The Environmental Consequences of a Border

by Josie Kohnert

On July 12, 2008, torrential rains—covering the span of a mere hour and a half—instigated a flash flood that devastated not only the town of Lukeville, but adjacent Sonoyta and miles of park infrastructure as well.[1]  As water whisked across the landscape, ignorant of any physical impediment, detritus from the desert floor lodged against the steel grates and mesh of the fence that serves as the border between the United States and Mexico. In a matter of minutes a dam formed, capable of retaining and redirecting the runoff with devastating effects.  The pedestrian fence adjacent to Lukeville, AZ comprises 5.2 miles of wire mesh panels infused at drainage crossings with steel grates designed to accommodate the excess of water generated by flood events.[2]  The grates, previously thought to be a

Section of the Border Fence with Flood Control Panels

reasonable solution to flood events, consist of 6”x24” openings framed by 1”x3” steel bars. However, as the storm of July 12th demonstrated, even with the assistance of the Environmental Assessment and Impact Statements a physical solution to the border comes with significant consequences. The fence, intended to stem the flow of illegal immigrants across the US-Mexico border, became an impediment to non-human elements as well, calling into question its viability as an EPA qualified border security option.

Since signed into law on January 1, 1970, the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) mandates that any new development must first undergo an Environmental Impact Statement; a thorough exploration of the environmental implications of any new development—also considering the option of no development—with the intent to minimize unnecessary degradation of the environment.  The goal of the act is to: “[establish] national environmental policy and goals for the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the environment and [provide] a process for implementing these goals within the federal agencies.”[3]  Ideally, by undertaking such a study in the design phase of a project, the final plan will reflect the opportunities and constraints of the landscape, allowing the implemented product to work in conjunction with the natural environmental currents, instead of against them.

In the case of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, critical environmental factors dominated consideration when introducing the construction of the pedestrian fence in 2007.  First and foremost was the impact it would create on seasonal flooding and subsequent erosion throughout the park.   The Organ Pipe region experiences two storm seasons: the winter storms and Mexican monsoon season.[4]  During these periods, the park experiences vast amounts of rainfall that—when mixed with the arid climate and desert landscape—creates flash flooding.  Although brief, these events can significantly impact the physical structure of the park through erosion and sedimentation if not properly channeled.  In the Environmental Assessment meeting, the following concerns about the fence were raised:

“(1) The fence would impede the conveyance of floodwaters across the international boundary

(2)Debris carried by flash floods would be trapped by the fence, resulting in impeded flow and clean-up issues,

(3)Backwater pooling would occur due to impeded flow,

(4)Lateral flow due to backwater pooling would cause environmental damage as well as damage to patrol roads,

(5)Significant increase in surface water depths (or rise in water elevation) would occur as a result of impeded flow, causing adverse effects on downstream and upstream resources and infrastructure in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Mexico.” [5]

The final report concluded that the fence would not impede flows, increase erosion, or—thanks to frequent ranger maintenance—experience backlogged water due to debris; however, when put to the test, the fence failed in all three assertions.  Initially, the fence impeded the natural runoff of the landscape.  While the grates failed aboveground, the foundation of the fence also impeded subsurface flows, increasing the saturation of the soil and contributing to a significant backlog of water.  With the natural flow obstructed, the floodwaters shifted from designated channels to course across the fragile landscape and scour traditionally protected topsoil, depositing it downstream.  Finally, although debris in the grate appeared to be a manageable issue, the report on the fence’s failure concluded that: “Removing debris after a flood is ineffectual at stopping backwater flooding while a flash flood is occurring.”[6]

However, flooding isn’t the only factor contributing to the degradation of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  A much more pressing issue appears in the severe impact illegal traffic imposes on the landscape.  Illegal immigration through the park causes yearly damage to ORPI through fragmentation and vandalism. The popularity of vehicles in drug smuggling enables criminals to drive indiscriminately across the desert, typically in unmarked tracts of land to avoid detection.  Frequent crossings by cars can also contribute to erosion through compaction of the soil.  Furthermore, the rough terrain of Organ Pipe leads to vehicle abandonment—a phenomena that has decreased from seventy-eighty cars a year to only two-three since the implementation of barriers.[7]  When these vehicles introduce human detritus to the environment, it alters wildlife regimes, visual quality, and removal can damage the environment even further.  One way the park addresses this issue is through the construction of vehicle barriers, which create a more permeable form of physical demarcation.  Because these barriers consist of railroad ties and wood posts, they discriminate less between cross-border traffic, but still deter cars and other large objects from entering the park.  As with any physical solution, people find ways to get around them; however, in many ways the fence on the border—by stemming vehicle traffic—succeeds as a solution to immigration issues and environmental preservation.

For Organ Pipe, the acknowledgement of environmental standards remains crucial for the propagation of a healthy ecosystem.  The Sonoran Desert composes an extremely delicate biosphere that thrives on the interconnectivity of plants, animals, and climactic currents that transcend the articulation of a physical border.  The construction of a border fence—a project undertaken many times across the temporal scope of borderlands history—requires the involved parties to carefully consider the advantages and drawbacks to a physical solution, requiring sacrifices in one area or another.

[1] The Associated Press. “Border Blunder: Security Fence Causes Flooding.” MSNBC, (accessed February 1, 2012).

[2] National Parks Service Department of the Interior.  “Effects of the International Boundary Pedestrian Fence in the Vicinity of Lukeville, Arizona, on Drainage Systems and Infrastructure, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona” (accessed March 25, 2012)

[3] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)” (accessed March 25, 2012)

[4] National Parks Service Department of the Interior.  “Effects of the International Boundary Pedestrian Fence in the Vicinity of Lukeville, Arizona, on Drainage Systems and Infrastructure, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona” (accessed March 25, 2012)

[5] National Parks Service Department of the Interior.  “Effects of the International Boundary Pedestrian Fence in the Vicinity of Lukeville, Arizona, on Drainage Systems and Infrastructure, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona” (accessed March 25, 2012)

[7] Leo Banks. “Border Fence Benefits the Environment.” The Daily Caller. (accessed January 31, 2012).

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