Monday, October 15, 2007

Will the Last Free-Flowing River in Arizona Survive the Border Wall?

By Scott Nicol

One of the last undammed, free-flowing rivers in the American southwest, the San Pedro River and its surrounding watershed is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the United States. As it runs from Mexico through Arizona before joining the Gila River it passes through the confluence of four major ecosystems: the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains, and the Sonoran and Chihuahan Deserts. The river’s course is home to 84 species of mammals, 14 species of fish, 41 species of reptiles and amphibians, more than 100 species of breeding birds and an additional 250 species of migrant and wintering birds. It also contains archaeological sites representing the remains of human occupation from 11,200 years ago. This led Congress to designate the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in 1988. The San Pedro was recognized by the National Audubon Society as its first Globally Important Bird Area, and designated as a world heritage natural area by the United Nations World Heritage Program.

Unfortunately for the San Pedro and the wildlife that depend upon it, it crosses the southern border of the United States. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 requires, “[at] least 2 layers of reinforced fencing, the installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors” covering over 700 miles of the U.S. – Mexico border, including a span “extending from 10 miles west of the Calexico, California, port of entry to 5 miles east of the Douglas, Arizona, port of entry.” This section alone would be approximately 370 miles long, directly impacting the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Coronado National Forest, and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

The Department of Homeland Security prefers the term “pedestrian fencing” rather than border wall, as it is less apt to evoke images of Berlin in the soviet era. To date they have favored two wall designs, “Sandia” and “Bollard”. Under the Bollard design, offsetting double rows of 14’ to 17’ high steel pipe, approximately 6” in diameter, are set in 8.5” centers, and then filled with concrete. This construction requires trenching 5’ deep and 2’ wide along the entire length of the wall. Under the Sandia design, metal mesh panels are attached vertically to 16’ steel poles, and then 6’ panels are secured to the top of these at an angle of 45 degrees. The poles are anchored by a 12” wide by 4’ deep concrete footing along the length of the fence. In the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, the Army Corps intends to utilize a “modified” Sandia design with steel pipes arranged horizontally to a height of 3’, and the remaining height consisting of mesh. Vehicle barriers constructed of scrap railroad ties will be placed in the riverbed and removed using cranes during seasonal flooding. How cranes will reach the riverbed each year during the monsoon season without causing tremendous damage and erosion has not been explained.

In its rush to add more miles to the border wall (and mollify certain Presidential hopefuls), the Department of Homeland Security has largely ignored federal environmental regulations. DHS Secretary Chertoff used the power granted to him under the Real ID Act to “waive in their entirety” the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, National Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Clean Water Act, and other laws to build walls near San Diego and in Arizona’s Barry M. Goldwater Range. In other parts of Arizona rushed Environmental Assessments have been produced with no public comment period that invariably find that building walls through the habitat of endangered species such as the Sonoran pronghorn will have “no significant impact”.

When this was attempted in the San Pedro Riparian NCA the Defenders of Wildlife and Sierra Club requested a stay in construction so that an Environmental Impact Statement, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, could be conducted. Instead the Army Corps began bulldozing the next day. In response Defenders of Wildlife and Sierra Club filed suit, asking a federal court to halt construction until the Army Corps of Engineers fully complied with the law. Specifically, they argued that a regional Environmental Impact Statement is required for the entire length of the Arizona border wall, rather than limited Environmental Assessments for individual sections. In addition, a full Environmental Impact Statement must be carried out for the San Pedro River. Finally, to comply with NEPA there should be public participation in the EIS process. Until Chertoff signs a waiver DHS and the Border Patrol must obey the laws of the land.

On October 10 U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle temporarily delayed construction of the border wall in San Pedro Riparian NCA. She accepted the argument that the government had failed to look at the cumulative effects of the sections of border wall that have been built or proposed. The failure of the government to acknowledge the potential impact of walls on other parts of the border “renders this environmental assessment inadequate,” she said. This victory in the fight to save our nation’s public lands from being ripped apart by the border wall was tempered by the fact that Secretary Chertoff has the ability to waive the laws that formed the basis for the lawsuit, effectively nullifying it. As Judge Huvelle said, “The law allows you to trump it. You have all the power,”

Secretray Chertoff was quoted as saying, ““Illegal migrants really degrade the environment. I’ve seen pictures of human waste, garbage, discarded bottles and other human artifact in pristine areas. And believe me, that is the worst thing you can do to the environment.” Apparently the secretary confuses a litter-free parking lot with viable habitat. Litter can be a problem for wildlife, but litter in an ecosystem is still far better than the bulldozing of that ecosystem. Animals can sidestep discarded bottles, but if their habitat is cleared of vegetation and bisected by an impermeable wall they cannot survive. If walls are built in the San Pedro watershed erosion and damming will permanently alter the riparian habitat. When asked about the likelihood of issuing a waiver for the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area to nullify DHS’ loss in court, Chertoff said, “I certainly reserve the right to use it again.” If building the border wall were beneficial to the environment Chertoff would not need to waive environmental statutes. The only reason to waive these important laws is because he knows that DHS’ actions will violate them.

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