January 23, 2013
by April Reese
In south Texas, where the Rio Grande divides the United States from Mexico, three of the last remaining sections of border fence -- approved more than five years ago -- remain unbuilt.
Unlike many existing sections, those in limbo would be constructed within the floodplain. They would stretch a total of 7 miles and skim the southern edge of three Texas towns -- Roma, Rio Grande and Los Ebanos.
Mexican officials, border town mayors, environmental groups, residents and some congressional leaders remain concerned that those projects could potentially push Rio Grande floodwaters into Mexican towns and block wildlife corridors.
After languishing on the back burner for several years, the projects have advanced recently after receiving a needed stamp of approval from an international governmental body. But as many opponents have made clear, the fence Congress authorized in 2006 will not be completed without a major fight.
"I've lived here all my life," said Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal, who has governed the city for five years. "The minute you manipulate anything along the river, it affects you, and how that will affect the community is a big concern. It's going to obstruct the natural flow of the water and obstruct wildlife."
If the sections in question are constructed, local officials and residents fear debris will build up along the fence, causing severe flooding and erosion.
At first, officials with the International Boundary Water Commission (IBWC), created to address water-related issues along the border, shared those concerns. But after alterations to the original plans, the agency has changed its mind, said Sally Spener, a foreign affairs officer with the United States' section of the IBWC, or the USIBWC.
"There was a new design that they came up with that did not cause a prohibitive obstruction," Spener said, referring to the Department of Homeland Security, which is charged with implementing the projects. "In other words, it wasn't a solid fence. It was a different design back in 2008."
The fence could also block wildlife from key migration corridors, environmental groups say.
Scott Nichols, who works for the Sierra Club's Borderlands Project and lives in the border town of McAllen, Texas, worries about the fence's impact on rare and endangered species, including the ocelot, whose population has dropped to about 100 breeding animals. If the fence is built, that will be one more barrier hemming in wildlife -- along with roads, buildings and other fencing.
The Department of Homeland Security has already constructed fence segments through prime wildlife areas, including the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area and the South Texas Refuge Complex, over the objections of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agencies, along with conservation groups, have worked for decades to purchase and restore habitat in the lower Rio Grande Valley, and the new fencing could severely undermine those efforts, Nichols and other conservationists say.
Villarreal said DHS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) haven't paid enough attention to what the people who live along the border want.
"At some point, stop asking Washington and start asking border residents, and you'll find a solution," he said, "because we live on the river."
In the end, opponents' best hope of killing the fence in south Texas may be the congressional funding crunch. CBP says it currently does not have the money to pursue the project.
"There is no funding to build any additional fence at this time," said Bill Brooks, a spokesman for CBP's south Texas office. But many locals worry the money will be found in the next few years.
Of rivers and boundariesConcerns about the fence date back to the late 2000s. In 2008, the IBWC, a binational government agency that deals with water-related border issues, warned DHS that the fence segments in Rio Grande City, Roma and Los Ebanos could potentially cause flooding and shift the international boundary.
Under a 1970 boundary treaty, IBWC -- both the agency's Mexican section and the U.S. section -- must ensure that projects built in the Rio Grande floodplain do not obstruct or deflect the river's flows or exacerbate flooding. In particular, IBWC officials worried that during rainstorms, debris would build up against the fence and turn it into a dam of sorts, diverting flows into Mexican communities (Land Letter, March 27, 2008).
But after consultants analyzing the potential effects of the fence on river flows revised their original model, USIBWC dropped their concerns.
The Mexican section of IBWC, however, remained unconvinced.
"The location, alignment and design of the proposed fence represent a clear obstruction of the Rio Grande hydraulic area, since in the towns of Rio Grande City and Roma, Texas, the fence would occupy nearly all of the hydraulic area on the U.S. side, causing deflection of flows toward the Mexican side," wrote Luis Antonio Rascon Mendoza, principal engineer for IBWC-Mexico, in a Dec. 13, 2011, letter to the USIBWC.
