Environmentalists are raising alarms about the environmental harms of a proposed 20-mile stretch of border wall construction in the lower Rio Grande valley that experts say will intensify flooding in an area that is already flood prone. 

President Biden recently approved the construction in Starr County, Texas. The move may violate a 1970 treaty that the United States signed with Mexico. 

The pact, called the Treaty To Resolve Pending Boundary Differences and Maintain the Rio Grande as The International Boundary, outlines the use of the Rio Grande and Colorado River. The treaty cautions against actions that would undermine the determined boundaries, with both nations agreeing to prohibit construction that “may cause deflection or obstruction of the normal flow of the river or of its flood flows.” 

“Anytime you build a structure in the floodplain, that could conceivably deflect water, especially as much water as a border wall would, that could constitute a treaty violation,” said Laiken Jordahl, a southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. 

The Biden administration also waived 26 environmental laws to expedite the building of the wall, citing “an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers”, drawing scrutiny from environmental advocates and border community residents. 

“The whole waiver authority, the idea that the DHS Secretary can waive all laws to further border wall construction, that really treats people who live here as, as you know, unequal members of society, second-class citizens,” said Ricky Garza, border policy counsel for the Southern Border Communities Coalition. 

Environmental activists warn that the proposed plans for the border wall in Starr County could pose a threat to the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico as outlined in the binational treaty. 

“The walls are going to be repeatedly in the floodplain according to the maps that have been released so far,” said Scott Nicol, a member of the board at the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor. “That’s a treaty violation right off the bat.” 

According to Nicol, putting the border wall on the floodplain would worsen floodwaters in Mexico during major flooding events, a clear violation of the binational treaty.

“If the U.S. or Mexico put anything in the floodplain, we get a big flood, the Rio Grande spreads out, and it hits that wall or other deflection, bounces to the other side, and the flooding is worse on the other side of the border,” said Nicol. 

The 1970 treaty states that the boundary has to be maintained in its location even in the worst flood imaginable, said Stephen Mumme, a political science professor at Colorado State University who studies water and environmental management along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“You have to think about the extreme or worst case,” Mumme said. 

Starr County has had major flooding events in 2008, 2010, and 2020. The county is also subject to smaller flooding events during heavy rainfall.    

Plans to build a wall in Starr County date back to the George W. Bush administration. In 2008, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection “quietly concluded that building a wall in Starr County was too dangerous.” 

C. W. Ruth, then-commissioner of the U.S. section of the International Water and Boundary Commission, wrote a letter in 2009 to the CBP rejecting the plans for a wall in the floodplains due to treaty violations.

In 2012, the U.S. section of the IWBC responded to a letter from Antonio Rascón, then-chief engineer of the Mexican section of the commission, in which he stated that the wall would deflect water and violate the 1970 treaty. 

More recently, in an interview with NPR in 2017, Rascón expressed concerns about Trump’s proposed border wall in the county, saying that parts of the wall would violate the treaty by blocking trans-border water movement. 

Rosario Sanchez, a senior research scientist for the Texas Water Resources Institute, noted that while the magnitude of the impacts on the sections of the wall Biden has approved is yet to be seen, it is likely to have devastating effects. 

“It’s going to have an impact as any other infrastructure development that we have put on the river or any other stretch of the wall that has been built over the river or around the river in a way that it stops the movement, the natural movement of water, of species or even, you know, conservation,” Sanchez said. 

CBP held a public comment period until Sept. 15 for people to express their concerns about the proposed plans for the wall in Starr County. 

Border residents and environmentalists say that’s not enough. 

In coalition comments submitted to CBP regarding proposed border wall construction in Starr County, more than 10 environmental organizations highlight that “up to now there has been no meaningful consultation with communities, landowners, or other local stakeholders regarding border walls in Starr County.” 

In a stakeholder feedback report published on Oct. 30, CBP provided a summary of the comments submitted, highlighting the main concerns of the public, which included worries about flooding and erosion control. 

A statement CBP emailed to Medill News Service said “CBP is committed to environmental and cultural stewardship while performing our core missions of border security and the facilitation of legitimate trade and travel. CBP works hand-in-hand with other Federal, Tribal, state, and local agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to fulfill environmental compliance regulations and to ensure protection of the Nation’s natural and cultural resources. Additionally, CBP works diligently to integrate responsible environmental practices – including incorporating sustainable practices – into all aspects of our decision making and operations.” 

Biden’s wall differs from the design of the Trump administration in that metal bollards will be embedded on the top of blocks of cement, so that the wall is movable

Still, those blocks will effectively block the water if they reach the wall, said Alex Mayer, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas-El Paso. “Whereas with just the bollards then at least there’s space for water to go inland, and so now the problems can be that for any kind of design that there, if it’s a big flood, there might be downed trees, tree branches, junk, flowing in the river, and those things might be caught by the fence,” Mayer said. 

Mayer emphasized the need for further studies to be done by the federal government in order to truly assess the effects of building this border wall. 

One of the laws waived is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the federal government to perform environmental reviews on any federal action that could affect the quality of the environment. 

NEPA is a “rulebook” the government has to follow, said Jordahl, highlighting that at the center of the act is public outreach, such as holding hearings and taking comments on the public’s analysis and sentiments around the action. He also emphasized that NEPA would require a look at alternatives that would also accomplish the project’s goals and further articulate what the potential impacts could be. 

“I think if the government did proper NEPA analysis on this project, it would be pretty clear that it is not worth the severe economic costs but also the cost to human livelihoods and wildlife,” said Jordahl.  

Jordahl highlighted the danger of not performing the proper analysis.   

“Because the government’s waived laws, it’s not doing any of the studies, that threat becomes a lot more serious,” said Jordahl. 

After a meeting with U.S. officials in early October, Mexico rejected the plans to build the wall, with Mexico’s Foreign Minister Alicia Barcena saying at a press conference, “we believe in bridges, not walls.”  

Biden has said that the funds laid out for this construction were appropriated in 2019, before he took office, and only Congress could rescind the funding. 

Environmental advocates have called on Biden to rescind the waivers and use the appropriated funds to mitigate damage done by past border wall construction. 

“Out of $1.375 billion appropriation, there’s something like 190 million left. That money should be spent to mitigate the damage that was done by the other border wall construction, not to inflict more damage,” said Nicol. 

Sanchez said she is frustrated with the continuation of border wall construction, even as Biden himself claims that the wall doesn’t work. 

“I don’t know how many stretches they have to build to acknowledge that this doesn’t really help,” said Sanchez. “It hasn’t helped in the past. It’s been recorded. So I don’t know why they keep doing something that they think is gonna help. And it’s just causing more trouble to the already very stressed Rio Grande.” 

For Garza, the Rio Grande is more than just a body of water separating the U.S. and Mexico. 

Garza is one of many residents who grew up by the river. 

“What we’ve seen, you know, time and time again is just a disrespect for human rights or disrespect for really the shared resource, the river, and the communities on both sides of the border that call the region home,” said Garza.