Rio Grande levees offered as alternative to border fence

Published 4 October 2007

Rebuilding the Rio Grande levee system would cost about $200 million; building a 700-mile fence on parts of the U.S.-Mexico border would cost from $3 billion to $30 billion; Texans say restoring the levees would be more effective, too

Are you in the levee design business? Read on. Beefing up neglected levees on the Rio Grande could help resolve a dispute over the planned U.S.-Mexico border fence, South Texas officials said yesterday. Rio Grande Valley officials say restored levees could give agencies a better perch from which to monitor illegal crossings and protect U.S. residents from floods caused by levee breaches. “Instead of having the federal government spend millions on the wall, why don’t they restore the levee system?” Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos said in a phone interview. Cascos and others have raised the levees issue with Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas). Cascos wants Cornyn and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), to ask for a moratorium on border fence construction in South Texas. This would give the International Boundary and Water Commission, a U.S-Mexico agency which regulates the Rio Grande, time to study the effect of levee improvements on flood protection and border security. “He makes a very good case that the levee system along the Rio Grande River … that we have to look at that as perhaps the way to deal with border security in a way that might reduce or eliminate the need for fencing in some areas,” Cornyn said. Cornyn said building up the levee system would probably cost about $200 million. Estimates for building a 700-mile fence on parts of the U.S.-Mexico border range from $3 billion to as much as $30 billion.

Cornyn and Hutchison voted for the border fence signed by President Bush last year, but both have said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff should seek local input on where its constructed. Representative Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas), secured a House provision in the DHS spending bill which would require officials to seek local input before getting money for the fence. Bush has threatened to veto the bill. Hutchison also is trying to secure a provision requiring Homeland Security to consider local concerns, but her measure isn’t tied to funding. Hidalgo County Judge J. D. Salinas said he has been raising the issue of the deteriorating levees for months with U.S. officials. Last year, voters passed a $100 million bond issue that includes $40 million for restoring levees in the county. “It’s very frustrating that they have money for the wall and fence, but don’t have it for the levees,” Salinas said.

The earthen levees would rise up to eighteen feet or so in Hidalgo County, giving Border Patrol agents a better perch from which to monitor illegal border crossings. “If the levee system is built up, they (agents) would have a cleaner line of sight,” Salinas said. Hutchison helped get about $2.44 million for levee repair on the U.S.-Mexico border in 2007. She got another $10 million in this year’s foreign operations spending bill passed by the Senate. The House wants to provide $15 million. The money goes to the International Boundary and Water Commission. Officials with the International Boundary and Water Commission have said a border fence could exacerbate flooding and skew the location of the U.S.-Mexico border.

There are some problems with the idea, though. A 1970 treaty with Mexico prohibits construction of anything that could deflect or obstruct water flow or harm the other side. Sally Spener, the commission’s spokeswoman, said the agency is working with DHS to design a fence to serve both agencies’ missions. It also would be designed so as not to obstruct or deflect the flow of the Rio Grande, as required by the treaty. She also said the agency has begun restoring levees. Salinas, however, said restoration is happening because Hidalgo voters spent local tax money. “If the IBWC is trying to work with Homeland Security to design a fence or structure, we need to know because we are paying the bill,” Salinas said. Improvements on the U.S. side would require the same on the Mexican side to prevent floodwaters from deluging Mexico.