the IBWC's timeline, the Department of Homeland Security by May of 2008 determined that the IBWC's call for fencing that could be dismantled with the threat of high water was impractical.
"The big flaw in your technical explanation is you don't talk to the public; that was the first big error in addressing the whole issue about the fence. Your presentation is lacking on the communication side," Villarreal said.
"I was scared walking in here, but now I'm frightened to death," he said. "Everything you've told me on your statements, your models, there's 10 points to your methodology and if you're off in any of those 10 points … then we suffer consequences and very grave ones, correct?"
'Top down' decision
A 1970 treaty with Mexico prohibits structures only if they obstruct or deflect normal flow, the IBWC's Unnikrishna said, adding that the standards used in the studies "were much stricter and more conservative" than those used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company, questioned how the "top down" decision flew in the face of decades of cooperation with Mexico on projects affecting the shared waterway.
"We can't do any construction on the bridge without both sections of the International Boundary and Water Commission signing off on the plan and the hydraulics," he said. "In fact, we almost have to be in El Paso (and) Juarez on the same day and the same time to get everybody to sign off on it. This is obviously in a different category of cooperation, because I thought it was one entity with two sections."