MCALLEN, RGV – The Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club says U.S. Customs & Border Protection is giving the appearance of consulting with stakeholders over plans to build a border wall but that consultation is totally inadequate.
Scott Nicol, a member of LRGVSC, has written to CBP to complain about a letter the federal agency sent to stakeholders.
“CBP sent a letter to a number of organizations in the RGV asking for comments on its border wall plans. There is no explanation in the letter as to what, if any, framework these comments are being accepted under. For example, how will comments impact CBP’s border wall plans? And why only a 30-day comment window?” Nicol told the Rio Grande Guardian.
The comment period ends Sept. 25, 2017.
“It looks like CBP wants to pretend that they are consulting with stakeholders, as that is a requirement of the Secure Fence Act. But if this is all that they do it is totally insufficient,” Nicol said.
“They need to release detailed information about the planned walls and their locations, be transparent as they make decisions, and hold meetings that are open to the public where there is the ability for the public to have a real influence on what, if anything, is built. If there is no ability for the public to alter or veto the project then they are not really consulting.”
U.S. Customs & Border Protection letter
Here is a copy of the CBP letter sent to Nicol:
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20229
Aug. 25, 2107
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club
Dear Mr. Nicol:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is in the initial stages of planning for proposed levee wall along 28 miles of existing levee located in Hidalgo County, Texas within the U.S. Border Patrol’s McAllen and Weslaco stations area of responsibility (AOR) and 32 miles of bollard wall in Starr County, Texas within the U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande City station AOR.
In addition, CBP is in the planning stages of its second phase of gate installation to close 35 gaps in existing border fence in Hidalgo and Cameron counties. The 35 gates were funded in CBP’s fiscal year (FY) 2017 appropriation, while the proposed 28 miles of levee wall and 32 miles of bollard wall are included in the President’s FY I 8 budget request to Congress.
In Hidalgo County, CBP is proposing 28 miles of levee wall. The proposed levee wall alignment will be on the south face of the northern U.S. International Boundary Water Commission (IBWC) levee. The proposed design includes construction of a reinforced concrete levee wall to the height of the existing levee with 18-foot tall steel bollards installed on the top of the levee wall, a possible 150-foot enforcement zone on the south/river side of the levee wall, detection technology, enforcement zone lighting, video surveillance, automated vehicle gates, pedestrian gates, and an all-weather patrol road parallel to the levee wall. In addition, CBP will install gates within 20 gaps in existing border levee wall within Hidalgo County and in 15 existing gaps within Cameron County.
In Starr County, CBP is proposing 32 miles of bollard wall. The proposed design includes construction of 20 to 30-foot tall steel bollards, a possible 150-foot enforcement zone on the south/river side of the bollard wall, detection technology, enforcement zone lighting, video surveillance, and an all-weather patrol road parallel to the bollard wall.
Additional details of the possible components of the proposed action are as follows:
• Levee Wall -The levee wall will be a concrete wall to the height of the levee crest with 18 foot tall bollards installed in the top of the levee wall.
• Bollard Wall – The bollard wall will be 20 to 30 feet high utilizing 8-inch diameter, concrete filled steel bollards.
• 150 Foot Enforcement Zone – The enforcement zone will be an area extending from the south/river side of the levee wall or bollard wall approximately 150 feet. All vegetation within the 150-foot enforcement zone will be cleared.
• Gates – Automated vehicle gates will be installed with a minimum height of 18 feet and minimum width of 20 feet. In addition, gates designed to allow for farming equipment will be installed where appropriate and range in width from 40 to 50 feet. All gates will be motorized overhead sliding gates with an enclosed drive and operator system.
• Lighting – LED lighting will be installed as paii of this project. CBP will work with the appropriate stakeholders to develop solutions to avoid excess lighting beyond the enforcement zone.
• All Weather Road – An all-weather aggregate patrol road (type FC-2) will be constructed on the south side and parallel to the levee or bollard wall and within the 150-foot enforcement zone. The specific location of the road within the enforcement zone will be determined during the design phase of the project.
• Cameras – A camera surveillance system will be installed to ensure visibility of the enforcement zone and southern approach.
