The design for a section of the border wall that will span Southern Arizona’s San Pedro River is coming to light, more than a year after a contract was awarded to build it.
The plan is to build 30-foot-tall steel bollards across the river and install swing gates under the bollards to allow river water to flow, Customs and Border Protection officials said in a June 12 call with local environmental advocates and congressional staffers. A 550-foot-long bridge will span the river about 10 feet north of the bollards.
The San Pedro is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest. The cool waters and the shade of cottonwood trees attract numerous bird species, both as a home and as a resting spot during migrations, making it a cherished site for bird watchers. Larger animals like deer and bear also frequent the river as a refuge from the dry region of northern Sonora and Cochise County.
The announcement in May 2019 that CBP planned to build a wall across the river sparked outrage among a wide array of environmental groups. A rally in January attracted about 1,000 people. A main concern among critics is that a poorly designed wall would lead to catastrophe for the river during heavy rains.
Questions remain unanswered
Advocates point to border barriers collapsing in recent years near Lukeville and Nogales. Debris built up against the barriers during rainstorms, causing enough pressure to knock over the barriers and send torrents of water through nearby areas. In the San Pedro River, the Star has seen branches, grass and other debris swept against trees about 10 feet off the ground.
The current barrier across the river is made of strands of barbed wire and head-high, crossed steel beams known as Normandy barriers. The Normandy barriers are removed from the riverbed during the monsoon season.
Until this month, advocates were left in the dark about the design of the wall. Many of their questions remain unanswered. Even after CBP officials showed them a schematic on June 12, officials said they did not know the dimensions of the swing gates or how high the bridge will be, according to a recording of the call obtained by the Star.
The public affairs office of the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector did not respond to an inquiry from the Star about the dimensions of the gates or bridge; why this design was chosen; the cost of the project; or when construction will start.
The design was met with skepticism when the Star reached out to several of the people on the June 12 call to get their reactions.
“They’re basically making it up as they go along,” said Myles Traphagen, borderlands project coordinator for the Wildlands Network in Tucson. “They awarded contracts for plans that didn’t exist.”
Flooding is a concern
The wall across the San Pedro was included in $1.3 billion worth of contracts to build the wall along 63 miles of border near Tucson. The contracts were awarded in May 2019 to Southwest Valley Constructors, an affiliate of construction giant Kiewit.
Traphagen has worked in the San Bernardino Valley since 1996 and serves as the science coordinator for the Malpai Borderlands Group. Like several others who spoke with the Star, he was concerned about “these gates they say they’re going to lower and raise.”
With the new design, the gates will open to accommodate the northward flow of the river, Michael Hyatt, patrol agent in charge of the nearby Brian A. Terry Station, said in the June 12 call. Agents will open the gates when they see rainstorms building. During the monsoon season, the gates will be kept open from late June to September.
“If they’re going to be open that much, why build such an expensive structure in the first place?” said Jeff Sturges, one of the organizers of the Hands Across the River event in January that drew 1,000 supporters. “It’s ludicrous.”
Tricia Gerrodette, a longtime advocate for the San Pedro River, said the design “doesn’t adequately address concerns about debris buildup and flooding, let alone the creatures.”
Still, the swing gates are “way better” than just having bollards in the river bed, Gerrodette said. If the gates are given “proper attention” they may help protect the river from flooding.
“Based on the few details provided in their design, it seems unlikely that it would withstand serious floods without getting clogged, damming the river and backing up water into Mexico,” said Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
“The San Pedro carries tree trunks, boulders and massive amounts of debris during a flood,” Jordahl said. “When the wall inevitably fails and the flood waters surge, who is going to deal with the consequences?”
Lawmaker prefers sensors, cameras
The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, submitted formal comments to CBP in July 2019 calling attention to the risk of flooding.
CBP officials sent the new design to the BLM, according to June Lowery, spokeswoman for the BLM’s Gila District.
Officials with BLM did not submit formal comments for the new design, but did provide “informal inputs as the bridge design has developed,” Lowery said.
U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat whose district includes the San Pedro River area, is drafting a letter to Department of Homeland Security officials calling for sensors and cameras to be installed near the river, rather than a 30-foot-tall wall, said Ron Barber, district director for Kirkpatrick.
Agents already use surveillance equipment to monitor large areas of the border in Southern Arizona, Barber said.
“That’s what we think should happen at the San Pedro River,” Barber said.
On the June 12 call, the Border Patrol’s Hyatt said sensors and cameras will monitor the river. However, a wall is still needed because foliage can block cameras and water can sweep away sensors in the ground, he said.
For advocates of the river, the process has been excruciatingly slow.
The June 12 call was “too little, too late,” Sturges said. He wants a public meeting.
Barber said Kirkpatrick has been “very frustrated” by the lack of response to letters she has sent to Department of Homeland Security officials.
On the June 12 call, Tucson Sector Chief Patrol Agent Roy Villareal acknowledged that communication with the public “has not been done well” regarding border wall projects.
“I recognize that there’s frustration. It’s not only on your behalf, but it’s also on our behalf,” Villareal said.
Later in the call, Villareal said there were “times when I’m finding out about construction beginning as a result of your notifying station commanders.”
Meanwhile, on Friday a federal appeals court ruled against the Trump administration in its transfer of $2.5 billion from military construction projects to build sections of the border wall.
The court ruled the Trump administration illegally sidestepped Congress in making the transfer.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling sided with border and environmental groups that argued the transfer was illegal and that the wall created environmental threats.
Initial design discarded
In January, cottonwood trees were marked for removal to prepare the riverbed for construction. At the time, CBP officials said the contractor was still working on a design for the wall across the river.
Also in January, CBP officials discarded a previous design that would have installed a series of concrete culverts with drop gates in the bed of the river, Paul Enriquez, the Border Patrol’s director of acquisition and environmental issues for the border wall, said on the call.
“The initial design that was put forth by the construction contractor for San Pedro was initially rejected, largely due to all the information that we had received from a lot of the stakeholders,” Enriquez said.
CBP received more than 250 “substantive” comments about the San Pedro River that drew attention to risks of flooding, the impact of lighting on wildlife, and other issues.
That design was not sufficient to deal with flood and debris buildup, Enriquez said.
“It took some time for the contractor to come back with a different design,” Enriquez said.
CBP plans to build nearly 140 miles of border wall in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. As of June 10, construction was complete on 38 miles of wall, Enriquez said.
Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or email@example.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar