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New border wall construction in the Rio Grande may deflect floodwaters into Mexico 

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As anyone who has been watching national politics these last few years could probably attest: They're not done with the border wall. Launched with the 2006 Secure Fence Act, Homeland Security was originally tasked with raising 700 miles of 14-foot-high, double fencing across the nation's southern land boundary. While construction rushed ahead from San Diego to El Paso, in Texas things got gummed up by lawsuits over eminent domain land grabs and U.S. citizens were getting pushed behind the wall as contractors sought to stay clear of the Rio Grande floodplain.

When the dust settled after 2008's election, more than a dozen miles rejected for their likelihood to shift floodwaters into Mexico were still left to go. With Obama's victory many assumed the project was done — at least until the next presidential election. Not that anyone out to “secure the border” before talking immigration reform was happy with that. Efforts for another 700 miles of fencing under a second Secure Fence Act in 2008 (the original act called for double fencing, but only a single-line fence went in) and U.S. Senator Jim DeMint's “Finish the Fence” amendment of 2010, however, were both routed in Congress.

However, 14 miles of fence approved, purchased, but never built appear to be getting back on course. And critics — including a Mexican engineer with the Mexican side of the bi-national International Boundary and Water Commission — say their proposed construction will funnel massive amounts of flood waters into Mexico, a clear violation of international treaty, putting lives at risk as hurricane season gets underway. To avoid cutting U.S. residents off behind the wall, significant portions of these three sections of wall — at Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos — would be built in the Rio Grande's floodplain, representing “the potential for disaster to occur” by deflecting floodwaters into Mexican towns to the south, IBWC engineer Luis Antonio Rascon Mendoza wrote U.S. colleagues in late 2011. “The location, alignment and design of the proposed fence represent a clear obstruction of the Rio Grande hydraulic area, since the fence would occupy nearly all of the hydraulic area on the U.S. side, causing the deflection of flows toward the Mexican side.” Scott Nicol, who has been tracking the developments for the state Sierra Club's Borderlands Team by filing regular FOIA requests for documents, including Mendoza's letter, says the fence would also split significant amounts of flood water toward the U.S. “They've already condemned the land, they just don't want the bad PR that goes along with throwing someone out of their house,” he said. “You don't have to condemn the land, you can just wash it away.” When the sections were first stopped over flooding concerns in 2008, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar told the Houston Chronicle that the Valley “will receive this as great news,” before adding: “We're hoping that this will allow us to work with the next president to find ... alternative methods for security." U.S. counterparts at the IBWC have disputed their counterparts' findings, but instead of allowing time for a full review and bi-national consensus, they chose to go it alone: voting to allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection to move forward despite Mexico's objections. “After an in-depth and thorough review, the USIBWC has concluded that the proposed fence project(s) will not cause significant deflection or obstruction of flood flows of the Rio Grande,” USIBWC engineer John Merino wrote in February. Two conditions were attached to the unilateral approval, however: the feds must keep the river fencing clear of litter, “especially after a storm event,” and repair any damages wrought on the Mexican bank “should any damage occur.” Worth noting: it is the USIBWC, not its Mexican counterpart, which must be satisfied with the scope of the repairs. Efforts to garner comment from Mexico-IBWC were unsuccessful by press deadline. On the U.S. side, Isela Canava, a civil engineer with US-IBWC, said treaty disagreements "are not taken lightly" — "If they do have valid concerns, we ask them to show us how the findings are incorrect" — but that she did not know the specifics of the project. The representative who had that information at the group's boundary and realty office did not return our calls for comment. Merino concluded his letter to the Mexico-IBWC, by saying: “It should be noted that the USIBWC did not review these fence projects for any potential environmental impacts since they are covered by the Environmental Waiver obtained by DHS in April 2008.” While the U.S. Congress cleared Homeland Security (which oversees CBP and a number of other agencies) to vault dozens of federal laws to construct the border wall (and a press is on in Congress now to exempt the rest of U.S. borderlands — north and south — from environmental regulations), they are not supposed to vault international treaties, as appears to be happening, said Nicol. “Anything that is built within the floodplain that could potentially cause an impact you have to have agreement from both sides. They are not allowed to make unilateral decisions, but that's exactly what's happened.” Calls to U.S. Fish & Wildlife officials with the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which would be affected by the construction and subsequent flooding disturbances, were routed up the chain to a public information officer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The PIO there said simply that the agency (which has been very critical of Homeland Security's fence-building in the past for its slicing through protected areas of sensitive habitat) “intends to stay involved and appreciates the cooperative efforts of U.S. Customs Border Patrol.” What about flooding? Destruction of habitat? Endangered species? She's have to check and get back to us on that. We're still waiting. Hurricane season in the Gulf got underway last month. As yet there has been no sign of construction.

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