Trump’s Border Wall Could Trouble Waters With Mexico

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By Amena H. Saiyid

A wall covered with solar panels may be President Donald Trump’s solution to keep undocumented immigrants and illegal drugs out of the country, but critics say it also could cause flooding and stormwater runoff problems along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

The proposed wall could adversely affect three major rivers—the Rio Grande, Colorado, and Tijuana—and their tributaries that crisscross the border, according to Mexico-focused scholars and environmental advocates. Use and protection of these waters are governed by treaties that date as far back as the late 19th century.

The Department of Homeland Security hasn’t announced which company or companies will be awarded the contract to design a prototype of the border wall, which will signal what types of environmental impacts to expect. The existing network of barriers that covers part of the border has contributed to flooding and water pollution problems in some communities, illustrating the potential impacts of a full-fledged wall.

Trump ‘Seriously’ Considering Solar

Trump has repeatedly pledged to partition the border, and his latest idea is to help finance its cost by having it generate electricity: “No, not joking, no … we are seriously looking at a solar wall,” Trump said July 13.

The wall could cost anywhere from $8 billion to $40 billion, depending on whose estimates you look at.

Originally, the proposed wall was to stretch from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf of Mexico, replacing and supplementing an existing barrier network that stretches from California to the Rio Grande River in Texas. President George W. Bush signed a law in 2006 authorizing those barriers to stem the flow of people illegally entering the country.

Trump has since tempered his original plan, stating that the wall doesn’t need to cover the entire border, owing to the natural barriers posed by mountains and “some rivers that are violent and vicious.” Instead, he said, a wall would need to be anywhere from 700 to 900 miles, and supplement the existing barriers.

The Wall

The Department of Homeland Security sought bids on its main request to design a prototype for a 30-foot-high, six-foot-deep reinforced concrete wall. Bids also were sought for an alternative barrier other than a concrete wall. The administration has said it could announce winning bids as early as this month.

The department says any wall designs should have drainage for water passage and have minimal environmental impact, but stop short of requiring an environmental impact analysis.

Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, said any plan to build a border wall will have to be legally “water tight.” The Trump administration will have to do a very careful environmental impact analysis of the wall that it plans to construct, and ensure it doesn’t violate international treaties, he said.

The Department of Homeland Security said the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, the area in and around El Paso, the desert along the Arizona border, and the area south of the San Diego is “where we might initiate more extensive construction.”

But the department and the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t respond to requests for comment on the potential environmental impacts of the wall.

Money, Environmental Impacts

The Trump administration, in its first budget request, proposed to cut about $13 million in funding for environmental programs near the border, including infrastructure assistance for wastewater and drinking water treatment plants. The administration described those programs as “lower priority.”

However, the EPA’s Good Neighbor Advisory Committee is examining environmental infrastructure needs along the border. The goal of a report, due in September, will be to balance border security needs with food and water security, according to committee members.

Six months into the administration, no contract has been awarded, which means the shape that the wall would take, and whether it would even materialize, remains uncertain.

The wall proposal does call for best practices to minimize stormwater runoff. Still, environmental groups worry that the project would exacerbate runoff and erosion once construction starts.

“Without records, we can’t know. It is very difficult to fully understand what this wall project will be, what its impacts will be to communities, the wildlife and the water in the areas of the border,” Meg Townsend, open government attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Bloomberg BNA. That environmental group sued the administration for not releasing plans about the wall.

Removable Sections

John Garrett, president of Forth Worth-based J.P. Construction, told Bloomberg BNA that he is well aware of the potential environmental impacts including flooding, erosion and stormwater runoff. Garrett’s company, which is among the hundreds vying for the wall project, included environmental mitigation measures in its bid.

“I have designed the wall so we can remove sections of it to allow wildlife to migrate and floodwaters to pass through,” Garrett said.

An environmental engineer who requested anonymity because he works as an EPA contractor said wall designs can be modified to meet environmental concerns and goals, but that may come at a cost to taxpayers. In addition, the border wall project could trigger federal flood control requirements to address public safety concerns, according to the engineer.

“The challenge in river engineering is often that flood control requirements, such as keeping water elevations for floods low, is often at odds with environmental goals” such as stream restoration, the engineer said.

Treaties Could Be in Play

The existing border wall, which covers 653 miles, is a hodgepodge of chain-link and barbed-wire fences, concrete walls, and wooden barriers. The Bush administration used its authority under the REAL ID Act of 2005 (Pub. L. No.109-13), to waive compliance with various environmental laws in order to build the wall.

The Trump administration could opt to invoke that law to waive compliance with environmental requirements for its wall project, according to Erik Lee, executive director of the North American Research Partnership, a think tank that specializes in how the U.S., Mexico and Canada can use global trade treaties to their economic advantage.

However, key water treaties between the two countries could come into play because they govern any infrastructure projects that could affect the quantity and quality of shared waters.

A 1970 treaty could be invoked if the wall is built because it outlines how the countries demarcate the boundary that falls in the Rio Grande’s riverbed, said Stephen Mumme, a Colorado State University political science professor who specializes in comparative environmental politics as it pertains to the U.S.-Mexico border.

