Trump’s border wall threatens fish species

The U.S. is skirting conservation laws and withdrawing millions of gallons of groundwater.

 

This article was originally published by The Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Border wall construction near the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.

The survival of eight endangered and threatened species, including four kinds of endemic fish, is in doubt in Arizona, as massive quantities of groundwater are extracted to construct President Donald Trump’s border wall.

The 30-foot-high barrier is under construction on the edge of the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Arizona, where rare desert springs and crystalline streams provide the only U.S. habitat for the endangered freshwater Río Yaqui fish.

The region’s water reserves are already depleted due to prolonged drought and record high temperatures linked to the climate crisis. The expansion of water-intensive crops such as alfalfa and pecan farms is also draining aquifers in the arid region.

Now, experts fear that construction of this 20-mile stretch of Trump’s wall, which began in October, has reduced spring flow and groundwater levels in San Bernardino which provide scarce habitat for the Yaqui topminnow, chub, beautiful shiner and the most vulnerable, the Yaqui catfish.“There’s good reason to believe that the Yaqui fish’s only U.S. habitat is drying up as a result of tens or hundreds of thousands of gallons of groundwater being pumped to build the border wall,” said Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity who recently visited the area.

A well near San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge.

In September, the Trump administration pledged to erect 450 to 500 miles of the wall by the end of 2020, an ambitious undertaking to be partially funded by $6 billion previously earmarked for defense and counter-drug programs.

Construction in Arizona and New Mexico is under way, despite multiple ongoing lawsuits challenging the constitutional basis of Trump’s executive orders which diverted billions of defense dollars to the wall by declaring a national emergency in February.

Despite the potential for far-reaching long-term consequences, details about the plans are sparse since the government suspended 28 federal laws mandating protections and oversight, relating to clean air and water, endangered species, public lands and the rights of Native Americans, in order to expedite construction.

The waiver includes the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), considered the cornerstone of environmental protection, the Endangered Species Act, National Fish and Wildlife Act and Migratory Bird Conservation Act. These laws require robust scientific, environmental and costs analysis before projects can be sanctioned.

“With his wall obsession, President Trump has created an environmental crisis at the border,” said U.S. House Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona). “Through environmental waivers and stolen funds, he’s building a wall that will deplete precious water resources, desecrate sacred sites and destroy the environmental treasures and biodiversity that make the borderlands unique.”

Jordahl added: “The wall could not be built without the waiver. NEPA requires the government to choose the least invasive, best option for taxpayers … surveillance cameras could be installed every hundred meters at a fraction of the economic and environmental cost. This wall is an unjustifiable project.”

More than 100 miles of the new border wall have been slated for Arizona, costing roughly $14 million a mile, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Thirty-seven federally listed endangered and threatened species live around the Arizona-Mexico border.

A Chiricahua leopard frog at San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge

The Arizona stretch will need at least 50 million gallons of water, according to Gary Nabhan, an agricultural ecologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson investigating food and water security on the borderlands. (U.S Customs and Border Protection [CBP] said it was still working with the army corps of engineers to estimate the volume of water required for construction and dust suppression.)

Work is progressing rapidly in the Tucson sector – which includes the 20-mile San Bernardino stretch. A nearby well has been tapped to extract groundwater which is used to make concrete bases to hold the towering steel slats, and for dust control. Crews have razed a large section of privately owned land near the refuge for the staging area and concrete batching plant. There are currently eight wells being used in the Tucson sector for three sections, according to the CBP.

In addition to the Yaqui fish, water depletion also threatens federally protected Chiricahua leopard frogs, Huachuca water umbel, Mexican garter snakes and Aplomado falcon, as well as the San Bernardino springsnails which are confined to a couple of fragile springs.

The impenetrable bollard wall also encroaches into a crucial migratory corridor where “Sombra,” one of just three known surviving jaguars in the region, most likely crossed into the U.S. from Mexico. In Arizona, 13 state laws have been suspended in addition to the 28 federal statutes.

“It’s painful to see how much flora and fauna has already been destroyed in our beautiful desert,” said Regina Romero, the newly elected mayor of Tucson.

“Throwing billions of dollars into building a wall will not make our borders more secure, but will cause destructive flooding and irreparable damage to migration patterns for many wildlife species only found in the Sonoran desert.”

"It’s painful to see how much flora and fauna has already been destroyed in our beautiful desert," said Tucson’s mayor.

In December, the city council voted to join environmental organizations including the Center for Biological Diversity in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the waiver as an amicus brief. (The plaintiffs are appealing the case to the Supreme Court.)

“CBP remain committed to responsible environmental stewardship and meeting the intent of these [suspended] laws to the greatest extent possible while allowing the Government to meet its requirements to secure the southern border,” a spokesman said in a statement.

In total, 93 federally listed endangered and threatened species live close to the 2,000-mile southern border, which is North America’s most arid region. The native wildlife and fauna, as well as migratory birds and butterflies rely on the dwindling wetlands, streams and rivers for survival.

“It’s the kind of wall – concrete footers, absurdly high, with 24/7 lighting – that Trump has chosen to build which will cause most disruption to humans, wildlife and vegetation, and the effects will be seen across the continent,” said ecologist Nabhan.

“Pumping the groundwater will increase the vulnerability of endangered and threatened species and undo 30 years of work costing tens of millions of dollars by governments and conservation groups to protect water habitats.”

Nina Lakhani is an environmental justice reporter for The Guardian. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes Land Trust, based in Bend, Oregon, seeks a collaborative and strategic Executive Director to lead us in pursuing our mission: to conserve and care...
  • DEVELOPMENT MANAGER
    Job Title: Development Manager Supervisor: Senior Director of Development Effective Date: May 17, 2021 Job Status: Full-time (40 hours/week), exempt Location: Within the Colorado Plateau...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Executive Director Reports To: Board of Directors Compensation: $75,000 to $80,000, plus generous benefits and paid leave. Funding for relocation expenses available. Classification:...
  • WATER DIRECTOR
    Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. Application review will begin on April 2, 2021 and will continue until the position has been filled....
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is offering a fellowship for early-career journalists interested in...
  • COLORADO WILD PUBLIC LANDS VIDEO CONTEST
    Please submit your video of 30 seconds or less, taken on public lands, to [email protected] by May 15th for a chance to win in one...
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...