In Arizona, the Environmental Devastation from the Border Wall Is Immense. The Response from the Biden Administration Is Tiny and Slow.
Kate Scott and other border residents are documenting the environmental damage. But Scott says they're left in the dark when it comes to the government's plan for remediation.
In the final installment of this month’s border wall trilogy, The Border Chronicle pivots to Arizona, where segments of wall built under the Trump administration were destroyed during the summer monsoon season.
By now, the sight of twisted metal and debris piles has become all too familiar in Arizona. After the first wave of construction in 2008, some wall segments caused deadly flooding or fell over during heavy rains from the Southwest’s seasonal monsoons, which can bring several inches of rain at once and turn dry desert washes into torrential rivers.
The toll from the last four years of unfettered building through federal wildlife refuges and Native American sacred sites will take time to evaluate. For a comprehensive look at the environmental damage that has been inflicted in Arizona and New Mexico, I recommend this story map created by Myles Traphagen, with the nonprofit Wildlands Network. The extent of the damage is shocking. But the Biden administration is moving slowly to remediate, and with Congress having designated $1.35 billion for new border wall construction in 2021, some Arizona border residents like Kate Scott—a wildlife conservationist—worry construction could begin again.
The Border Chronicle will continue to focus on the border wall and the Biden administration’s plans for remediation. If you live near these damaged areas and have ideas or tips for coverage, please email us at TheBorderChronicle@ protonmail.com or send us a letter via snail mail to PO Box 12136, Tucson, Arizona, 85711.
Kate Scott has plenty to do rehabilitating injured birds of prey and restoring wildlife habitat near her home in the Huachuca Mountains in the southeast corner of Arizona. But lately it seems her full-time job has been documenting the environmental devastation from the construction of the border wall.
Scott and her husband, Tony Heath, run the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, about 10 miles north of the Arizona-Mexico border. In mid-August torrential monsoon rain created a more than 21-foot wall of water and debris that ripped metal gates from the hinges of a newly constructed wall built in the Silver Creek wash not far from their home. Soil, brush, and other detritus piled up high against the steel structure, choking the waterway. Scott tweeted a photo of the damage, taken by an employee from the habitat conservation nonprofit Cuenca los Ojos, which went viral because of the scope of the devastation.
“The force of the water ripped the gates right off their hinges,” Scott said. “And the damage can’t be fixed easily.”
Under the Trump administration, at least $4.8 billion in Department of Defense funds were used to replace or build 222 miles of wall in Arizona. Another 23 miles were funded through congressional appropriations. Dozens of federal regulations, including the Endangered Species Act, were waived for the hastily built 30-foot steel bollard and concrete wall. Contractors tore through environmentally sensitive areas, such as the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, pristine federal wilderness refuge land, and Native American sacred sites. “People should be thinking not just about the border,” Scott said, “but about what has been done to their federal wildlife refuges and to sacred sites that have been destroyed forever.”
Federal procurement regulations, which ensure fair bidding and oversight of contractors, were also waived. The wall segment in Silver Creek wash was built in 2020 by Southwest Valley Constructors, a subsidiary of Kiewit Corporation, one of North America’s largest construction and engineering firms, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. Southwest Valley Constructors has been awarded more than $2.7 billion in the last five years to build 100 miles of border wall in Arizona and Texas.
In 2019 ranchers in Guadalupe Canyon, an environmentally sensitive woodland area where the Guadalupe Creek runs, sued the Trump administration and Southwest Valley Constructors after contractors blasted through mountains with dynamite, sending “car sized” boulders flying onto their land. In the valley surrounding the San Pedro River—the last free-flowing desert river in the Southwest, which runs north from Mexico into southern Arizona—the company installed more than 100 flood gates that are supposed to be manually opened during monsoon season so that debris and water can flow through. Even with the gates open, however, the wall was destroyed.
This comes as no surprise to Scott and the region’s other environmentalists, given how little planning went into the construction. Much of the construction was done in remote wilderness areas, making it harder to document their devastation and show it to the public. “Many of these places are not easy to reach. And in the summer, it’s extremely hot and arduous to get there,” she said.
Another contractor, the North Dakota–based Fisher, Sand and Gravel, which was awarded $1.28 billion to build 42 miles of wall in Arizona, blasted a mountaintop with dynamite in the Pajarito Mountains, part of the Coronado National Forest near Nogales, Scott said, so it would have somewhere to park its heavy construction equipment. “It was a pristine wilderness area,” she said. “And they blasted it just so they had easier access to build a wall.”
To document the devastation, Scott has taken scientists to Silver Creek, the Pajarito Mountain region, Guadalupe Canyon, and other areas. In May she toured Silver Creek and other damaged areas with Mathias “Matt” Kondolf, a river management expert and professor of environmental planning at UC Berkeley. He and his graduate students documented the environmental impacts of the wall, taking measurements and collecting data at Silver Creek before the summer monsoon. In the past, Kondolf has served as an advisor on various projects for the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees border wall construction. He said he wasn’t surprised that the wall was damaged during the first storm season it encountered.
“It didn’t appear to be designed adequately,” he said. “Most likely the Army Corps of Engineers will issue another contract, and the people who built the flawed structures are going to go and build them all over again. There’s some very large profits being made.”
Kondolf said he requested documents regarding the hydrology data used, out of professional curiosity, but many of the pages the Army Corps of Engineers released to him were almost entirely redacted. “Even the name of the engineer they consulted with was redacted,” he said. “You know, this is not something they teach you in engineering school: how to build a wall across an active river.”
Kondolf said he and his students will be back in coming months to document the changes to the wall and the environment since the monsoon rains. Then they’ll issue a report with recommendations. “It’s crazy to try and build a structure there,” he said of the watershed areas. “It’s dynamic, and you can’t control it with a static feature like a wall. Besides, it’s not blocking human migration, only wildlife migration.”
Scott said contractors rushed to finish as many miles of wall as they could before Biden issued a moratorium on construction. The contractors left behind “open trenches and some of them with rebar sticking up out of them,” she said. “If you fall into one of those trenches, you’re done.” There’s extensive damage that needs to be remediated, she said. But the Army Corps of Engineers has been slow to repair damaged areas. In July it started to remediate some areas in Yuma and near Douglas in August. And Scott saw a group of men working to clear debris at Silver Creek earlier this month. Scott said she and other border residents are frustrated that, other than the occasional press release, the Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t share its plans for remediation and repair with local communities. “It’s just incredibly difficult to determine what they are doing,” she said. I wrote to Jay Field, a public information officer for the Army Corps of Engineers, to ask whether the corps has a comprehensive plan with a timeline for remediation. But Field provided only a written statement from the corp’s website. The work will “not involve expanding the border barrier,” he wrote. “Specific activities will include filling open trenches, cutting and capping conduit, making gate foundations safe, making maintenance roads safe, and grading around handholds and manholes.”
Scott said she’d prefer that the gates not be reinstalled at the Silver Creek wash, which is near the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, and that the walls be removed altogether from watershed and wilderness areas. “They are going to finish off what’s left of many endangered species,” she said. “Besides, those gates are going to be damaged every monsoon season, and it will be the same contractors being paid over and over again to fix them.”
In many of the locations, stacks of steel bollard posts and other wall materials still sit along the open trenches. Scott said she worries President Biden will start new wall construction even though he promised not to. This has already happened in South Texas, where levee walls are being built under the guise of repairing damages to the levee from border wall contractors. “There’s this real fear that they’re just going to put up more wall because of the political pressure,” she said, “when we should be tearing them down.”