The hasty construction of Trump's border wall will have grave environmental consequences for the region's ecosystem. Careful deliberation is ideal in public policy but unrealistic in partisan politics warns Liam Glen.
Construction of President Trump’s border wall has officially been underway since he declared a national emergency in February. The controversial project along the already heavily-fortified US-Mexico border will face numerous legal and logistical challenges. But one obstacle that will not get in its way is environmental regulation.
The 2005 Real ID Act gives the Secretary of Homeland Security unilateral power to waive any law that gets in the way of building border barriers. Not so much as an environmental impact statement is required. For a megaproject like Trump’s proposed border wall, this wanton disregard for environmental safety poses major risks.
Hard borders do not exist in nature. Many species’ range traverses the Mexican-American boundary. A barrier spanning across the entire border would have grave consequences for the region’s ecosystem.
A paper signed by over 2,500 scientists and published in the journal BioScience in July 2018 voices their concerns. A wall would divide habitats and populations, reducing genetic diversity and making animals less able to find food, water, and other resources.
The risk is particularly great for endangered species. The Center for Biological Diversity found that a border wall would affect 57 species classified as endangered and 24 classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In particular, the jaguar, ocelot, and ferruginous pygmy owl would be in danger of going extinct in the US.
Aside from any inherent value that exists in nature, diverse ecosystems provide a range of services to humans. Any change, such as the extinction of a species, has unpredictable effects. This was self-evident when the Endangered Species Act of 1973 overwhelmingly passed in Congress and received President Richard Nixon’s signature. It should be equally obvious to decision makers today.
Walls in Floodplains
In 2008, a debris pileup at a border fence in Arizona blocked normal water flow and caused flooding in the town of Lukeville. This is just one example of unintended consequences from poorly-planned infrastructure. The planned border wall would threaten many more communities.
The risk is particularly great given the administration’s insistence on building along the Rio Grande floodplain. Press releases from the Department of Homeland Security, such as one regarding a waiver for construction in the Rio Grande Valley in 2018, mention the department’s concern for environmental impacts. But the entire point of waivers is to trade environmental standards for quick construction. There is no telling what effects these subpar standards will have down the line.
The Necessity of Red Tape
The administration’s reasons for expediting construction along the border are not difficult to divine. President Trump campaigned on building a wall, and he believes that keeping that promise will help him in the upcoming election. Regulations are difficult to follow. Environmental impact statements take years to complete. The Real ID Act gives the administration an option to bypass that. It would be irrational not to take advantage of it.
Hastily delivering political promises before elections is not new. Congressional Republicans did it with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017. Democrats did it with the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Careful deliberation is ideal in public policy but unrealistic in partisan politics.
However, rules and regulations exist for a reason. It is known that a border wall would damage ecosystems and increase the risk of deadly flooding. The full impacts will only be known when it is completed if it is ever completed. Given the dubious benefits of the wall, the administration’s willingness to take this gamble does not speak well for its priorities.