Border towns urge levees, not fencing

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As Hurricane Dolly’s torrential rains raise fears of flooding along the Rio Grande in south Texas, the chairman of the Texas Border Coalition on Wednesday called for the Department of Homeland Security to rethink its efforts to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Chad Foster, mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas, who speaks for a coalition of 18 Texas cities and counties, said the government instead should focus on rebuilding levees that would protect residents along the border’s many low-lying areas. He said the area’s existing levees are being destroyed so Homeland Security can erect 18-foot concrete walls in their place.

But Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said the department, while committed to building fences along 370 miles of border and vehicle barriers on another 300 miles before the end of President Bush’s term, is working with border communities to meet their security and flood protection needs.

“We are working with willing communities to incorporate both their security and flood mitigation needs and we have done so seamlessly,” Ms. Kudwa said. “We are putting money into maintaining the levees, securing America’s borders and protecting people and their property from floods.”

The department so far has built about 300 miles of fences, including a levee-border barrier project in Hidalgo County, Texas, aimed at strengthening flood protection in the area while also constructing a border barrier.

A groundswell of opposition, led by the Texas Border Coalition, is strengthening, with several Texas border communities joining a lawsuit to halt the construction of the fence. They have charged that Homeland Security, including Secretary Michael Chertoff, “blatantly ignored federal law in their zeal” to complete construction of the fence by year’s end and failed to consult with property owners as promised.

Eight border cities and 10 counties are part of the suit, which charges that Homeland Security was required by law “to minimize the impact on the environment, culture, commerce and quality of life for the communities and residents located near the sites at which such fencing is to be constructed.”

“This only makes sense if you work for the Department of Homeland Security, the same government agency that failed the people of Mississippi and Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina,” said Mr. Foster. “They designed a wall that will cost American taxpayers $16 million per mile to build in some sections - $50 billion over the years.

“The Rio Grande Valley needs a comprehensive solution aimed at protecting people from floods,” he said.

Earlier this year, Mr. Chertoff waived environmental restrictions to push construction of the fence, and his department has gone to court to try to obtain access to dozens of sites that it said were blocking construction. Mr. Chertoff said he waived environmental restrictions to ensure that the project would proceed “without unnecessary delays” caused by administrative processes or potential litigation.

Mr. Foster said that it is “unbelievably foolish” for the government to try to destroy and rebuild the Rio Grande levees in the middle of hurricane season.

“It is incredibly short-sighted that the government would open the levees at the same time that the danger is highest for devastating floods in the middle of hurricane season,” he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has identified the levees along the Rio Grande Valley in Texas as in need of repair to protect the area from major flooding. The federal government has sought to combine its border fence and levee repair projects, calling the plan a “workable, feasible solution.”

But Mr. Foster said Homeland Security saw the requirements for levee repair as a way to achieve its goal of building a fence along the border, adding that “the only places where they are paying to rebuild the levees are in areas where Border Patrol identified a need for a wall.

“The government is paying to repair the levees in bits and pieces,” he said.

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