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15-year-old Humane Borders water barrel headed to Smithsonian

Water station to be exhibited at Cooper Hewitt in NYC

A beat-up blue plastic water barrel, designed by Humane Borders to save migrants crossing the desert in southwestern Pima County, will become part of an exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt design museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution. 

Along with a homemade metal stand and a flag mounted on a 30-foot pole, the 65-gallon barrel marked "agua"— Spanish for water—will be sent to New York City to become part of "Design with the Other 90% Cities" exhibit, which focuses on urban and resource issues in the developing world. 

One of Humane Borders' founders, Rev. Robin Hoover, made the announcement during a press conference at the El Tiradito shine in Tucson on Monday, marking 15 years since the group built two barrels and deployed them in an effort to lower the number of deaths in the Sonoran Desert. 

Since 2001, the group has distributed more than 100,000 gallons of water, and now operates 35 stations near dangerous routes where immigrants crossing the border illegally are likely to take, the group said. 

The group was created in 2000 as a response to the rising number of deaths in the Sonoran Desert. In March 2001, the group asked federal officials for a permit to place water barrels in the remote Cabeza Pieta National Wildlife Refugee. However, in April that permit was denied and a month later, 14 immigrants out a group of 26 perished in the desert from dehydration and exposure. 

Many of them had passed within three-quarters of a mile of the proposed station, said Hoover, who recently left Humane Borders to start Migrant Safety, another nonprofit focused on the border.

The incident fueled the humanitarian response and soon the group was able to deploy water stations using a network of agreements and permits with federal and local agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the city of Tucson, and Pima County. 

Hoover highlighted the efforts by Pima County, which he said Monday was the "gold standard for a government's response to a public health crisis." 

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In 2001, the Pima County Board of Supervisors gave Humane Borders a $25,000 grant to place water stations throughout the southwestern desert, and in 2008 renewed that grant. 

Over the past 15 years, the barrels saved countless lives, said Pima County Supervisor Richard Elias, and "if we want to be crass about it, we can also consider how much money we've saved." This includes costs to the county in medical care for injured immigrants, and also the cost of efforts by the Pima County Medical Examiner to handle the bodies of the dead, Elias said. 

Elias said the efforts were still controversial, but remained necessary to protect people from "an awful death for those who worked to better their lives." 

Along with Humane Border, the Tucson Samaritans and No More Deaths also distribute water, and volunteers with No More Deaths increasingly conduct rescue missions to find lost immigrants. 

Hoover used the event as a renewed call to monitor the people who are crossing the border, noting that migration patterns in the Sonoran Desert are changing. Not only are people increasingly likely to cross during the summer and winter, but as the number of Mexicans attempting to cross declines, the number of Central Americans—including those fleeing from El Salvador, which was declared "the murder capital" of the world—continues to increase. 

Hoover also said that availability of water for those crossing the desert has declined over the last 10 years. Immigrants are also likely to try to drink from in-ground tanks that are often contaminated with bacteria, leading to a "terrible situation" when migrants become ill and weak in remote areas.

"We are actually today calling for land managers to put out their own water," Hoover said. 

The U.S. Border Patrol has worked to mitigate the number of deaths in the Arizona desert, Hoover said, noting that Border Patrol agents with special training in rescue and medical care, known as BORSTAR, are patrolling the desert, and the agency has deployed 10 rescue beacons. 

In 2015, the Border Patrol reported that agents had rescued 790 people in the Tucson Sector alone. 

However, until there is a major policy change in the Tucson Sector, migrants will continue to die, Hoover said. 

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Since 2001, the remains of about 2,600 people have been recovered from the desert.

In 2010, at least 225 bodies were recovered by officials, according to figures from the Pima County Medical Examiner and Border Patrol. 

While that number has decreased to around 142 in 2015, the number did not decrease as fast as the number of apprehensions, indicating that despite the efforts of Border Patrol and humanitarian groups, crossing the desert of Southern Arizona may be more dangerous than ever. 

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Robin Hoover marks the 15th anniversary of the deployment of one of two blue barrels containing water, as part of an effort by Humane Borders to halt the number of deaths in southwestern Pima County.