Environmentalists call on Hidalgo County leaders to scrap levee-wall combo plan

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EDINBURG, RGV – Environmentalists have called on Hidalgo County commissioners to scrap their agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to build an 18-foot high concrete wall along 22 miles of the county’s levees.

“I think we need to not support the wall in any fashion, whether it’s a fence or whether it’s a concrete wall,” said Ann Cass, a member of the No Border Wall Coalition and executive director of Proyecto Azteca.

Cass was one of a number of environmentalists to meet with Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas and Hidalgo County Drainage Director Godfrey Garza about the levee-wall plan in a conference room at the county courthouse on Friday.

The meeting was taped by award-winning filmmaker Wayne Ewing for a one-hour documentary about the border wall, to be aired on PBS’s Bill Moyers Journal in October.

The other environmentalists and community leaders present were Martin Hagne, executive director of the Valley Nature Center, Wayne Bartholomew, executive director of Frontera Audubon, Juanita Valdez-Cox, director of La Unión del Pueblo Entero, Fernando Flores, a Los Caminos del Rio board member, and Rey Anzaldua, a Granjeno landowner.

The two-hour discussion was detailed and absorbing, with Salinas and Garza explaining why the county was pursuing the levee-fence plan with DHS, and the environmentalists arguing that the proposal was no better for wildlife than DHS’s original border fence plan. Four Border Patrol agents were present as observers but did not say much.

“What I am hearing is that sometimes a fence is better for animals than this (levee-wall) structure, is that what I am hearing?” Salinas asked at one point.

“Absolutely,” the environmentalists answered in unison.

Bartholomew later told the Guardian why the levee-wall plan was no better than the original border fence plan.

“In my opinion, the levee-wall plan is a worse alternative as far as environmental impacts go,” Bartholomew said. “There is far more habitat on the river side of the levees. You put a wall in right up against relatively pristine habitat, the only habitat we have left in the Valley, and its impact is going to extend beyond the footprint of the wall.”

During the meeting, Salinas argued that the “one good thing” about combining the border wall plan with repair of the levees was that $1.5 million a mile would be shaved off the cost of construction. “By putting both pots of money together, we can do more miles,” he said.

Salinas said there was also an urgent need to move forward with the levee-wall plan because of the pressure FEMA was exerting.

“I just hope everybody understands that FEMA is pushing us under the gun to make sure we do something to certify these levees so our local taxpayers won’t be burdened with purchasing flood insurance,” Salinas said.

FEMA plans to issue new flood zone maps in 2009. “We can’t wait until then to start working,” Salinas said.

Garza said repair of the county’s levees had to be 75 to 80 percent completed by the end of 2008, otherwise FEMA would issue its flood maps with large swathes of Hidalgo County included.

Cass said it defied belief that FEMA would tell the county to get its levees fixed when the responsibility lies with the federal government. She said Hidalgo County leaders should not have to think they must cut a deal with DHS just because FEMA wanted to put out new flood zone maps.

“Forget about the FEMA deadline. As a community, we need to tell Judge Salinas to back away from the agreement with DHS and say, we will support you as a community in getting Congress to pay for the repair of the levees and we need to act now,” Cass told the Guardian later.

“I understand his (Salinas’s) concern is how to get the money to fix the levees and I don’t think anybody in that room disagreed with that concern. But, let’s back off from DHS. DHS has not played fairly down here in the Valley. They are not forthright with information. They are not forthright in following the laws.”

Cass joined Hagne and Bartholomew in saying community would get behind Salinas if he went to Congress and demanded that the federal government fix the levees.

“We need to really press Congress. How can FEMA give our county judge a deadline to fix the levees when Congress is not going to pay for it and it is their responsibility?” Cass asked.

“I say, forget the FEMA deadline, go to Congress and say we have another potential Katrina here in the Rio Grande Valley. Forget about the wall, put the money into fixing our levees. That’s the stance we need to take.”

Hagne pointed out that U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, had added language to a major appropriations bill in December that gives Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff more flexibility in how he approaches border security.

“Our county judge, Mr. Salinas, can really back off from this subject. He is not bound by or held hostage by DHS and its plans,” Hagne told the Guardian later.

“Through the Hutchison amendment they are not bound by law to build a solid structure anymore. It can be virtual; it can be more people on the ground. The logic that we have to build something because somebody is going to is false.”

Asked if a border fence was better for wildlife than a levee-wall, Hagne said: “That is kind of a sticky subject. I would rather see no wall or any structure because of wildlife issues. But, I think, probably, in certain instances, the original fence plan might be better than the concrete wall on the levee. I would rather see neither because both will have a strong impact on wildlife.”

Supporting the levee-wall plan, Garza introduced a new argument into the equation. He said that, engineering-wise, a concrete retaining wall was better than an earthen bank. He also said a vertical concrete wall would require less easement space.

“Some of the segments of levees are so deteriorated; the materials so bad, some of the levees will have to be torn out. It’s got to go down to natural ground and be reconstructed up. Put wall in front of it and you do not have to do that,” Garza said. “By putting the concrete wall we have a stronger, better, levee.”

Louis Jones, an engineer with Dannenbaum Engineering, agreed. Dannenbaum is working with the county on the levee-wall plan.

“The levee structure itself becomes much stronger (with a concrete wall) because you are not relying solely on the structural integrity of the soil, which in some cases is of concern. It increases the safety factor,” Jones said.

Cass responded: “Can it not be stronger without it looking like we are in a militarized zone?”

Hagne said the problem with an 18-foot high concrete wall is animals such as the bobcat, jaguarundi, and ocelot, would have to travel around it. “Having an 18-foot sheer concrete wall is going to totally do away with the wildlife corridor’s purpose. If an animal cannot cross that, why have the corridor?” Hagne said.

Jones responded that he had once worked on an engineering project Brownsville where an electronic chip had been placed on an ocelot. The ocelot was tracked swimming the Rio Grande, crossing over highways and even making it to South Padre Island. “To say they cannot move one mile down the road to cross a levee is, in my experience… they do do that,” Jones said.

The representatives from the non-profit groups also told Salinas they were also concerned that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was not being followed. Under NEPA, stakeholders are given a public comment period once a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has been issued. However, no draft EIS is planned for the levee-wall project.

“Every citizen who lives in this Valley is a stakeholder and right now they have all been excluded from making meaningful comment under the NEPA guidelines. The process is supposed to be inclusive,” Bartholomew said.

The environmentalists thanked Salinas for agreeing to meet them. They said they learned a lot more from him than they have DHS.

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