‘Not a Straight Line’

“You must remember that the U.S.-Mexico border is not a straight line, but a complex place geographically, traversing through numerous ecosystems,” Mumme said.Under the 1970 treaty, both U.S. and Mexican officials on the International Boundary and Water Commission must agree on any structure that would affect the flow of the Rio Grande or its floodwaters. The commission declined to comment for this story.

A 1944 treaty governing how the two countries manage the waters of the Rio Grande, Colorado and Tijuana rivers, including the treatment of sewage, also could figure into the wall’s construction. Since wastewater flows across the border, the creation of the barrier could require both governments to alter the way sewage is treated and disposed into the shared waters.

Wall negotiations with Mexico will be “complex” because of the treaties, Earl Anthony Wayne, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, told Bloomberg BNA.

Ignoring Agreements

But those treaties didn’t play much of a role when construction of the existing barrier began.

The U.S. constructed a fence in the flood plain below the levees that run along the Rio Grande in violation of the 1970 treaty, according to Mumme. Mexico protested, but not in a sustained fashion, and its protests were ignored by the U.S., Mumme said.

Wood of the Mexico Institute said the wall project, if done without consultation between the two countries, could make Mexico less likely to collaborate with the U.S. on existing and future water agreements.

“If the U.S. government goes for a major construction project at the border without consulting, then that would be taken as a slap in the face by the Mexican government,” said Wood.

Mexican Ambassador Geronimo Gutierrez Fernandez declined to discuss the wall. “We agree to disagree, and that’s all I am going to say about it,” Gutierrez told Bloomberg BNA.

Existing Wall Impacts

Towns such as Imperial Beach, Calif., and Nogales, Ariz., have experienced effects from the existing wall for the last few years.

Two rivers—the Tijuana, which flows from Mexico and empties into the Pacific just below Imperial Beach, and the seasonally flowing Santa Cruz in Nogales—have snagged attention because they are contaminated with stormwater runoff and sewage overflows, much of it from the Mexican side of the border.

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina told Bloomberg BNA his city already has had to deal with illegal toxic discharges from Tijuana that drain into the river, which runs underneath the fences, and sewage runoff during the rainy season. Dedina said he and other surfers have been sickened from Pacific waters contaminated with sewage.

Dedina called the proposed wall an obstacle to working with his Mexican neighbors on critical issues, including curbing the flow of sewage and other pollution.

Flash Flooding in Arizona

The border town of Nogales, which straddles southern Arizona on one side and the Mexican state of Sonora on the other, has been the site of frequent flash floods. In heavy summer rainstorms, sections of the existing wall have sometimes collapsed or otherwise contributed to flooding in border communities, according to the Sierra Club.

The flooding situation in these border towns has worsened because the wall dams up the natural flow of water, Dan Millis, coordinator of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Campaign, told Bloomberg BNA. The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg L.P. Bloomberg BNA is an affiliate of Bloomberg L.P.

Despite all the problems communities have faced with the existing wall, not all local officials see the renewed push to build a barrier as exacerbating environmental conditions.

Tijuana Mayor Jose Manuel Gastelum said a new wall wouldn’t worsen problems of sewage runoff and flooding.

“We have been collaborating with San Diego and we will continue to do so,” he said.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Gastelum said the cities signed an agreement to collaborate on the departmental level to address major concerns, including the environment.

White House Pressing Ahead

The White House is determined to move forward: Trump, at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, touted the installation of solar panels on the wall as a way to generate energy and offset construction costs.

“This way, Mexico will have to pay much less money,” Trump said. “And that’s good, right?”

The Trump administration sought $1.6 billion for the first part of the project in its fiscal year 2018 budget request. That request would provide for:

• 32 miles of new border wall construction ($784 million);

• 28 miles of levee wall along the Rio Grande Valley ($498.4 million); and

• 14 miles of a new wall to replace the existing secondary fence in the San Diego sector ($250.6 million).

House Appropriators Propose Funding

The House Appropriations Committee included the full $1.6 billion requested by the administration in a fiscal 2018 funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security.

It is unclear whether the Senate will follow suit. A spending deal reached earlier this year between the two chambers contained no money for the planned wall. That agreement did provide $146 million to replace existing vehicle barriers with pedestrian fencing.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has supported most Trump proposals, has consistently deflected questions when pressed about congressional support for the infrastructure project.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA when asked if he had environmental concerns about the wall.

‘14th Century Solution’

Democrats in both chambers have made their opposition known: Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) described the wall as a “14th century solution” and suggested a border security strategy involving the sharing of data and expertise.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) described the wall as a “waste of money.”

“I can’t find any support for a wall, at all, among any of the stakeholders on the border,” Cardin, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Bloomberg BNA. “And I must tell you in talking to my Republican friends here, I don’t think there’s much support for the wall on either side of the aisle.”

These kind of remarks are prompting project bidders like Garrett of J.P. Construction to wonder whether the wall will ever be built.

“There’s no funding for it at this time from Congress, so I don’t know if it will go forward,” Garrett said.

—With assistance from Dean Scott.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

For More Information

Bloomberg BNA's podcast with Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina is available at https://soundcloud.com/partsperbillion/dedina.

Video of Trump's remarks in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is available at https://youtu.be/B_QAYXflAPc?t=6140.

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