News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Texas Residents Fear Border Wall Will Increase Flooding


Now let's go to Starr County, Texas, where plans for a big stretch of President Trump's border wall are underway. Trump says the wall will stop drugs and immigrants from crossing the border, but residents fear the wall will increase the risk and severity of flooding. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Morning on the Rio Grande - kingfishers and orioles dart over smooth water, catfish and gar patrol under the hulls of our canoes.

SCOTT NICOL: We are on the Rio Grande, upriver from Roma, Texas, listening to the birds and visiting a National Wildlife Refuge that is soon to be walled off.

BURNETT: Our guide is the ponytailed point man for the Sierra Club, Scott Nicol. As the government extends the wall in Texas, Starr County is a high priority. Customs and Border Protection says this section of the Rio Grande is popular with smugglers of humans and marijuana. Indeed, on our float, I counted more than two dozen deflated rubber rafts stuck on branches on the U.S. side that were used by coyotes to ferry migrants across the river. For this reason, the administration plans to erect 52 miles of barriers up to 30 feet tall along the county's entire river boundary.

NICOL: Most of that is going to be in the Rio Grande flood plain, and so that is going to cause huge flooding risks.

BURNETT: This stretch of the Rio Grande has a history of catastrophic flooding. The fear is that CBP will build the steel-slatted wall too close to the river, as recent maps indicate, and when it swells to flood stage, debris will catch in the structure and turn it into a dam.

NICOL: Those walls will stop water from flowing properly out into the river when you have a big rain event. Those walls will potentially deflect water deeper into Mexico whenever the river jumps its banks, you know, as it had - has done many times.

BURNETT: The Rio Grande has flooded many times, but one event went down in history - the year was 1967, and Starr County took a direct hit.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Raging winds, torrential rains and widespread flooding - the legacy left by Hurricane Beulah, which takes at least 11 lives in Texas.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Build that wall.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (Chanting) Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall.

BURNETT: But weather takes a back seat to the administration's fixation on border security. The barrier in Starr County is part of the longest stretch of new border wall to be constructed under Trump, a total of 95 miles in the Rio Grande Valley. One favorite crossing spot for migrants is Roma. This historic town of 2,000 sits right on the Rio Grande. During the Civil War, it was a thriving cotton port for steamboats that plied the river. Today it's common to see ragged asylum-seekers walking through neighborhoods, says Roma's Assistant Police Chief Francisco Garcia.

FRANCISCO GARCIA: These people come across the river, stand on any street corner and stop the nearest law enforcement that happens to pass by them. And literally, they just start waving and saying, hey, please, I'm here. Turn me over to immigration.

BURNETT: Garcia says the border wall may prevent some of the illegal migrant traffic, but like the others, he's worried about flooding.

GARCIA: Now, in 2010, we had river flooding. We had an area within the city that we had to shut down that subdivision for 3 1/2 weeks. Nobody could live in it because it was underwater.

BURNETT: And that's where the border wall is going to go?

GARCIA: Yes, that is where the border wall will be.

BURNETT: The threat of flooding scares Nayda Alvarez, a local school teacher whose family owns six acres on the Rio Grande. She remembers her father pointing out where the river came up more than 20 feet during Hurricane Beulah, reaching the foundation of her house.

NAYDA ALVAREZ: Imagine a wall right here. How's the water going to go to the river? You can't - it won't. It's going to pick up every branch, every leaf and all that. And what happens? It's going to make a dam, and the water's going to stay on the north side of the wall.

BURNETT: The exact placement of the border wall is still being worked out. CBP posted a preliminary document online saying it would put the wall on the edge of the 100-year flood plain, not in it, and a year-old engineering study indicates a few fixes that would, for instance, allow more water to flow through the wall and prevent floodwater from deflecting into Mexico. But residents remain concerned, as does Mexico.

You see, Mexico and the U.S. have a 49-year-old river treaty that says both nations must agree if one wants to build any structure that would affect the flow of the Rio Grande or its floodwaters. Antonio Rascon is chief Mexican engineer of the bilateral International Boundary and Water Commission. Two years ago, he told NPR in an interview that Mexico opposes any structure that would affect the transborder flow of water.


ANTONIO RASCON: (Through interpreter) In effect, the Americans tried to say, well, yes, we understand what the treaty says, and we've stuck to it. But the full commission was never able to reach agreement on the border wall. So formally, we can say the U.S. interprets the treaty their way, but for us, for Mexico, the wall should not be there.

BURNETT: The commission is mulling the newly released border wall plans and declined to speak further. NPR tried to get someone working on the project to address flooding, but no one would - not the company's building the wall, not the Army Corps of Engineers overseeing construction and not Customs and Border Protection.

John Burnett, NPR News, Roma, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.