The fence would obstruct 60 to 70 percent of the hydraulic area, and considering the amount of debris that could pile up against the barrier, "the fence constitutes a serious obstruction and deflection of the Rio Grande flows toward Mexico," he wrote.
But last year, engineers for the USIBWC cleared the way for the project to proceed, concluding that the fence would not violate the 1970 boundary treaty.
"After an in-depth and thorough review, the USIBWC has concluded that the proposed fence project(s) will not cause significant deflection or obstruction of ... flood flows of the Rio Grande," USIBWC engineer John Merino wrote in a Feb. 3, 2012, letter responding to the concerns of the Mexican section of IBWC.
The fence would be constructed of 6-inch vertical bollard posts with 4-inch spaces in between. Computer models show that the amount of water that would be directed into Mexico by the fence is "within the threshold limits," partly because some of the flow would pass through the fence, Merino said.
Based on that information, the USIBWC notified the Department of Homeland Security that it had no objection to the three fence projects -- a necessary step for DHS to move forward.
Multiple attempts to reach a DHS representative familiar with the projects garnered no response. DHS has told IBWC it would come up with a plan to keep debris from piling up against the fence during storms.
It is unclear whether the Mexican section of IBWC remains concerned about the project. In a brief phone conversation, Mendoza referred an inquiry from Greenwire about Mexico's position on the project to a spokesperson, who did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
Despite the USIBWC's assurances, local opposition in the United States remains strong. At a meeting held by USIBWC in Rio Grande City late last summer, the majority of the crowd of residents and local officials questioned the agency's conclusions.
"How can you really tell us it's going to work 100 percent?" said Aleida Garcia, of Los Ebanos, a small community that lies within the floodplain, according to an Associated Press account of the Aug. 29, 2012, meeting. "Because we're talking about people, communities, families."
Jose Nuñez, supervisory civil engineer with USIBWC, said in response that "whether the fence is there or not, you're still in the floodplain," according to AP. He reiterated that the computer model used by the agency's engineers to analyze the project's hydrologic effects suggests that the fence will not create a significant obstruction.
The fence is unpopular in other areas of Texas, as well. In places where CBP tried to avoid building in the floodplain, the new 18-foot barrier has cut off landowners from some of their private property, including farmland. Some landowners have sued over DHS's use of eminent domain to allow construction through private property.
Securing the border?The fence projects in limbo were authorized as part of a larger border reinforcement effort mandated under the Secure Fence Act of 2006. It called for construction of a total of about 700 miles of fence along sections of the U.S.-Mexico border, which spans 1,954 miles from Texas to California. The barrier was needed to "make the border more secure," President George W. Bush said in signing the legislation into law on Oct. 26, 2006.
Around the time the Secure Fence Act was passed, Congress also gave its stamp of approval to the Real ID Act, which allowed more than 30 environmental and cultural laws to be waived by the DHS secretary to expedite construction of the ambitious project. But the south Texas projects still have to comply with international treaties governing actions along the section of the Rio Grande that serves as the border there.
Critics maintain that in south Texas, there is no need for the fence in the first place. Nichols of the Sierra Club points to a June 2008 document drafted to address community concerns as evidence that the CBP itself believes the fence projects planned for south Texas would be overkill. CPB said in the document that at that time, it was able to "effectively control" that section of the border with boots on the ground.
But the agency went on to say it believed further reinforcements would be necessary if illegal activity increased in the Rio Grande Valley sector.
The number of apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley actually dropped in the ensuing years, however.
According to data provided by CBP, apprehension of illegal border crossers has decreased almost every year since 2008. Apprehensions in the Rio Grande sector went from 134,186 in fiscal 2005 to 59,243 in fiscal 2011.
Some local officials, including Mayor Villarreal and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district includes some of the area slated for the projects, have called for alternatives to the fence to secure the area, primarily by expanding the law enforcement presence.
"Let's get more money for our local sheriffs and police," Cuellar said in a video posted on his website after a DHS hearing on border security.
Villarreal, however, remains convinced the fence will be built within the next few years.
"I think we'll have to deal with the strong possibility that we'll have a fence to contend with," he said.