Customs and Border Protection (CBP) just announced in a webinar that border wall construction could begin in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge of South Texas as soon as this month.
The two affected refuge tracts, called Arroyo Ramirez and Las Ruinas, are located in the beautiful, rocky hills of Starr County along the Rio Grande and protect little known natural treasures.
Earlier this summer CBP announced that a contract for border wall construction on the two tracts had been awarded to Albuquerque-based Southwest Valley Constructors, for four miles of bollard border wall at a cost of $33,048,700, or about $8.3 million per mile. The contract includes a 20- to 30-foot bollard border wall, a 150-foot enforcement zone that will be cleared of all vegetation and graveled over, and an all-weather patrol road. All-night flood lighting is planned to shine on the enforcement zone in this otherwise remote area.
Shortly after the contract was awarded, acting Secretary of Homeland Security McAleenan waived 28 federal laws in these tracts. The DHS Secretary has the unprecedented power to waive all federal, state, and local laws in order to allow border wall construction that would otherwise break numerous laws.
McAleenan waived the laws that protect our national wildlife refuge lands from destruction, essentially stripping Arroyo Ramirez and Las Ruinas of the federal protections that were placed on them when they were made part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge was established in 1979 with the ambition to create a wildlife corridor along the Rio Grande by preserving and restoring individual tracts of wildlife habitat. Over 100 million federal dollars have been invested in the refuge because the Rio Grande Valley is one of the most biodiverse regions of the United States, yet less than four percent of the original wilderness remains.
Included in the list of waived laws was the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which requires that the federal government undertake an exhaustive study of all projects that could cause environmental harm and provide that information for public review. This means we will never know what damage the border wall, the 150-foot enforcement zone, and the stadium lighting, will inflict.
Another law dismissed so that these walls can be built is the Endangered Species Act, which ordinarily would prevent construction in the refuge because of the impacts on endangered plants and animals. Arroyo Ramirez hosts one of the few protected populations of the endangered Zapata bladderpod, a remarkable plant in the mustard family which is specially adapted to the harsh conditions of Starr County. Birds rarely seen in the U.S. such as the Red-billed pigeon, the Brown jay, and the Muskovy duck have been sighted on Las Ruinas tract.
In addition to tearing apart the land, CBP intends to build walls across drainages on these tracts. The Arroyo Ramirez is so named because of the arroyo, or creek, that runs off the property into the Rio Grande. CBP has so far refused to address the fact that bollard walls with only 4 to 5 inches of open space between the posts clog with debris and dam water, causing flooding and erosion.
These border walls are being rushed for purely political—not tactical—reasons. President Trump sees the speedy construction of border walls as a key component of his re-election campaign, and his hand-picked head of the Department of Homeland Security is dead set on giving Trump his walls. The damage done to border ecosystems and border communities are tragically not part of that political equation.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows a truckload of border wall bollards being transported through Rio Grande City this summer. (Photo courtesy of Scott Nicol)