The purpose of the proposed action is to increase CBP’s ability to impede or deny illegal border crossings, and to provide improved surveillance and detection capabilities to the areas of greatest risk of iH gal cross-border activity located within the US. Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector. The proposed action will be similar to other levee and border wall systems located within the Rio Grande Valley Sector. Toe proposed action wiii also support CBPs action under Exec utive Order (EO) 13767, where CBP is directed to ” … secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border, monitored and supported by adequate personnel so as to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.”
CBP will evaluate the potential environmental impacts associated with the proposed action. CBP is gathering data and input from state and local government agencies, federal agencies, and Native American Tribes that may be affected by or otherwise have an interest in the proposed actions. Since your agency or organization may have particular knowledge and expertise regarding the potential environmental impacts from CBP’s proposed action, your input is sought regarding the likely or anticipated effects to biological, cultural, and natural resources from the implementation of the proposed actions. Your response should include any state and local restrictions, permitting or other requirements with which CBP should consider during project siting, construction, and operation.
This letter is intended to provide initial information for CBP’s proposed projects in the Rio Grande Valley and seek comments and concerns from potentially affected parties and interested groups. CBP intends similar outreach in other border regions as projects are identified and defined. Your prompt attention to this request is appreciated. Comments and information will be accepted up to 30 days following the date of this letter. If you have any questions or comments please contact me at [email protected]. Please include “RGV Wall and Gates Construction” in the title of your email.
Thank you for your cooperation.
Real Estate and Environmental Branch Chief
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol & Air and Marine Program Management Office
Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club response
Here is the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club’s 5,520-word letter to CBP:
September 11, 2017
Real Estate and Environmental Branch Chief
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol & Air and Marine Program Management Office [email protected]
Sierra Club Response to U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Request for “comments and concerns”
Sierra Club is in receipt of a two-page letter dated August 25, 2017 from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), seeking “comments and concerns from potentially affected parties and interested groups” which “will be accepted up to 30 days following the date of this letter.”
Sierra Club is confused by the purpose of the letter. The letter did not provide enough information to serve, e.g., as a request for scoping comments under the National Environmental Policy Act, nor was it sufficient to serve as federal outreach under the consultation requirements of the Secure Fence Act. An example of the problem is on page 2 of the letter where it asks commenters to “include any state and local restrictions, permitting or other requirements with which [sic] CBP should consider during project siting, construction, and operation.” This is a sweeping and problematic request that is impossible to adequately respond to. The letter provided only the barest list of proposed work details without any information on how that work would impact local communities and the environment. It is impossible to respond absent context and more in-depth information from CBP.
The lack of substantive information in the August 25th letter is compounded by the fact that the agency has refused to respond to Sierra Club’s numerous Freedom of Information Act requests on border wall activities, some going back four years. Because CBP is not providing information under FOIA, it has a heightened duty to provide adequate public engagement under the NEPA scoping process. Adequate NEPA scoping includes noticed public meetings where the agency presents its plans to the public and the public has opportunities to respond. In addition to problems under FOIA, transparent outreach is necessary to remedy troubling information about recent undisclosed agency meetings. In mid-July the Texas Observer reported that Customs and Border Protection had been holding secret meetings to plan the construction of border walls through the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge for the prior six months. Not only were these meetings not open to the public, we have also been told a federal employee was fired for revealing the existence of the meetings. This is not the type of federal – local cooperation the agency should be fostering around this project. In this way, in addition to providing adequate project information, CBP should also release unredacted meeting notes, memos, site visit reports, and PowerPoints from all meetings and site-visits regarding the Santa Ana levee-border wall.
Full transparency is a critical part of establishing trust, and at the moment neither transparency nor trust exist.
Sierra Club does not understand the reason for the letter’s 30-day deadline
There is no explanation of the letter’s 30-day deadline. Allowing just 30 days for the public to research and respond to the proposed border walls is woefully inadequate in light of the fact that Customs and Border Protection has so far provided almost no information on proposed border wall work.
Given the inexplicable nature of the August 25th letter, Sierra Club is concerned that CBP may assume the letter could serve as consultation under the Secure Fence Act. Also, in that connection, we strongly urge CBP to comply with existing law, and not invoke any type of “waiver” that would exempt the agency from compliance with essential public health, environmental and disclosure requirements. Given the magnitude of this work, full public engagement to identify measures to avoid or minimize harm is critical. Therefore, given additional outreach and information is warranted, the limited comment period must be vacated pending release of additional information and the establishment of a logical and transparent framework for public consultation.
