With hurricane season fast approaching, the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security has begun repair of large breaches in a 13-mile section of Rio Grande flood barriers in Texas caused by Trump administration border wall contractors building on them—after local officials feared "extensive problems" with their integrity and threatened to bring in their own crews.
Local media reports said when wall construction was suspended in January by the Biden administration, levees were left with giant cuts that had been made to drive heavy equipment through so the wall could be built on the river side, including at least four breaks in Hidalgo County.
Engineers at the International Boundary and Water Commission, which owns and maintains the levees, had been working for weeks with the US Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Sally Spener, the binational agency's U.S. Secretary, told ENR. “Our engineers reiterated the importance of providing flood protection to the local community prior to hurricane season, which begins June 1,” she said. The commission "is very concerned about the existing levee gaps in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.”
According to one local report, Corps officials said it would take up to one month to muster contractors to the site and until the end of the year to make the repairs. But work got underway after pressure from Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tx) to start federal repair work immediately of they would dispatch county crews to do it.
Now work to fill in levee gaps is expected to take two weeks, with fixes of other levee damage to take as long as five months, Cortez said.
Long Term Fix
While developing a complete plan to address the issues, DHS said it is taking initial steps to protect border communities from physical dangers. The work will not include any border barrier expansion, the agency said, but it did not respond to an ENR query on the repair estimate or identify contractors that would do the work.
“The flood barrier system had long provided low-lying regions of Hidalgo County protection from catastrophic flooding and these breaches have threatened local communities,” DHS said.
About 300 miles of levees were built on both sides of the river, which were completed in 1951. The system now includes 270 miles of levees in the U.S., 102 of which lie along the lower section of the river from Hidalgo County to the Gulf of Mexico. About 1 million people live in the protected region, the boundary commission says.
DHS also will remediate “dangerous” soil erosion in San Diego caused by improper compaction of soil and construction materials along a 14-mile wall segment. The agency will back fill to protect nearby border communities, it said. The contractors involved in the damage were not named.
While not under federal control or part of any repair, a privately funded border wall built separately directly on the Rio Grande riverbank by federal border wall contractor Fisher Sand and Gravel is the subject of ongoing litigation between the U.S. government and the company, with a hearing held on May 5 in U.S. District Court in the southern district of Texas related to its construction.
The three-mile wall had shown signs of erosion and potential failure based on independent engineering analyses conducted last year but Fisher has said he disputes the conclusions and has promised to take some mitigation steps. Fisher had intended to donate the wall to the federal government during the Trump administration,but it remains in private ownership.
The US Defense Dept. on April 30 began cancelling all border wall construction projects paid for with funds diverted from military construction projects under President Trump’s 2019 executive order. Unobligated diverted military construction funds will be used for the originally planned projects, a DOD spokesman said.
The amount of funding remaining has not yet been determined, but in late December about $11 billion in contracts had yet to be completed.
The Associated Press said April 30 that $6.1 billion of the $10.8 billion in signed contracts had been spent, although the figure has not been made public. The Trump Administration said it had $15 billion to spend on the wall including funds appropriated by Congress and funds diverted from DOD and the Treasury Dept. The amount is reported actually to be closer to $16.5 billion, according to AP.
All wall construction on Corps-awarded contracts was scheduled to be completed in 2021 and by November 2022. The former president had intended to build 664 miles of wall, with 450 miles completed before he left office.
The most recent contract awards by the Corps were in September 2020.
As of March 2021, Fisher Sand and Gravel had about $2 billion in contracts awarded with DOD funds; SLS Co., based in Galveston, Texas had $1.4 billion; BFBC, a Bozeman, Mont., unit of Barnard Construction. had $1.7 billion; Southwest Valley Constructors, a Kiewit unit, had $2.1 billion; the CJW joint venture based in Santa Ana, Calif., had $121.8 million; and LGC Contractors, Detroit, had $47 million. The contracts are for projects in Arizona, New Mexico, California and Texas.
DHS has not announced what the future holds for contracts that the Corps awarded on its behalf and did not respond to ENR’s query. Those contracts are primarily located in the Rio Grande Valley and around Laredo, Texas, except one in California, and are primarily located on private land
As of March, Fisher Sand and Gravel had $298 million in DHS contracts awarded by the Corps; SLS had $446.5 million; SWV had $590.6 million; Southern Border Constructors, Farmingdale, N.Y., had $518.4 million; Gibraltar-Caddell joint venture, Montgomery, Ala., had $298 million; Randy Kinder Excavating, Dexter, Mo., had $153 million; Gideon Contracting, San Antonio, had $17.6 million; and Dawson Federal, Honolulu, had $15.2 million.
Spokespersons for DHS and Customs and Border Patrol did not respond to ENR's request for the list of contracts they awarded.
A large coalition of environmental groups in February asked the Biden Administration to immediately cancel all border wall contracts and divert remaining funds for removing wall sections that harm communities and wildlife and remediate damage.
Barrier construction disturbed or destroyed indigenous graves and cultural sites, the groups said. Wall sections also hinder important wildlife migration routes and interfere with surface hydrology by blocking rivers and streams and by drying springs and wetlands.
“We are actively working with border communities, elected officials, and Indigenous tribes across the borderlands to kickstart restoration,” Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner for the Center of Biological Diversity, told ENR, saying that the Biden administration soon will announce a plan to mitigate damages and restore lands destroyed by its predecessor.