Lively exchanges over border wall, Dannenbaum, at Citizen’s Forum

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WESLACO, RGV – The quarterly meeting of the International Boundary and Water Commission’s Lower Rio Grande Valley Citizen’s Forum is usually a sedate affair.

Not so on Wednesday, when a number of environmentalists attended to quiz IBWC Commissioner Carlos Marin about the border levee-wall plan being developed by Hidalgo County commissioners and the Department of Homeland Security.

The liveliest exchange came in the public comment period towards the end of the meeting, when Los Fresnos resident Francisco Garcia slammed DHS for the border wall plan and Hidalgo and Cameron county leaders for “capitulating” in the face of pressure from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to build the wall. Garcia, who teaches in Brownsville, also found time to slam Dannenbaum Engineering.

“People say they are going to be mindful of environmental and wildlife preserves and then do the exact opposite. I call that duplicity,” Garcia said. “I’m speaking in terms of the way DHS has dealt with the people here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the border wall situation. At this point I feel that not only Hidalgo County but Cameron County are capitulating.”

Cameron County has yet to enter into an agreement with DHS to build a levee-wall plan similar to that proposed for Hidalgo County, but Cameron County Judge Carlos has been holding private discussions on the issue. On Wednesday, Cascos met with David Pagan, liaison to state and local governments at Customs and Border Protection, and on Thursday was slated to meet with Marin.

Garcia told Marin and the other IBWC officials present that DHS was “riding roughshod” over federal statutes passed by our Congress, a reference to Chertoff’s decision to waive 36 laws and regulations in order to speed up construction of the border fence.

Bill Lewis, senior environmental engineer for Halff and Associates and co-chair of the Citizen’s Forum pointed out to Garcia that there was no one present at the meeting representing DHS. Garcia countered that IBWC was part of the State Department. “I’ve done my homework,” Garcia said.

Garcia then asked who was present for the Mexican section of IBWC. He was told two representatives were present. Garcia issued a warning to them.

“I would be looking at this with great scrutiny. You could be setting up a man-made disaster on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. I know what elevations and hydrological studies are,” Garcia said. “To assure me verbally or anyone in this room that you (IBWC) are going to take care of it (the environment) and it’s going to be saved, that’s not good enough for me. I need to see the hard science.”

Garcia then asked what Dannenbaum’s involvement with the border levee-wall plan is. “Dannenbaum Engineering is the consultant that is doing the hydraulic design for the levee system on behalf of Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1,” replied Godfrey Garza, director of the Drainage District.

“Well, we have $21 million missing,” Garcia shot back, a reference to taxpayer money the Brownsville Navigation District gave to Dannenbaum for a project to build a bridge from the Port of Brownsville to Matamoros. The bridge was never built.

As soon as Garcia mentioned Dannenbaum, Dannenbaum engineer Louis Jones got up from his chair to defend his company. “I would like to stand up and tell you can come and look at a whole room of engineering drawings and are welcome to do so,” Jones fired back. “You are on,” Garcia responded.

When Garcia finished there was a quiet pause, with no one from IBWC wishing to respond. Lewis then changed the subject and praised Rick Reyes, co-chair of the Citizen’s Forum and IBWC manager of the Lower Rio Grande Flood Control Project. Reyes is retiring to Albuquerque, NM, in June, after 23 years service with the binational agency. Before that, Reyes spent eight years at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

After the meeting, Garcia and Jones continued their argument in the street, out of earshot of the press. “No comment,” Jones told the Guardian, when asked if he was upset with Garcia’s disparaging remarks about Dannenbaum.

Garcia was happy to talk to the media. “Dannenbaum’s track record is under question and, of course, he (Jones) is upset because he thinks I put down his company. I’ve already informed him that authority doesn’t rule, science and engineering rules,” Garcia said.

Lewis told the Guardian that Wednesday’s meeting was “one of the better” Citizen’s Forum meetings. “It’s always good to see both sides of the picture,” he said.

Lewis reiterated that the Forum was not designed to sound off about the border wall. “We are interested in levees. The wall has nothing to do with us. We are interested in the levees, drainage system, and maintaining the quality of water,” he said.

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