CBP provided no explanation of the purpose of the letter, or CPB’s intended use of comments it receives in response
The Secure Fence Act requires consultation with stakeholders. But a single letter which contains minimal information is hardly consultation. There is no indication that the information that Customs and Border Protection receives will in any way influence its plans. The agency should explain whether there is a threshold of damage to the environment that is unacceptable; likewise, would evidence of impacts cause an alteration or abandonment of the project? Could Customs and Border Protection be convinced that the damage to private and public property is too great? Actual consultation assumes that the interaction between parties has an impact on the outcome, and that the federal agency has taken all feasible steps to minimize harm.
If Customs and Border Protection does, in fact, intend to comply with the Secure Fence Act’s requirement for true consultation with stakeholders, a logical first step would be the immediate public release of detailed information regarding the border wall project. This would not take the form of “here is what we have already decided to do,” but instead present multiple options along with cost/benefit analyses of each and how they would (or would not) achieve the goals that the Administration hopes to achieve. Once significant decisions have already been made it is too late for meaningful consultation. This includes, but should not be restricted to, the locations of border walls and the types of walls that would be built. What is the justification for the length of the border walls that are shown in maps that were recently released (but which were not included with this letter)? How were their locations determined? Why levee-border walls in Hidalgo County and bollards in Starr County? Why are they 20–30 feet tall? Statements made to the press thus far have been vague, and at times misleading. The most consistent reason presented is that President Trump promised border walls on the campaign trail, a justification that is neither tactical nor reassuring to border residents who care about the environmental impacts of walls or stand to have their land condemned to build them.
The next step, if Customs and Border Protection intends to comply with the Secure Fence Act’s mandate, would be multiple community forums or town halls in which detailed information is provided and the public has the opportunity to provide input. Again, this means incorporating that input into whatever is built or not built on the border. Asking for input and then ignoring it would be an insult to affected communities. These should be held in every town in the vicinity of proposed border walls, so as to allow residents to attend without the undue burden of a long drive. There must also be assurances that the presence of Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection representatives will not mean that undocumented residents are at risk of apprehension should they attend.
There should also be a clear decision-making pathway that allows stakeholders to see how their input will be incorporated into Customs and Border Protection’s planning, and a means by which stakeholders can challenge outcomes that do not comport with this process. Anything less is not consultation.
Sierra Club is unclear whether CBP’s August 25 letter intended to give the impression of satisfying the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirements for public input
There is no indication in the August 25th letter that Customs and Border Protection intends to prepare a scoping document or environmental impact statement (EIS) to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act for its border wall projects. Scoping documents and environmental impact statements have clear guidelines regarding both what should be examined and how public input is solicited and incorporated. The Secretary of Homeland Security has the unprecedented power to waive NEPA and other federal laws to build border walls, but exercising this power is an admission that the project will violate those laws. If Customs and Border Protection has any hope of convincing stakeholders and the American people that this is a well thought out project in which all options have been considered, the worst impacts have been avoided, and stakeholder input has been incorporated, the Secretary of Homeland Security must refrain from waiving the National Environmental Policy Act.
Customs and Border Protection must comply with the Endangered Species Act
There is no indication in this letter or elsewhere that Customs and Border Protection intends to comply with the Endangered Species Act or is taking into account the impacts of border walls on federally listed endangered species. The border walls that currently stand in the Rio Grande Valley, like many of the border walls that were built elsewhere, cut through habitat that is critical to endangered species. Most prominent of these in South Texas is the ocelot, a wild cat that is a bit smaller than a bobcat. The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge was created to act as a wildlife corridor for ocelots and jaguarundi, another small wild cat listed under the Endangered Species Act. Existing border walls repeatedly cut through the LRGV National Wildlife Refuge, and the border walls that have been proposed for South Texas would further fragment the refuge. Habitat loss and fragmentation is the main reason that ocelots and jaguarundi are endangered, and the border walls that currently stand combined with those that are proposed will push these species closer to extirpation in the United States.
