Early this year Fisher Industries built a border wall in the Rio Grande floodplain in Mission, Texas.
Today it stands 18 feet tall, built of shiny galvanized bollards – metal posts six inches wide spaced just five inches apart.
Tommy Fisher has said that his wall was meant to advertise his company’s abilities, and, as he said on FOX news, “Hopefully the president will see this.”
Fisher’s plan worked. President Trump repeatedly pushed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to steer border wall contracts to Fisher, even though Fisher’s border wall prototype had come in late and over-budget. Appearing to bow to pressure from the President, the Army Corps awarded Fisher Industries a $400 million contract to build a section of border wall in Arizona.
While Fisher’s shiny wall might appeal to Trump’s aesthetic, putting an obstruction in the Rio Grande floodplain is a potential treaty violation. So the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), the bi-national organization meant to oversee treaty compliance, instructed Fisher to develop a flood model for their already-built border wall. In March the U.S. section of the IBWC reviewed the flood model, and this week we got our first look at their review.
Key to the IBWC’s mission is upholding the legally binding stipulation that nothing may built in the floodplain that causes “deflection or obstruction of the normal flow of the river or of its flood flows.”
U.S. IBWC’s review found that Fisher’s wall does not comply with our treaty obligations, as even Fisher’s own model found that one section would cause twice the allowable amount of permitted obstruction and deflection. This finding made national headlines.
But those articles overlooked the fact that U.S. IBWC appears to have ignored major flaws in Fisher’s flood model, thereby missing ways that this wall could cause far more severe harm to people living on both sides of the Rio Grande than their model admits.
When bollard border walls like the one that Fisher erected have gone up across washes and streams in Arizona they have quickly become clogged with debris – branches, trash, etc. – which completely plugs the spaces between the bollards. What started as a fence with gaps becomes a dam, completely blocking any water that hits it. This has repeatedly caused water to back up and flood border towns, and in a number of instances bollard walls that have dammed flood water have been knocked over. In 2009, Customs and Border Protection commissioned a study of all of the walls that then stood between El Paso and the Pacific Ocean, which found that every time a bollard wall crossed a natural drainage they clogged with debris and blocked the free flow of water.
That finding was based upon real-world examples. But Fisher’s computer model began with the assumption that debris would only cause a 30 percent obstruction. How does a real-world observation of 100 percent obstruction in actual bollard border walls in Arizona come to be input as a 30 percent obstruction in the model? U.S. IBWC doesn’t ask that question.
Instead, they accept another manipulation in Fisher’s computer simulation – the merging of bollards and gaps, so that instead of a series of 5 inch gaps between 6 inch bollards the model shows 3.5-foot-wide gaps between 7.5-foot-wide walls. In the real world this would make a significant difference. A horse could walk through a 3.5-foot-wide gap, but nothing much bigger than a rabbit could make it through a 5 inch one. Likewise, flood water could push a tree trunk through the gap that was used in the model, but the gaps in the wall that Fisher actually built will trap even small branches.
Completely unmentioned by the U.S. IBWC is the way that a stand-alone wall on the riverbank will divide floodwaters and send a portion of them north, deeper into the United States. This is surprising, since a flood model looking at border walls proposed for the Rio Grande floodplain that Customs and Border Protection paid for in 2011 highlighted this “splitting” effect. In an effort to convince the U.S. IBWC that walls proposed for the floodplain would not violate the treaty by deflecting too much water into Mexican communities, CBP planned to put a 100-foot-wide hole in the wall at Roma, and a 500-foot-wide gap at Rio Grande City, whose express purpose was to divert more flood water into homes and farms on the U.S. side. Those gaps, intended to split off flood water, are still part of CBP’s border wall plans.
Fisher’s model appears to leave out the fact that their wall will not connect with any of Trump’s walls. When the Rio Grande floods the upriver end of the Fisher wall, standing just 35 feet from the riverbank, will split off a portion of the flow and send it deeper into the United States than it might otherwise go. The force of the flow will then erode away the earth on both sides of the barrier. The bollards are anchored in concrete, but once the sand and sediment that that concrete is set into is swept away steel posts and chunks of concrete will likely follow. The bollards at the lead edge will go, then the next, then the next, on down the line.
U.S. IBWC suggested that someone should watch for erosion and fix it “in a timely manner,” but did not explain how this might occur if the base of the wall was deep under murky, moving floodwater. They made no mention of the danger posed by twisted steel and chunks of concrete ripped out and washed away, striking homes, or the Riverside Club, or the Anzalduas Dam.
Few are surprised when a company’s ads fail to be open and honest about the dangers their product may pose to the public. That responsibility falls to government agencies whose role is to protect those whose taxes pay their salaries. In this case, that is the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission.
The Rio Grande will flood, repeatedly, in the coming years. This is not a question of if but when. The only real question in any given year, in any given flood, is how much debris the flood waters carry, how quickly the river will tear down Fisher’s wall, and what damage will be inflicted on those who live and work downriver.
Editor’s Note: The author of the above guest column, Scott Nicol, is an educator and co-author of the ACLU report Death, Damage, and Failure: Past, Present, and Future Impacts of Walls on the U.S.-Mexico Border. He lives in McAllen, Texas.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows a bollard-type border wall in Arizona. The wall is clogged with debris. The photo was taken in 2007 by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
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