Saturday, December 15, 2007

Texas Border Wall May Worsen Flooding During Hurricanes

By K. Rod Summy

One very disturbing aspect of the proposed Border Wall in south Texas has received very little coverage in the local press, although it may well be the most important with respect to public safety. Federal, state and county officials have long recognized that the flood-control levee system in the Rio Grande Valley is deficient and in dire need of repair at many locations. Last June, the U. S. Congress approved a $15.5 million bill to fix the Valley levee system, although a Hidalgo County Judge indicated that at least $80 million would be required to get the system on par with Federal standards. At a meeting held in Mercedes last July, a spokesman for the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) indicated that levee improvement costs in the Rio Grande Valley could run as high as $125 million, and several IBWC officials expressed concern that construction of the proposed Border Fence on or near flood-control levees would not only violate provisions of a treaty with Mexico but would also seriously obstruct water flow within the Valley’s floodways. Nevertheless, the consulting firm which prepared the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Border Fence project concluded that the impact of the proposed fence on the hydrology or water flow within the Rio Grande Basin is expected to be “negligible” in most areas of the Valley.

For their own protection, every person who calls the Rio Grande Valley “home” and wants to keep it that way should stand up, be counted, and confront their governmental officials and elected representatives with some very hard questions. Exactly how deficient are the levee systems of the Rio Grande Valley, and why have they been allowed to digress to their present condition? Have any hydrological studies been conducted to assess the potential impact of proposed Border Fence on the stability of the flood-control levee systems in both southern Texas and northeastern Mexico, and what is the probable impact on the Rio Grande Valley region if the levee systems in either Texas or Mexico should fail? If hydrological studies have indeed been conducted, who were the researchers, what are their credentials, and what was the type and quality of the data used to reach the conclusions reported in the EIS? If any legitimate hydrological studies relating to this topic actually exist, their methodologies, data and results should be discussed in open forum so that the people who live here can judge for themselves whether or not conclusions reported in the EIS are valid.

These are not minor points. The Rio Grande Valley is located in a hurricane zone, and the prospects that we will experience the effects of one or more major hurricanes sometime in the future is a certainty. This may not occur for another five or even ten years, but it will occur. It is therefore vital that we maintain our flood-control levee system in the best possible condition, and avoid doing anything that might destabilize the system. Two years ago, this country lost a major city – New Orleans – because of a defective levee system. Last month, the failure of a levee system following torrential rains in Tabasco, Mexico resulted in a substantial loss of human life (nearly 300 people missing or dead) and approximately two million homes were severely damaged or destroyed by floodwaters. It is not very comforting to realize that the words “hurricane” and “tropical storm” and “torrential rains” do not appear on even one occasion in the 538-page Draft EIS document for the Border Wall.

When it comes to assessing the impact of anything that could destabilize our flood-control levee system, there is no room for opinions, speculation or bureaucratic double-talk. We need honest and unbiased professional advice from the best hydrologists in the country. All Valley property owners would also be well-advised to consider another factor of considerable importance – the continuing availability of flood insurance coverage for our area. If the agencies responsible for administering flood insurance coverage sense that we are setting ourselves up to become the next “New Orleans,” will they cancel coverage for our area or increase premiums to such an extent that few if any of us can afford to insure our homes and businesses? In either case, the effects on property values and our economy would be disastrous.

If there is even a slight possibility that the proposed Border Fence could predispose the Rio Grande Valley to widespread flooding following a major hurricane, the U. S. government has a moral obligation and responsibility to the people who live here to postpone construction of the structure until its safety has been demonstrated conclusively. Federal funds allocated for border security could be spent much more effectively (and much more safely) by doubling or tripling the operating budgets of the IBWC, which is responsible in part for maintaining of our flood-control levee system, and the U. S. Border Patrol, which is responsible for enforcing our immigration laws and securing our international border with Mexico. The missions of both agencies are vital to our regional and national security, and cannot be accomplished effectively unless the agencies are provided with adequate manpower and funding. Regardless, neither of these agencies deserves to become the “fall guys” or “scapegoats” if, at some future date, something goes terribly wrong with a fence plan which is viewed by many as being little more than an election-year gimmick that was concocted by a few members of the U. S. Congress and imposed by law on nearly two million people who live in southern Texas and northeastern Mexico.

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