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‘Movable’ Border Fence Awaits Approval

By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN, Associated Press Writer

McALLEN, Texas (AP) – About 14 miles of border fencing planned for the lower Rio Grande Valley would be built in the river’s floodplain and has yet to be approved by the commission governing the international boundary.

The “movable” fence proposed by the Department of Homeland Security would be concrete jersey barriers topped with about 15 feet of tightly woven steel fencing. The International Boundary and Water Commission is reviewing the proposal to make sure the fence does not violate treaties with Mexico and could be moved away from the river before it floods.

Along most of the Rio Grande, the fencing intended to help Border Patrol get a handle on illegal smuggling and immigration, will run along the levees that keep the twisting river in check.

But in three areas where communities abut the river, the Department of Homeland Security plans the “movable” fencing.

A 1970 treaty between the United States and Mexico called on both countries to prohibit the building of anything that “may cause deflection or obstruction of the normal flow of the river or of its flood flows.”

The key to DHS’ proposal will be convincing the commission that the three segments of the fence totaling about 14 miles – a fifth of the 70 miles of border fence planned in the Valley – can be moved before flood waters arrive.

“As of today, the IBWC has not approved the construction of the fence in the floodplain,” Al Riera, principal operations engineer for the U.S. side of the commission, said at a citizens forum in the Valley on Wednesday.

“If they (DHS) don’t show us they have something in place to guarantee removal of the (fence) panels … the commission would never agree to something like that,” The commission’s engineers are reviewing the proposal, Riera said.

If they determine it does not violate the 1970 treaty, they will brief their Mexican counterparts, who will review it and then respond. If there is disagreement, the commission will attempt to settle it. If that fails, the issue could move to the U.S. State Department to try to settle through diplomatic channels.

The Department of Homeland Security’s recently released Environmental Stewardship Plan, which detailed the border fence’s impacts for the area, said movable fence would be used because building fence outside the floodplain in those areas would mean placing it several miles from the river and the communities on the river’s banks.

“It takes some effort to move it, but it can be transported,” Customs and Border Protection spokesman Barry Morrissey said earlier this week when the plans were released.

The three areas slated for movable fencing are Roma and Rio Grande City in Starr County and Los Ebanos in Hidalgo County. At one point, DHS also proposed a movable fence for a controversial section crossing the campus of the University of Texas at Brownsville. That segment is still under negotiation.

Los Ebanos, best-known for its historic hand-pulled ferry across the Rio Grande, would be the most affected.

The small community sits on a fist of land surrounded on three sides by the snaking Rio Grande. The fence would then surround the town on three sides, placing acres of private riverfront property between the river and the fence.

The proposal drew an angry response Tuesday from the Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and business leaders opposed to the fence.

Chad Foster, mayor of border city Eagle Pass and chairman of the coalition, called the proposal a “lethal policy.”

“The fence planned by DHS is absurd,” Foster said in a prepared statement. “It is inhumane to people and wildlife. And in deadly winds, driving rain and alongside a rising river, it will have to be moved. It is a $50 billion waste.” Questions over what role a section of border fencing played in flash flooding in Nogales, Ariz. last weekend could make Mexico even more sensitive to the proposal.

The Mexican component of the International Boundary and Water Commission did not immediately return a call for comment.

Thunderstorms in northern Mexico sent a torrent of muddy water rushing through Nogales, Mexico, Saturday afternoon. Deteriorating stormwater tunnels that run south to north under the border carrying water to the Santa Cruz River in Arizona failed and the water rushed through both downtowns.

But the floodwaters, held back by a concrete border fence separating the side-by-side downtowns, were twice as deep – more than 6 feet – on the Mexican side. Eventually the water bubbled under the wall and put between 2 and 3 feet of water on the U.S. side, said John Hays, floodplain coordinator with the Santa Cruz County Flood Control District.

That section of border wall was built in the late 1990s, but Hays said he has raised concerns with Customs and Border Protection about some of the new fence sections.

“They’re really not too concerned about it,” he said. Customs and Border Protection officials in Washington and Arizona did not immediately return calls for comment Thursday.

DHS is rushing to meet a congressional deadline that calls for 70 miles of border fencing to be completed by the end of the year.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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