On Thanksgiving Day, a dump truck from El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 blocked the path of machinery that was digging a trench for a secondary fence near the American Canal extension. (Photo courtesy of Jesus "Chuy" Reyes)

On Thanksgiving morning, while many El Pasoans were baking pies and prepping turkeys, Jesus “Chuy” Reyes was in the midst of a standoff at the American Canal Extension near Downtown El Paso, where construction workers had begun rapidly erecting a secondary border barrier. 

Reyes, the general manager of El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, had been notified a couple weeks earlier that construction would take place, but had not received information about specifics of the plan until Monday of that week.

Upon seeing the plans, Reyes became alarmed that the intended secondary border barrier would cut off access to the canal for operation and maintenance, posing a serious flood risk to Downtown El Paso. 

On Wednesday, Reyes saw that construction equipment was already being loaded out at the worksite. “We voiced our concerns (to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Customs and Border Protection),” said Reyes. The El Paso water district was then told that construction would not begin until after they had a meeting the following Monday, Nov. 28, he said.

But out of curiosity, Reyes decided to drive by the construction site on Thanksgiving morning, just to be sure. 

“They already had a trencher on our bank, they had already trenched a good little distance, and so I called our attorney and called our engineer, and we took equipment up there and blocked them off from being able to continue trenching,” Reyes said, who used a water district dump truck to physically obstruct the path of the construction workers. 

In the waning days of President Trump’s administration, a rush of construction efforts are taking place along the southern border of the United States, in order to build as many miles of wall as possible before inauguration day. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to freeze all border wall construction projects when he assumes office in January.  

The stretch along the El Paso canal that is under dispute is parallel to a border wall system that includes a 30-foot bollard wall topped with serpentine wire. In addition to the border wall, much of the area near the canal includes one or two other smaller fences. 

Machinery used to dig a trench for a new secondary border fence near the American Canal was idled after El Paso County’s irrigation district raised concerns. (Photo courtesy of Jesus “Chuy” Reyes)

Reyes said an existing fence blocks water district access to the canal on the southern side, and that initial plans for the secondary border barrier would similarly block maintenance access on the northern side.

Former El Paso Mayor John Cook said access to the American Canal Extension is critical for the prevention of catastrophic flood damage to thousands of properties in El Paso. Cook was the mayor in 2006, when El Paso experienced historic flooding.

It’s “very strange” that construction workers initiated construction at the canal on Thanksgiving Day, Cook said.

“It sounds to me like they figured, ‘well nobody’s gonna be watching on Thanksgiving, so let’s go ahead and start. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission,’” he said.

Rapid wall construction is underway along the U.S.-Mexico border

El Paso is not the only border locale where rapid border wall construction projects are underway, driven in part by the upcoming change in presidential administration. In southern Arizona, border wall construction has ramped up amid outcry by conservation groups, local officials, and Native American tribes with sacred sites affected by construction. 

Louise Misztal, executive director of Sky Island Alliance, said that the lack of notification and advance consultation between agencies in El Paso sounds similar to what’s happening in Arizona, even though the rural context is different. 

“They’ve waived dozens of laws in Arizona to proceed with construction on public lands, which means all the normal study and assessment and consulting with local agencies and land managers is not happening. We’ve definitely seen a pattern in Arizona and the Sky Island region of them not consulting with the public, not informing local jurisdictions what they’re doing, things coming as a surprise,” she said. 

Unforeseen environmental impacts (such as increased risks associated with flooding) can be a byproduct of rapid border wall construction efforts; this is a potential harm being considered by several groups along the border, including those advocating the halting of construction along the San Pedro River in southern Arizona. 

“El Paso has good reason to be concerned about flooding. With the waiver of all laws to build border walls, due to the Real ID Act of 2005, the environmental review process under (National Environmental Policy Act) is compromised, therefore resulting in unforeseen outcomes,” said Myles Traphagen, Borderlands Program Coordinator for Wildlands Network.

The largest border wall construction effort in the El Paso region is underway in Columbus, New Mexico, near the Palomas Port of Entry. There, workers are laying trench to replace the 18-foot border fence with a 32-foot wall. This project is part of the same contract (El Paso 11/16) as the secondary border barrier construction at the American Canal. 

YouTube video
A slideshow of border wall construction near Columbus, New Mexico, and Palomas, Mexico. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Price tag of border wall construction skyrockets

Jay Field, public affairs officer for the Army Corps of Engineers’ South Pacific Border District, said the El Paso 11/16 contract was awarded in April and totals 35 non-continuous miles of border wall construction from Ysleta del Sur to Columbus. Field said this contract is what’s known as a MATOC, a “multiple award task order contract,” which expedites construction efforts. 

An October review of federal spending data found that contract modifications have resulted in dramatic price increases of border wall construction. A Nov. 10 Senate budget proposal by Republicans included an additional $2 billion for border wall spending, beyond the $15 billion already paid by taxpayers toward the border wall. 

In El Paso, Reyes was initially told the secondary border barrier project had been placed on a “fast track” status.

“When we first started communicating with these people we were told, ‘we have to get this done, we have to get it done rapidly — it’s on a fast track,” he said.

When I asked Reyes if he had an opinion on why they were in such a rush, he laughed. 

“I’m quite sure that’s because there’ll be a change of president on the 20th of January, and the president coming in has already made comments that he won’t tear down the fence, but he’s going to stop any more construction.”

El Paso secondary border barrier construction halted, for now

On Tuesday afternoon, Reyes met with Col. Antoinette Gant of the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the plans for construction along the American Canal Extension. 

“(Gant)’s assured us nothing’s going to be done for the rest of the week, they’re trying to come up with a different plan, moving the fence from where they had planned on building it,” Reyes said. 

In a statement, Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Roger Maier said “CBP will continue to work with (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) and (U.S. International Boundary Water Commission) to coordinate with the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 to ensure that there is continued access to the canal for water supply delivery, operations, and other maintenance activities during and after construction.”

If construction had continued as initially planned, Reyes said he and the water district would have taken legal action to stop it. 

In an interview prior to the Tuesday meeting, Reyes said, “our intentions are if we can’t work anything out, we will have to go to the courts, then we will file a lawsuit and file a restraining order.”

Other local entities also voiced their support of the El Paso County Water Improvement District in this situation, including El Paso Water, the public utility serving the El Paso area.

“Maintenance of the American Canal is crucial to the operation of the Jonathan Rogers plant and our ability to provide a reliable, clean supply of drinking water to our community. While we understand and appreciate the important role of CBP in our community, anything that would impact the needed ongoing maintenance of the canal is a concern to El Paso Water,” said El Paso Water President and CEO John Balliew.

Agency jurisdiction and authority is different in urban areas like El Paso than it is for the largely rural terrain of wall construction elsewhere along the southern border. The rapid reversal in border construction in El Paso in response to agency pressure is unique; similar efforts elsewhere to halt construction amid concerns about flooding and potential harm have been largely unsuccessful, such as in the San Pedro River area in Arizona. 

“With the laws waived, all the usual tools the public and agencies would have to slow things and review what’s happening and make informed decisions based on science — it’s just all out the window,” Misztal said.

Cover photo: On Thanksgiving Day, a dump truck from El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 blocked the path of machinery that was digging a trench for a secondary fence near the American Canal extension. (Photo courtesy of Jesus “Chuy” Reyes)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.