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Monsoon floods damage border wall near Douglas

Several metal gates in the U.S.-Mexico border wall along the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Southern Arizona were damaged during monsoon flooding this week.

Fernando Sobrazo of the environmental group Cuenca Los Ojos took a photo, shared on Twitter on Wednesday by Kate Scott, founder of the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, which shows at least five hinged metal panels, standing several feet high, that appear disconnected and swinging free from the recently constructed border barrier near Silver Creek.

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed the damage, caused when historic flooding swamped the metal floodgates and damaged the hinges. Border Patrol is working to assess the damage, he said, which was caused by "historic" flooding in the area, following the prolonged drought.

Images published on Facebook shows other gates in the same area of the border wall stuck open, and packed with sand and debris.

Over the last week, heavy rains fell near Douglas, and stream gauges in the area, including one at Whitewater Draw show thousands of gallons of floodwaters flowing through the area.

On Tuesday, around 8:30 p.m., the gauge showed 290 cubic-feet of water moving through the area every second, equivalent to 112,200 gallons of water every minute, and the water surged more than 8 feet in Waterwater Draw.

However, the storm surge at Silver Creek may have reached as high as 25 feet during the storm.

Flood gates are common across sections of the wall along the Arizona-Mexico border. Agents must manually raise the gates to protect the steel barriers from thousands of gallons of floodwater laden with sediment, rocks, and tree limbs that can otherwise pile up to create a dam, with the power of the water overwhelming and toppling parts of the border wall.

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In 2011, a wall section collapsed along the edge of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and a torrent of debris-filled floodwater tore out a section of border wall in 2014 near the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, Ariz.

The damage along the border wall this week comes during record-breaking rain across Southern Arizona, combined with long-term drought conditions. The 2021 monsoon has been one of the wettest recent seasons, and is just inches from beating the record monsoon rainfall observed in 1964.

The Douglas area has recorded 10-12 inches of rain from June 15 to August 18, according to data from the University of Arizona.

Trump's border-wall construction rush

While there have been previous sections of wall constructed in the Douglas area, during the waning days of the Trump administration CBP and the Army Corps of Engineers moved headlong to quickly finish border construction projects, attempting to close the gaps on 398 miles of new primary border wall, and nearly 54 miles of new secondary wall system constructed since January 2017.

This includes $6.3 billion in funding from the Defense Department's own counter-narcotics budget that was focused on about 290 miles of border wall, including construction near Douglas, and a project that carved across the sensitive watershed that includes the 2,639-acre San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Cochise County.

During construction of the border wall near the refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that the refuge faced a "dire emergency" because of the actions of Southwest Valley Constructors, a New Mexico-based subsidiary of Kiewit. Southwest Valley installed a well near the refuge, and began siphoning thousands of gallons of water for concrete to build the wall's foundations, and create access roads.

Southwest Valley received a $646 million contract from the Defense Department in May 2019 to design and build barriers, and in March 2020, the company won another contract worth up to $524 million to replace 63 miles of border wall with a completion date of September 2021.

This included 19.2 miles of border barrier, crossing the San Bernardino NWR, as well as a half-mile section along the Coronado National Forests and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

Defense funds siphoned for Trump wall

Overall, CBP has about 701 miles of "primary barriers" and around 70 miles of "secondary" fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Before the Trump administration, there were about 197 miles of pedestrian fencing, and 16 miles of secondary fencing, and the agency added about 450 miles of border barriers at a cost of at least $15 billion. This includes money pulled from the DHS and the Department of Defense,  including money from a U.S. Treasury fund fueled by drug seizures.

Included was about $3.6 billion in funds siphoned from military construction projects for the wall. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in October that the Trump administration maneuver was illegal, and forced a halt to 11 border wall projects, including four in Arizona.

Following his inauguration, President Joe Biden ordered a halt to border wall construction, terminating a national emergency declaration used as a pretext to justify some funding diversions for the wall. Biden also ordered a "close review of the legality of the funding and contracting methods used, and to determine the best way to redirect funds that were diverted by the prior administration to fund wall construction."

Once the historic Slaughter Ranch, the wildlife refuge is the home of endangered species including the San Bernardino springsnail and the Yaqui topminnow, and includes several flowing creeks and marshy wetland among the grassy, often scrubby hills that surround the area.

In June, the Government Accountability Office said it was reviewing the impact of border wall construction under the Trump administration following U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva's urging. In May, Grijalva demanded a review of the wall, arguing that "in an effort to expedite construction of the border wall, the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security blatantly abused its sweeping and potentially unconstitutional authority to waive all laws and legal requirements standing in the way."

Under federal law, the Homeland Security Secretary may waive dozens of environmental laws to further border construction. While many other federal projects are governed by environmental regulations, in 2005 Congress passed the REAL ID act, which included a section that gives the head of DHS the authority to waive regulations "as necessary to ensure expeditious construction" of barriers, roads, and other infrastructure.

Following the law's passage, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff used the authority at least five times from 2005 to 2009 to "waive in their entirety" more than 37 federal laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, to build more than 550 miles of border wall and roads along the southern border.

Chertoff, and his successor under the Obama administration Jeh Johnson, waived the environmental impacts of new construction and border enforcement throughout the southwest, including protected federal lands like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Big Bend National Park.

"Before President Trump took office, this waiver authority had only been used seven times in its history. The Trump administration used it 29 times," Grijalva said.

As late as April 2020, DHS was issuing new waivers for construction for around 15 miles of border wall in the Rio Grande Valley.

"The laws that the Trump administration waived included critical environmental and public health protections—like the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and Clean Air Act—and Native American cultural resource protections," Grijlava wrote to the GAO. "They ripped through pristine landscapes like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, literally bulldozed and blasted sacred Native American sites, and drained the fragile desert ecosystem of vital groundwater resources. This careless, lawless action inflicted catastrophic harm on border lands and communities, much of which is irreversible."

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Fernando Sobrazo/Cuenca Los Ojos

Several metal gates in the U.S.-Mexico border wall along the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Southern Arizona were damaged during monsoon flooding Wednesday evening.

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