Privately-built border wall holds public inspection
The stillness of the Rio Grande River was interrupted nearly every 90 minutes when, like clockwork, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection patrol boat zoomed past the area where a 3-mile long stretch of a border wall was built a few feet away from the riverbank.
Every time the boat raced past the wall as part of its patrol, it created waves that crashed along the riverbank, eroding more dirt from it.
The erosion has become a point of concern for many since ground broke along the privately built border wall near Military Highway and Inspiration Road last December. For Tommy Fisher, the president of Fisher Industries which built the wall, the erosion is one of the many items he has to address after he and his company were faced with two federal lawsuits after constructing the more than $40 million project.
“The project is beneficial even if it’s not like I want it to be right now, I am trying to make it be.” Fisher argued Monday. “I have no regrets I’d do this again.”
On Monday, Fisher invited members of the media, the federal government-who is suing Fisher after The U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission concluded that Fisher’s wall violates the 1970 international boundary treaty with Mexico – and representatives of the National Butterfly Center to view the wall as part of a long-delayed inspection of the wall.
The inspection has been delayed numerous times due to weather which has also been affecting the timeline of the project Fisher said.
After Hurricane Hanna last month it was reported that more erosion was spotted along the wall. But depending on who you ask, the erosion is either normal, or a rapid sign of how damaging the wall is.
“You’re always going to have a minimal amount of erosion in every project you do no matter what,” Fisher argued. “That’s why they have erosion control models, planting and there’s all different things you can do.”
Along the riverbank, several large cracks were visible, which spread to the wall as several holes appeared on the ground under the concrete that was holding the fence.
Fisher said he plans to combat the erosion by hydro-seeding to grow grass in the area to compact the dirt and create a gravel path on the side of the wall facing the river once the dirt has been compacted.
“This is what it looks like after a Category 1 hurricane, it won’t change even after Category 2 and 3 hurricanes,” Fisher said. “These bollards are built to stick to that sidewalk. When you build, you have to adapt, but we’re going to build a project I hope will last when I’m 90 and nothing changes.”
NBC Executive Director Marianna Treviño-Wright also attended the tour. The center is suing Fisher and his companies for the damage they say the wall has done to the riverbank and had one word to describe the project.
“It’s indefensible,” Treviño-Wright said. “I honestly don’t know how anyone goes into the court of law and supports the statement that what you’ve observed is a ‘little’ erosion or that it has not in any way threatened the integrity of the structure or the international boundary or integrity of the riverbank.”
Treviño-Wright brought with her several inspectors to collect data on several deformities seen at the wall which included the erosion spots and cracks along the sidewalk supporting the fence.
At one point, Treviño-Wright was able to lie down inside several large holes that had formed under the concrete.
Hector Guajardo, a land surveyor with Rodriguez Engineering, said he recorded several erosion spots with a length of up to 52 feet and as deep as 30 inches.
“It’s not working as a retaining wall but it’s supposed to be a fence, it’s serving a purpose,” Guajardo said. “It’s not holding the embankment on the river. Bigger rain or a bigger current would erode all this section.”
Guajardo recommended the company fix the problems with compaction and erosion control which Fisher is already planning to do. Treviño-Wright, however, argued that solution was not viable.
“The Rio Grande will continue to do its thing and eventually, this beach you see where the river is already cutting a new bank will eventually be under this wall,” she said. “There’s areas they already filled and compacted that have rivulets again. Maybe if they fill and compact every day they can do something about it, but then what? The real threat is, this wall is built on a peninsula like this, and we are upstream from it so it curves and jets out pointing at Mexico. So when we have a massive flood and debris like the pile already there, that will cause the water to be redirected back toward us and inland, increasing the volume of water, damaging property upstream.”
The Monday tour occurred before a status hearing on the Fisher lawsuits scheduled for Wednesday that was rescheduled for next month. The postponement did not surprise Javier Peña, the attorney representing the butterfly center at the lawsuit.
“There’s nothing to report on right now,” Peña said, adding that it could take weeks for reports on the studies conducted during the tour to be finalized.
Peña shared his client’s disbelief on the wall being able to hold together as time passes, saying that the project has accelerated erosion in the area that could alter the border with Mexico.
“It’s a monstrosity, [Fisher] says the erosion is not that big of a deal but if you look here and compare it to across the river, no one there is trucking in dirt to repair erosions, only here where they did their work are they having to truck in dirt,” Peña said. “It’ll continue to erode away and compromise the structure which could redirect the water. If the bank washes away, the border creeps that way, all of this becomes Mexico.”
Though Fisher said Monday he doesn’t have a relationship with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency announced after the tour that Fisher Industries was awarded nearly $290 million to construct 17 miles of a new border wall system in Laredo.
He also added Monday that the gravel road his team is building along the riverbank is to aid patrol agents after they requested it.
“After Hurricane Hanna, agents were able to patrol this area because it was the only place that wasn’t turned to mud,” Fisher said. “I wanted to do things a lot of people said couldn’t be done, and I really believe border security needs to be built on the border.”
Fisher added that he hopes his wall will act as a primary wall for the border while the border wall currently built by the federal government along the levee can be used as a secondary wall.
“We feel comfortable that this will stand and as the government sees that, they will see where it makes sense to have border security,” Fisher said.