As Scott Nicol drove along the levee in the vicinity where contractors are building border fencing near Donna and Progreso Lakes, he saw workers excavating the river-facing side of the levee as they prepared to install new sections of wall.
Nicol, a longtime opponent of the border wall and former Sierra Club member, then doubled back up Military Highway toward the city of Hidalgo where he saw more of the same.
“You could see even from the road the big piles of loose dirt and a carved chunk of the levee,” Nicol said of what he observed on this day in mid-May.
The sight reminded Nicol of efforts to build border fencing near Granjeño in 2008.
“I think it’s important to remember that when they were doing the first levee border walls they had to postpone Granjeño because of Dolly,” Nicol said. “They were about to start and then held off … a basic and obvious admission that they didn’t want to carve up a levee if a hurricane came in.”
Constructing the levee walls is unlike border fencing in Cameron County, where more than a decade ago contractors installed a steel bollard wall with the tall iron bars being installed in the ground. To build levee wall, the contractors excavate the river-facing side of the levee and install a large concrete slab in its place, before installing the bollards on top.
Border Patrol confirmed this is how the levee walls are constructed and says the contractors can only excavate a limited number of linear feet of levee and the agency has a plan for backfilling the levee in case of an emergency, like a hurricane striking the region.
“Flood protection and hurricane protection plans are required before construction can begin. These protection plans are a reoccurring monthly submittal to the US Army Corps of Engineers,” Border Patrol said in a statement. “In addition, as per the International Boundary and Water Commission standards, the border wall contractors have a limited number of linear feet that can be excavated at a time and backfill material on standby in order to ensure the levee is backfilled appropriately in the event of an emergency.”
Those are those large piles of dirt Nicol saw. He questioned whether Border Patrol would be able to pack the dirt tightly enough back into the levee in the event of a hurricane.
“They’ve got dirt on site so that’s the dirt you tore off the levee,” Nicol said. “That doesn’t mean it’s a real plan or that it’s going to pack in. There are certain standards for the way levees are supposed to be constructed.”
While Hurricane Dolly is the last time a hurricane hit the Rio Grande Valley, the National Hurricane Center has predicted an above-normal season for 2020, prompting concerns from Nicol about why Border Patrol is continuing to excavate the levees during hurricane season.
“So you know if a hurricane hits us this year and those levees are torn open, those levees are compromised,” Nicol said.
Even a strong downpour or tropical storm can cause serious flooding here in Hidalgo County. Nicol recalled Tropical Storm Alex in 2010 when he says water was up to the levee for six months.
“Dolly put a brief pause on the beginning of construction but the big flooding happened after Alex, a tropical storm that ran up the river and hit into rivers outside Monterrey. And then the tropical depression followed the same track and that put a ton of water in the rivers in Mexico feeding into the Rio Grande,” Nicol said.
While the Rio Grande Valley wasn’t impacted by as much rain as Mexico, that didn’t mean flooding didn’t occur here.
“We had the levee border walls in Hidalgo County, you know, there. The water was up to the levee for four, five, six months, depending on the spot, and that’s a huge problem for farmers,” he said. “You can’t farm underwater.”
There’s also an ecological impact to flood events south of the levee wall, Nicol said, recalling how hundreds of shells from Texas tortoises’ — a threatened species — were found after that flood event. They had drowned.
“The wildlife levees slope on both sides so when the water rises animals can try to move away and go uphill and find land,” Nicol said.
With the current levee walls being constructed here, those animals will instead hit a concrete slab.
As for Border Patrol’s statement on its hurricane protection plan, Nicol questioned whether the agency has a line of communication open with local emergency responders regarding where work on the levee is occurring so they are aware of those areas in the event a hurricane does strike the Rio Grande Valley.
Nicol’s hunch turned out to be true.
The Hidalgo County Office of Emergency Management, which spearheads response to natural disasters and works to mitigate damage here, hasn’t been contacted by any federal agency, Chief Ricardo Saldaña confirmed via a statement.
“The Office of Emergency Management has not been contacted by any federal agency regarding hurricanes, river flooding or any other emergency matter related to the border wall or construction of the wall,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct Scott Nicol’s status with the Sierra Club as being a former member.