Bollard border walls in Cameron County have 9” X 12” “cat holes” in their base spaced approximately a quarter mile apart that are intended to allow ocelots and jaguarundi to pass from one side of the wall to the other. Whether these are used by endangered species or any other animal should be thoroughly studied, as anecdotal evidence suggests that even if an animal can fit through the hole many will not approach the area due to the Border Patrol traffic, exposed space cleared of vegetation, and flood lights at night. If the existing “cat holes” are of minimal benefit in Cameron County Customs and Border Protection will need to work with US Fish and Wildlife to develop other mitigation measures, or else abandon the border wall project altogether to avoid violating the Endangered Species Act.
Levee-border walls are even worse for terrestrial animals than bollard border walls. With bollard walls a snake or field mouse can slip between bollards, and a rabbit may make it through “cat holes,” even if endangered species are blocked. A levee-border wall cannot have gaps or holes because that would defeat the purpose of a levee. Existing earthen levees have a slope on both sides, which, during a flooding event, allows terrestrial animals to go up one side and down the other to escape rising waters. A levee-border wall replaces the river-facing side with a sheer concrete slab, something which a human can easily surmount with a ladder but which an animal cannot. Some of Hidalgo County’s levees were converted to levee-border walls in 2009. In 2010 the Rio Grande flooded, inundating a number of US Fish and Wildlife refuge tracts up to the levees for as much as four months. After the water receded USFW reported to Customs and Border Protection that in areas where levee-border walls prevented the egress of animals they found hundreds of shells from Texas tortoises, a state-listed threatened species, and that it was likely that animals whose remains would be less durable, possibly including ocelots, also drowned. As this was reported to Customs and Border Protection years ago, what measures does CBP intend to incorporate into the proposed levee-border walls to ensure that USFW refuges that are to be walled off do not serve as death traps for land animals during flooding events?
There are also a number of endangered plants in the Starr County border wall project areas. The disturbance of land and the disruption of the natural flow of water into the Rio Grande has the potential to negatively impact these species and alter the area’s flora, pushing threatened and endangered plants closer to extirpation. The letter’s statement that alongside the proposed border walls “all vegetation within the 150-foot enforcement zone will be cleared” also indicates that there will be impacts on plant communities, in that they will be completely destroyed in proximity to the border wall. This will also likely cause serious erosion, as plants slow the movement of water across soils and stabilize soils. With all vegetation cleared there is likely to be serious erosion, particularly in riparian ecosystems.
Based on the information above, we request that Customs and Border Protection initiate formal consultation with US Fish and Wildlife in compliance with Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act regarding these and other threatened and endangered species in the vicinity of existing and proposed border walls.
Finally, Sierra Club understands that the Secretary of Homeland Security holds the authority to waive application of the ESA and other federal laws applicable to border wall work. Nevertheless, we respectfully request that the Secretary not invoke that unnecessary and damaging power. Waiving a law simply means that an agency will not face any consequence if that law is violated. Waivers do not mean that Customs and Border Protection is compliant with the Endangered Species Act or any other law if its actions drive endangered species towards extirpation or extinction. In waiving our nation’s laws the Secretary of Homeland Security is announcing the intent to violate those laws.
The August 25th letter solicited input regarding the installation of gates in existing border walls, but the installation of some of those gates is already complete
In the letter’s first paragraph it states that “CBP is in the planning stages of its second phase of gate installation to close 35 gaps in existing border fence in Hidalgo and Cameron counties.” This statement gives the false impression that there is still time for consultation regarding these gates, when in fact construction has already been completed on a number of them. Would Customs and Border Protection remove gates if information that they had not considered comes to light? It is unclear whether this is a disingenuous attempt to give the false impression that there was consultation, perhaps hoping that members of Congress will not realize that the work has already been done, or a situation in which the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.
Despite the fact that gate construction has already begun almost no information about those gates has been released to the public. The gates that were installed a few years ago are opened via keypads, and the codes were provided to landowners who needed to access property on the other side. Many of the new gates will cross public thoroughfares, including Monsees Road on the east side of Brownsville. There are houses behind that section of border wall that can only be accessed via the road that Customs and Border Protection plans to install gates across. Will the gates be left open, or will access be restricted? What if Pamela Taylor, who lives behind the border wall, wants to invite a friend over? What if she wants to order a pizza? What if she needs an ambulance? There is precedent for this issue a couple of miles down the road from Ms. Taylor’s house. The Loop family orchard is bisected by a section of border wall, and a gate was installed to provide access to a house and barn behind the wall. Earlier this year that house and barn burned to the ground because the fire department’s access was blocked by the wall, and they were not able to get through the gate. What guarantees can Customs and Border Protection offer to Ms. Taylor and others in a similar situation that they will not suffer a similar tragedy?
