Border wall in Hidalgo County moves forward
September 6, 2008 - 8:33PM
By Jackie Leatherman, The Monitor
McALLEN - The deadline is approaching.

The law ordering the construction of the border wall between parts of the United States and Mexico, including 70 miles in the Rio Grande Valley, mandated that it be finished by Dec. 31.

So far, only two segments of the wall - both in Hidalgo County - have actually been started, and construction on the other five Hidalgo County segments is expected to begin by early next month.

But the status of almost 50 miles worth of fencing in Starr and Cameron counties is still up in the air.

Officials from all three counties have fought hard against the idea of a physical barrier between the two countries for a variety of reasons.

But Hidalgo County officials were the first to try to make lemonade from what they perceived as the lemons the federal government was forcing on the area.

Their plan, pushed by Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas and Godfrey Garza Jr., manager of Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1, combines the border fence with a levee to repair the ailing system that would hold back floodwater from a swollen Rio Grande.

Now, it appears more and more that Hidalgo County is the only county in South Texas on track to actually have a barrier built by the end of this year.

Salinas said he hadn't considered the possibility before.

He said if that was the case, county officials would have to re-evaluate on Jan. 1.

"I'm against the wall," he said. "I'm against the fence. (I've always said) that if they build something, that they built it to fix the levees. I feel we still needed to fix the levees."

But local and federal officials alike are adamant a barrier will cut through all three counties soon.

Most Valley officials contacted for this story doubted the changing of the guard at the White House would have much, if any, impact on the pace of the wall's construction in South Texas.

news/" class="autolink">Immigration plans on the Web sites of both presidential candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, state they support physical barriers along the border. Both senators voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which called for the construction of 670 miles of barrier along the United States' southern border.

Neither Obama's nor McCain's campaigns returned e-mailed inquiries from The Monitor seeking comment on what plans, if any, they had for finishing border wall construction.

Among the three Valley counties bordering Mexico, Hidalgo County's levees are in the worst shape.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced in the spring last year, when border wall plans here started surfacing, that if the levees weren't repaired, much of Hidalgo County would be designated a special flood hazard area - forcing most property owners in the affected area to purchase private flood insurance.

Even before that, the county asked for - and received from voters - a $100 million bond to improve the county's drainage system.

With that money essentially in the bank, Hidalgo County asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the International Boundary and Water Commission to fold levee improvements and fence construction into one project.

Comprised of a U.S. Section and a Mexican Section, the IBWC is responsible for coming up with bi-national solutions to issues that arise during the application of treaties between the United States and Mexico regarding flood control and other matters in the border region. The U.S. Section is a federal government agency and is responsible for maintaining the flood protection system in the Valley.

Under the levee-wall plan, Hidalgo County promised to contribute a big chunk of the funding up front, and the feds promised to consider reimbursing the county.

With that accord in place, Homeland Security further agreed to place the levee-wall on federally owned land, bypassing battles over government acquisition of private property.

Now, all seven border wall segments in Hidalgo County are expected to be under construction by early October - more than a month behind the wall's original building schedule.

The construction delay on the 22 miles of segmented concrete wall leaves contractors battling an even tighter-than-expected deadline.

In May, project officials said the wall could be built by the end of this year, but there was already a hint of skepticism in their statements before construction even started.

Louis Jones Jr. is president of the McAllen office of Houston-based Dannenbaum Engineering Co. and serves as the project engineer. He told The Monitor in May that "the aggressive timeline makes (construction) intensely complicated."

But top officials close to the project in Hidalgo County still say they can meet the Dec. 31 deadline.

Only two segments of the wall - one near Granjeno and one near the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge - are currently under construction.

The Associated Press reported recently that an Aug. 18 letter Dannenbaum sent to Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 stated the deadline for one segment had been pushed back due to costs.

But drainage district manager Garza and U.S. Customs and Border Protection disputed that account.

But as the wall's construction moves forward in Hidalgo County, construction in its two neighboring border counties remains stalled.

Last month, Homeland Security denied Cameron County's request to mirror Hidalgo County's levee-wall project.

The federal government has determined where it plans to put almost 36 miles of fencing on public and private land in Cameron County, but land negotiations are ongoing and no construction contracts had been awarded as of Thursday.

Federal officials are also still in land negotiations for 12.5 miles of fencing in Starr County. A U.S. District judge recently ruled Homeland Security could not take immediate possession of almost 10 acres of disputed land until details over property boundaries and land access were resolved. A tentative trial date was set for August 2009.

Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos said he, too, doubted the barrier would be finished in his area before the end of the year.

"With every day that goes by, the likelihood of it being complete by 12/31 becomes more and more remote," he said.