Border barrier construction creates confusion

October 2, 2017

McALLEN — The leader was confused.

Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, was dining at an Austin restaurant when he surprisingly ran into a powerful friend.

“Hey Henry, I’ve been meaning to talk to you,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “Did I hear you support the border wall in South Texas?”

“Oh no, senator,” Cuellar said. “That’s not true.”

Cuellar then realized what Schumer meant.

“Oh,” Cuellar said. “Do you mean the levee wall?”

“What’s the difference?” Schumer said.

Schumer is not alone. Many who don’t spend time on the border, and even many who do, don’t necessarily understand the different types of barriers President Donald Trump’s administration is drawing up.

There are also various structures that have existed for years in separate spots between the United States and Mexico, including a levee wall designed for floodplains, bollard wall, and in some areas, such as Hidalgo County, a combination of the two.

There are also notable differences in the structures. As proposed, the levee wall has been appropriated $498 million by the U.S. House of Representatives and would be made of concrete, reaching the height of the levee crest with 18-feet-high bollards installed toward the top. Bollards — cylindrical, steel posts — would extend 20 to 30 feet high and measure 8 inches in diameter.

A 150-foot enforcement zone would also be implemented. This area would extend from the river side of the levee or bollards. Vegetation, such as portions of natural habitats and preserves, within the zone would be cleared.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials confirmed plans in August to construct bollards on top of the levees that sit between the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge visitor center and the more than 2,000 acres that make up the refuge. Another 32 miles of bollards, which Cuellar has said may cost as much as $784 million, are also planned for Starr County.

Border wall and nature

Tiffany Kersten is a local environmentalist and avid birder who moved to the Rio Grande Valley nearly four years ago. The idea of the refuge, which lured her here in the first place, being crippled by the construction prompted her activism against a border wall.

Kersten, 31, who resides in Mission, said she made the decision to move to the Valley after working three months at the refuge nearly five years ago.

Her plan was to escape the cold winters and ended up falling in love with the area. Santa Ana’s prestige in the birding world reached the Wisconsin-native long before moving to the Valley.

“I have friends (from) all around the country who are avid birders, and anytime Santa Ana came up they lit up and got all excited,” Kersten said. “(They) talked about all the rare birds that they’d seen there — so even though I’d never been anywhere around the border, anywhere in South Texas, I didn’t really know anything in terms of what to expect until I got here, (and) that the birding was going to be fantastic.”

She was never politically involved. But fears that the president would make good on his polarizing campaign promise of building a border wall compelled her to launch an effort to save her new home.

Such fears include the wall’s placement — in front of the refuge — possibly cutting off public access to the trails, just as they were at the Old Hidalgo Pump House years ago.

What’s left now are unkept trails, U.S. Border Patrol presence and an uninviting steel fence, according to Kersten, who makes frequent trips to the refuge tracts in and around the county.

She now wonders if this will be Santa Ana’s fate if the government’s plans come to fruition.

Jim Chapman, a former president and board member of the Weslaco-based nature preserve, Frontera Audubon, has concerns about hazards the levee and bollards pose to the area’s wildlife and vegetation.

“What we’re seeing here is one type of border wall that was built between 2007 and 2009,” Chapman said near the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge. “It’s what’s called a levee wall because there’s a concrete wall built into the levee, and then there’s a bollard fence on top of that.”

Chapman noted more than 50 wildlife refuge tracts located along the river aside from Santa Ana, calling the proposed walls “a disaster” to the natural habitat, “because nothing can get past a concrete wall, all the wildlife on the river side cannot get out.”

“So there’s no animal passage in either direction, and for the refuge nothing could be worse — it’s an unmitigated disaster, and now the administration wants to build 28 more miles of concrete wall, with 18-foot (bollards) on top,” Chapman said. “That will put, in some places, the wall over 30 feet, which is taller than the Great Wall of China, taller than any of your maximum security prison walls, taller than the Berlin Wall. It’s shameful. Not only is it an environmental disaster, but it is shameful.”

The structures, he added, may also lead to the demise of local wildlife.

“As you can see, nothing can pass this wall,” Chapman said. “The wildlife that is in this refuge here right now will not be able to get out, so the refuge that was created to protect them will become a deathtrap.”

According to Chapman, the wall would also create flooding and drought concerns that he called “disastrous.” He explained that any wildlife that is on the north side of the levee will not be able to reach the river.

In Starr County, where the 32 miles of bollard construction is planned, the use of levee walls is not be possible. However, CBP plans to use steel fencing not unlike those constructed in Cameron County years ago.

“They’re proposing these steel-bollard fences 20 to 30 feet high, and what will happen in a flood, these fences will become very quickly clogged with debris, and they will become essentially an impassable wall,” Chapman said. “It will deflect water to the Mexican side, which is very likely an international treaty violation. In certain areas, particularly Roma, you have the Mexican city Miguel Aleman, (which) is on the low bank side. So water will be deflected to the Mexican side; the risk for flooding on the Mexican side will be increased.”

Bollards or walls, Cuellar vehemently stressed his opposition to any structures that would pose a threat to the region’s natural order. The problem lies in rallying support toward a cause that even his most powerful colleagues don’t understand.