Gates will also go up at the entrance to the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary, and at the gap in the levee-border wall that allows for access to a 900 year-old Montezuma cypress tree. Will the public still have access to these natural landmarks? When the Cameron County border wall was built in front of Sabal Palms the number of visitors declined so markedly that the Sanctuary closed for two years. Gates which may or may not be opened, dependent upon the whims of Customs and Border Protection, threaten to bring back this closure and make it permanent. There is currently a gate in the levee-border wall between the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse World Birding Center and an adjacent tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The World Birding Center was established to allow access to this refuge tract, as that is where the birds are, and this gate stand across the access point to the refuge’s trails. The gate was supposed to be kept open to allow visitors to access the refuge, but it never is.
The gates installed in the Rio Grande Valley’s border walls in prior years cost, on average, $240,000 apiece, on top of the cost of the walls themselves. The Administration requested and received $49,200,000 for the 35 new gates, which averages out to $1.4 million per gate. Customs and Border Protection should provide an explanation for this dramatic increase in cost. Why will new gates cost six times as much as gates installed just a few years ago? Is it Customs and Border Protection’s intent to purchase or condemn properties that will be inaccessible if gates are never opened, such as the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary or Ms. Taylor’s home? We reiterate the need for transparency. Customs and Border Protection should release the cost estimate breakdowns that led to the amount requested and included in the FY 2017 supplemental budget request.
Customs and Border Protection should publicly refute clearly false information pertaining to levee-type border walls
Some proponents of levee-border walls, including elected officials, have made the claim both publicly and in private that the International Boundary Water Commission’s (IBWC) flood control levees are in poor shape and at risk of failure during a major flood, and that their conversion into levee-border walls would strengthen them. This is false, and in the course of providing the public with information about the proposed border walls Customs and Border Protection has a duty to correct this falsehood.
The Sierra Club has been in contact with both IBWC and FEMA, and we have been told in no uncertain terms that the river levees have been completely rehabilitated. The work was done by IBWC with $220 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This work was completed last year according to an email we have from Ms. Sally Spener, Foreign Affairs Office with IBWC. All of the segments of levees along the river where the proposed levee-border wall would go have been submitted for accreditation by IBWC and are tagged “certification submitted” on the Levee Improvement Status maps. In her email of March 3, 2017, Ms. Spener explains, “Certification Submitted means that the USIBWC has submitted documentation to FEMA indicating that USIBWC certifies the levee as meeting FEMA criteria. In that sense, the levee rehabilitation part of the accreditation process is complete. FEMA accreditation also depends on local communities addressing local drainage issues on the land side of the levees.”
So, work on the levees is in fact complete, and they are ready to be accredited. On a call of April 25, 2017, Mr. Larry Voice, project manager with FEMA, echoed this, saying that the levees were rebuilt to “structural certification,” meaning that the levees themselves, in their current state, would be accredited by FEMA. The reason the system is not accredited already has nothing to do with the structural integrity or the height of the levees. Instead, the accreditation is waiting on work that needs to be done on the land side, or north of the levees, NOT to the levees themselves. Ms. Spener was very clear about what exactly those land side repairs are in her email to us:
“In many communities, during non-flood conditions, local rainfall from the land side of the levee drains into the river via gates in the levee. However, during flood operations, the gates are closed to prevent the flooded river from flowing out onto the land side of the levees. There needs to be a plan for how to handle the land side runoff during these conditions, such as by pumping it over the levee.”
If the recently rebuilt IBWC levees are torn apart and converted to levee-border walls it will provide no flood control benefit. Hidalgo County needs to install pumps to transmit water over the wall, not make it concrete and add eighteen foot tall bollards to its top. The weight of the bollards could, in fact, compromise the structural integrity of the proposed levee-border walls.
The levee-border wall project outlined in the August 25th letter would be a treaty violation
The treaty establishing the Rio Grande / Rio Bravo as the United States-Mexico border forbids either nation from building structures in the floodplain that would worsen flooding on the opposite side should there be a significant rain event such as a hurricane. The International Boundary and Water Commission is a bi-national organization with a Mexican section and a U.S. section whose operational principal is consensus. In regards to the IBWC levees that the Administration wants to convert to levee-border walls, both their locations and heights were agreed to by both nations. Matching levees were built on the Mexican side of the river, and the heights of the levees on both sides are exactly the same. This was intentional, ensuring that in the event of a major flood levees on both sides of the river would overtop simultaneously so that one nation is not deflecting water over the top of the other nation’s levees.
