Monsoon rains blast through special border-wall gates on southern Arizona creek bed

State News

Manual movable gates like these shown on Oct. 20, 2020, were installed in several river beds in the San Pedro River Valley in southern Arizona. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Summer monsoon rains after unprecedented drought tore through southern Arizona last week damaging controversial special movable border wall gates that were built in river beds during the Trump administration.

Videos and photos provided by local environmentalists show the special movable gates placed in the riverbed of Silver Creek in Cochise County, Arizona, about 17 miles northeast of the town of Douglas, did not hold up to several feet of rising water that coursed through the desert borderlands region.

The National Weather Service reported 2.15 inches fell on the region on Aug. 17, which Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, said isn’t even a lot of rain during the monsoon months of June through September in Arizona.

“For years, we have been warning and predicting that exactly this would happen and while this was a significant rainfall, it wasn’t atypical. We always have heavy rains in the monsoon season,” Jordahl told Border Report on Monday. “This was a highly predictable occurrence. The construction of this wall was so ill-advised and ill-conceived and rushed and inflicted a huge amount of damage for a wall that washed away in its first summer.”

This wall was so ill-advised and ill-conceived and rushed and inflicted a huge amount of damage for a wall that washed away in its first summer.”

Laiken Jordahl, Center for Biological Diversity

The section that was damaged in heavy rains was located in Silver Creek, which is one mile west of the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, an area that “is prone to big flood events,” environmentalist Myles Traphagen, borderlands program coordinator for the nonprofit Wildlands Network, told Border Report.

Traphagen visited the area in July 2020, when the border wall was still under construction. A video he shot then shows flooding caused by monsoon rains that pushed existing barriers several feet and disrupted construction, which included a bridge running over a creek.

The water in Silver Creek rose to 22 feet — 8 feet below the top of the 30-foot-tall metal border wall that was placed in its bed, Traphagen said.

Drone video taken Sunday by freelance photographer John Kurc shows grass, twigs and other debris caught in the massive gates, some of which were torn off their hinges from the weight of the water pressure.

The damage occurred despite the fact that the gates had been left open, Jordahl said, as a precautionary measure to allow water to flow through. But he said that sudden monsoon rains are unpredictable and the gate design obviously did not hold up.

Construction crews install special gates on Oct. 22, 2020, on new border wall that is being built across the San Pedro River in southern Arizona. The gates will allow Border Patrol agents to manually open them during heavy rain events. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“To those of us in Arizona, we know these monsoon storms erupt out of nowhere and drop inches of inches of rain throughout the desert,” Jordahl said. “Border Patrol has said, ‘We’re opening gates to allow the passage of water,’ and we have over and over and over again told them that is completely inadequate because of the debris that flows during these flash floods.”

“Here it just ripped hinges off the gates and sent some of them tumbling into Mexico, but I would put money on this wall being washed out in the future because of this incredibly poor planning,” he said.

Traphagen said that there are 104 of these gates that have been installed in the San Pedro River valley region “and they’re big and each one has their own lock.”

Had the gates not been left open then each would have had to be manually open — something Border Patrol last year told Border Report they were prepared to be able to do in a weather emergency.

Border Report visited southern Arizona in October when these special gates were being erected in the river bed of the San Pedro River, the last free-flowing river in the state. Environmentalists worried then that during intense and sudden rainfalls that engineers would not have time to manually open the gates to allow for more water flow.

Kate Scott is seen on Oct. 20, 2020, in the San Pedro River Valley of southern Arizona. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Kate Scott, who runs the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, a nonprofit water conversation organization focused on the San Pedro River basin, said the border barrier should never have been built in the tender river and creek beds, and she wants the Biden administration, and particularly Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, to take note.

“The catastrophic damage that we have already witnessed this monsoon season should be sending seismic signals to Secretary Mayorkas and his staff to take immediate action to the real emergency that is occurring here to borderlands, communities, critical watersheds and wildlife refuges,” Scott told Border Report on Monday.

“It just felt like ‘we told you so,’ it’s not like I would ever wish that. It’s horrible. It’s money wasted. Money that could have been spent so much better. We’ve done so many meetings and reports over the years and nobody listened and it sort of feels like karma to me. It should never have been there in the first place” Arizona artist and environmentalist Robin Motzer said via phone.

Artist Robin Motzer walks below the border wall in the San Pedro River on Oct. 20, 2020, and watches crews constructing special gates that Border Patrol said would be manually opened during weather emergencies. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report photos)

“It makes me angry every time. The stupidity and the audacity. We know the power of water and we know the power of Mother Nature and had they taken that into consideration and understood nature instead of trying to kill it and destroy it then this never would have happened,” Motzer said.

The stupidity and the audacity. We know the power of water and we know the power of Mother Nature and had they taken that into consideration and understood nature instead of trying to kill it and destroy it then this never would have happened.”


Arizona artist and environmentalist Robin Motzer

The Center for Biological Diversity has several outstanding lawsuits against the federal government regarding the construction of these and other border wall sections put up across the Southwest.

Most were constructed by waiving environmental regulations, which Traphagen says were put in place for legitimate safety reasons.

“When you look at regulations — environmental laws, cultural protection laws, and also contracting laws, which many refer to as red tape — well that’s actually ‘safety tape’ because those laws didn’t come about out of nothing. These laws have been enacted because of past experience that the country has had with disasters that resulted in loss of property, life, soil, water, so by bypassing all of these regulations it’s inevitable that the outcome you’re going to have in many places is going to be negative,” Traphagen said.

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