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Feds Ignored Warnings of Border Wall Construction Impacts, Emails Show

Newly built border wall near the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge.EXPAND
Newly built border wall near the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge.
Laiken Jordahl

Federal officials ignored warnings about the harmful impacts on the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona from construction of President Donald Trump's border wall, recently revealed internal emails show.

Emails obtained by the environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity through a Freedom of Information Act request reportedly show staff at the refuge — which is located along the U.S.-Mexico border in Cochise County — issuing dire warnings to federal officials about the detrimental effects of border wall construction on local wildlife. Center for Biological Diversity staff shared the emails with New Times.

Last October, Bill Radke, the long-time manager of the refuge, wrote in an email to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffer that the ongoing border wall construction is "hitting San Bernardino NWR [National Wildlife Reserve] in a major negative way," and that the Department of Homeland Security had been informed on "multiple occasions" about how the groundwater removal will negatively impact the refuge wells and wetlands. In that same email, Radke described the threat of "ground water depletion" at the refuge due to the construction as a "dire emergency."

Radke also indicated in another email sent that month that requests to minimize the construction's impacts on the refuge were ignored. He wrote that the DHS and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "did not abide" by a recent request from Fish and Wildlife Service staff to "minimize water withdrawal from the aquifer that supports all wetlands on San Bernardino NWR [National Wildlife Refuge]." Contractors are "continuing to pump high volumes of water" and they "did not heed" a recommendation to drill farther away from the refuge, he wrote.

Radke also provided a window into how much groundwater construction crews are pumping up to erect the border wall. In an email sent in late August to a Fish and Wildlife Service staffer, Radke wrote that DHS and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently told them that the project was expected to use "700,000 gallons of water per day" for the duration of construction.

"If you do the math, every well in the valley will suffer," he added grimly.

Months later, other emails appear to showcase the environmental fallout from the border wall construction. In December, Radke wrote that refuge staff were enacting plans to protect endangered fish that live in the refuge's freshwater ponds from being impacted by border wall construction. (The refuge's freshwater ponds are home to endangered species, including Yaqui River fish.) He wrote that refugee staff "salvaged fish" and allowed "three refuge ponds to go dry."

"We are developing/implementing contingency plans to protect at least a subset of the endangered fish population that once thrived on the refuge," Radke wrote. "We are hoping for the best, but are planning for the worst."

A few weeks later, Radke issued another dire warning, describing the "ongoing water withdrawal" from the border wall construction as the "greatest threat to endangered species in the southwest region." He was having the water levels monitored on a weekly basis to "document the ongoing damage to our aquifer" and to try to determine the "point at which such damage is essentially permanent."

U.S.Customs and Border Protection did not respond to New Times' request for comment.

"These documents confirm that all of our greatest fears about water extraction for the border wall are coming true. It is a worst-case scenario," said  Laiken Jordahl, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Water extraction is destroying the refuge and directly endangering the species that live there."

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"It’s essentially a paper trail, a record of land managers at the refuge doing everything in their power to protect the refuge but being steamrolled by DHS, being steamrolled by the Trump administration," he added. "They did everything to sound the alarm and it’s heartbreaking that their concerns weren’t listened to."

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report that was unearthed by Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington D.C.-based environmentalist group, appears to substantiate Radke's account of water levels decreasing at the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge. Using data collected between November 2019 and June 2020 from a well near the refuge that draw's from the area's aquifer, the analysis found that pumping is "significantly impacting wells located at San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge."

"This correlates with why some ponds at the Refuge are void of water, and why it is so difficult to maintain water
levels at other ponds that currently have threatened and endangered fish species," the report states.

The Trump administration has been widely criticized for the ongoing impacts of the border wall construction in southern Arizona. Activists have reported strikingly low water levels at Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (which they attribute to adjacent border wall construction) while representatives of the Tohono O'odham Nation have testified before Congress that the project was destroying tribal cultural sites.

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