The August 25 letter states that “the levee wall will be a concrete wall to the height of the levee crest with 18 foot bollards installed in the top of the levee wall.” The addition of bollards to the top of the levee would be a treaty violation, as they would extend the height of the levee on the United States side of the river without Mexico agreeing to the change or extending the height of their own levees. The bollard design, as it has been used in Cameron County, consists of six inch-wide bollards with four inch wide gaps between them. The pretense is that water can pass through these gaps, but as Customs and Border Protection is aware the small gaps in bollard border walls that cross washes in California, Arizona, and New Mexico quickly clog with debris. They become impermeable, damming water. For example, the force of backed up water has swept away 40–60 foot wide sections of border wall. The same could occur with bollards atop levee-border walls. Has Customs and Border Protection commissioned any studies of this issue specific to the levee-border wall design described in this letter? If so, those studies should be released to the public immediately. Have there been any discussions with the Mexican section of the International Boundary and Water Commission regarding this border wall design? If so, documentation of those discussions should also be released to the public.
More information about the design of levee-border walls must be released to the public
The description of levee-border walls contained in the letter is far too general and vague for the public to provide truly informed comments. As just one example of missing information, the public needs to know whether 18 foot-tall bollards are proposed to stand atop the levee- border wall. And if so, how wide would the concrete portion of the wall need to be in order to support that weight and the sway of the free-standing bollards? What reinforcement would this type of wall require? How deep would its foundation be? Contractors have been seen drilling holes into the existing levees at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and elsewhere in Hidalgo County. Should we assume that these private contractors are privy to this critical safety information? If so, this information must be released to the public. The flood control levees are a critical component of the Rio Grande Valley’s flood control network, so it is vitally important that anything that affects their structural integrity is thoroughly examined, and that those examinations be open and available for public scrutiny.
The bollard-style border walls proposed for Starr County pose a significant flooding hazard to communities on both sides of the Rio Grande
Starr County does not have IBWC flood control levees along the Rio Grande, and the locations selected for border walls which appear on a recently released Customs and Border Protection map appear to be in the Rio Grande floodplain. According to CBP’s August letter these walls would be consist of 8-inch diameter steel bollards filled with concrete that will stand 20 – 30 feet tall. There is no information regarding the amount of space between bollards (this information would be useful for assessing their impact, and should be released immediately), but in the case of bollard border walls in Cameron County the bollards were spaced 4 inches apart.
Based upon the proposed placement of the Starr bollard border walls in the Rio Grande floodplain, it appears that Customs and Border Protection will pretend that this design will have minimal impact on the flow of water during a flooding event. This is false, and CBP has many reports and case studies from the bollard border walls it has built in other areas the demonstrate this. The bollards themselves will block 66% of the area that water would otherwise move through their location, assuming 8-inch bollards with four inch gaps. In the event of a flood water does not flow crystal clear, it carries sediment and debris. Bollard walls built in California, Arizona, and New Mexico had the gaps between their bollards clog with debris soon after construction was completed. This turns them into impermeable barriers that dam flood waters. In 2008 seasonal monsoon rains came to southern Arizona and water backed up against the border wall near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Lukeville Port of Entry. The following year Customs and Border Protection commissioned Baker Engineering to examine all of the places where border walls crossed streams and washes from El Paso to the Pacific Ocean. Baker reported that, “PF 225 fencing obstructs drainage flow every time a wash is crossed. With additional debris build-up, the IBWC’s criteria for rise in water surface elevations (set at 6” in rural areas and 3” in urban areas) can quickly be exceeded.”
In a number of instances water dammed by debris-clogged border walls backed up to a depth of six or more feet. Over time sediment accumulated behind the clogged walls, raising the upstream bed many feet higher than the downstream bed. Water falling from a height of six feet gouged out the earth around the foundation of border walls in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and near Nogales, Arizona, leading to sections of border wall 40 to 60 feet wide blowing out and being swept away. There is no reason to believe that bollard border walls in the Rio Grande floodplain would behave any different from bollard walls in Arizona washes.
The Starr County border walls will also cause drainage issues for the cities of Roma and Rio Grande City, as well as other communities in their path. Water that now is able to flow downhill to the Rio Grande will be blocked by the border wall. This will cause local flooding of homes, businesses, farms, and wildlife refuges. If Customs and Border Protection has a plan for addressing this issue the full details should be released immediately so that they can be evaluated by the public. Continuing to withhold this information, or failing to develop such a plan in the first place, would not be in keeping with the consultation requirements of the Secure Fence Act or the National Environmental Policy Act.
The border wall’s route through Roma will either place it on the bluff or below it. Maps with sufficient detail to show which option Customs and Border Protection has selected have not been released to the public. If the border wall goes on top of the bluff it will likely require that historic buildings and the Roma City Hall be demolished. If the wall goes below the bluff it will be built on sand on the river’s edge, and is almost certain to be torn out of this unstable foundation and washed downriver during even a moderate flood.
Border walls erected in the Rio Grande floodplain would be a treaty violation
For Cameron County’s bollard border walls, the International Boundary and Water Commission required that the walls be built north of the levees and therefore outside of the Rio Grande floodplain. This is because the treaty that established the Rio Grande as the border between the United States and Mexico, and which provides Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol with their reason for existing, forbids the construction of anything by either nation within the Rio Grande floodplain that might alter the river’s course or deflect water into the other country. The levees were created by mutual agreement. Mexico, and the Mexican section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, continue to object that any unilateral action on the part of the United States to build a border wall in the floodplain would be a violation of the treaty.
Bollard border walls in the floodplain will likely act as dams, just as they have elsewhere along the border. This means that during a flooding event water will not spread out from both sides of the river, and instead water that would have gone into the United States will be deflected into Mexico, increasing the severity of flooding in Mexican communities such as Ciudad Aleman. If water is deflected south the river could also settle into a new channel, effectively moving the international boundary.
As no levees exist in Starr County Customs and Border Protection must either change the route and location of their planned border walls to move them out of the floodplain or abandon the project altogether. Moving the walls out of the floodplain would mean walling off significant portions of towns such as Roma, leaving homes and businesses in a no man’s land between border wall and border. The far better option would be to abandon the border wall project entirely.
Customs and Border Protection has yet to demonstrate that border walls are effective
In February 2017, the Government Accountability Office reported that, “In September 2009, we found that CBP had not assessed TI’s [tactical infrastructure, including border walls] impact on border security operations or mission goals and had not measured the effectiveness of TI.” Eight years later this had not changed, and GAO reported that, “CBP cannot measure the contribution of fencing to border security operations along the southwest border because it has not developed metrics for this assessment.” Yet CBP’s August 2017 letter states that, “The purpose of the proposed action is to increase CBP’s ability to impede or deny illegal border crossings, and to provide improved surveillance and detection capabilities to the areas of greatest risk of illegal cross-border activity located within the US Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector.”
The information, or lack of information, that CBP is providing the GAO regarding the effectiveness of border walls is not consistent with the justification the agency has made to the general public for the need of border walls. If there is empirical evidence that demonstrates that existing border walls have had a beneficial impact, please release it so that the general public may evaluate it.
Absent this information, the public is left with the understanding that these expensive and harmful walls will be constructed based on Executive Order (EO) 13767, which amounts to
“Trump wants walls.” For those who live in border communities, and those whose property could be taken through eminent domain, and those who care about the ecosystems and species that border walls threaten, this is not a valid reason to build border walls.
The Sierra Club reiterates that a single letter outside of a rigorous and structured legal process such as that set forth by the National Environmental Policy Act violates requirements for public processes and stakeholder consultation
The Sierra Club requests that these comments be included in the public record for CBP’s border work. Therefore, these comments, along with all other comments CBP receives, must be available to the public.
Customs and Border Protection must initiate community outreach by hosting public forums during which CBP will be transparent in explaining its plans and allowing not only for public comment but for meaningful public engagement that has the capacity to alter or even halt plans for border walls, enforcement zones, etc. Furthermore, we expect outreach in accordance with full compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and all other relevant laws for any projects that CBP undertakes in the borderlands. And we request that DHS and CBP refrain from invoking any waivers of existing law.
Sincerely, Scott Nicol
Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club