The “Lamborghini” of border walls is in danger of falling into the river if nothing is done, experts say
JEREMY SCHWARTZ – PERLA TREVIZO
JULY 3, 2020
Tommy Fisher billed his new privately funded border wall as the future of deterrence, a quick-to-build steel fortress that spans 3 miles in one of the busiest Border Patrol sectors.
Unlike a generation of wall builders before him, he said he figured out how to build a structure directly on the banks of the Rio Grande, a risky but potentially game-changing step when it came to the nation’s border wall system.
Fisher has leveraged his self-described “Lamborghini” of walls to win more than $1.7 billion worth of federal contracts in Arizona.
But his showcase piece is showing signs of runoff erosion and, if it’s not fixed, could be in danger of falling into the Rio Grande, according to engineers and hydrologists who reviewed photos of the wall for ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. It never should have been built so close to the river, they say.
Just months after going up, they said, photos reveal a series of gashes and gullies at various points along the structure where rainwater runoff has scoured the sandy loam beneath the foundation.
“When the river rises, it will likely attack those areas where the foundation is exposed, further weakening support of the fence and potentially causing portions … to fall into the Rio Grande,” said Alex Mayer, a civil engineer professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has done research in the Rio Grande basin.
Fisher dismissed the concerns. A company attorney, Mark Courtois, called the erosion “a normal part of new construction projects like this and does not in any way compromise the fence or associated roadway.” The company will seek to build drainage ditches to lessen the deterioration, he added. Neither Courtois nor Fisher responded to additional questions made through Courtois’ office.
The Mission private wall project, Fisher’s second following a similar undertaking outside El Paso, is a little known but crucial part of the effort to help President Donald Trump meet his campaign promise to build 450 miles of “big, beautiful wall” by the end of 2020. For the administration, Texas remains the biggest challenge. That’s because the Rio Grande has served as a natural divider, and, unlike other states, most land abutting it is privately owned.
Fisher’s New Mexico and South Texas private fence projects have gone up with financial and political help from We Build the Wall, an influential conservative nonprofit that counts former Trump political strategist Steve Bannon as a board member. The group says it has raised $25 million toward the private wall effort and claims to have agreements with landowners on 250 miles of riverfront property in Texas.
Fisher’s success and the $1.3 billion contract in Arizona he won in May — the largest border wall contract ever awarded — came despite repeated questions about his qualifications and work. Army Corps of Engineers officials have said the firm won because it submitted the lowest bid.
Last December, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., called for the Pentagon’s inspector general to review Fisher’s first $400 million fence contract, awarded in December over concerns of “inappropriate influence.” The audit is ongoing.
Victor Manjarrez, associate director for University of Texas at El Paso’s Center for Law and Human Behavior, said he would never have built along the river’s edge.
“That is nuts,” said Manjarrez, a former El Paso sector chief for the Border Patrol, who spent years working along the Rio Grande. “You’re going to get all the hydrology problems and not even from a flood, just normal ebb and flow. … If I was the sector chief and built something like that, I’d be in so much trouble.”
Located on the southernmost tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley’s unique terrain has challenged wall builders for nearly two decades. The topography of the Valley includes a wide floodplain that has forced the government to construct barriers inland, on top of a levee system. That has left swaths of farmland, cemeteries and even homes in a kind of no man’s land south of the fence, which has been built in fits and starts.
Though tamed by a series of irrigation and flood control dams, the Rio Grande floods periodically, and sometimes catastrophically. In 2010, Hurricane Alex caused widespread damage along the banks of the river, including at the National Butterfly Center, just upriver from Fisher’s fence.
“People don’t appreciate the power of the Rio Grande when it does indeed wake up,” said Jude Benavides, who specializes in floodplain mapping in the Lower Rio Grande Valley at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “It changes the landscape.”
Fisher has said his wall — about a mile south of where the government is already building its version — will finally bring “border security to the border” through a design that erases the flooding and erosion concerns that had scuttled earlier plans and vastly speeds up construction time.
It would be the first wall system that wouldn’t cause flooding or deflect water, We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage claimed in a tweet. “The best engineers in the world designed this for floods, not government employees.”
Fisher’s system uses excavators to hang bollard sections, and without having to obtain myriad permits and approvals, he built it in just a matter of weeks, in stark contrast to government projects that take months or years to complete.
When the government builds border fencing, it must meet a long list of requirements, including public meetings and stewardship plans, though critics say the process is fairly toothless since the Department of Homeland Security has waived many environmental requirements.
Fisher doesn’t have to meet even those scaled down requirements.
Government builders have also been slowed by eminent domain battles with landowners reluctant to sell. Fisher said his riverside building plan is more attractive to those hoping to avoid a fence bisecting their land and leaving acres behind a fence.
Fisher’s strategy was years in the making. Soon after the 2016 election, he became a frequent guest on Fox News, where he caught the attention of Trump. Last year, The Washington Post reported that the president “latch(ed) on” to Fisher’s claims of speed and quality and “aggressively pushed” for the firm in conversations with top Homeland Security officials.
But Fisher’s border wall business got off to a rocky start, despite paying a lobbying firm tens of thousands of dollars to push for contracts. In 2017, the firm, founded in 1952 and best known for large highway projects, had its wall prototype rejected by the Department of Homeland Security. It later attempted to join an elite group of preapproved border wall bidders, but it was again turned down by the Army Corps of Engineers, which said it failed to meet its requirements or obtain the necessary regulatory approvals.
In response, Fisher sued the department and was added to the list of preapproved bidders thanks to White House pressure, administration officials told the Post last year.
Fisher was also aided by a close relationship with freshman U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who advocated for the company with Trump and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Fisher and family members donated at least $24,000 during Cramer’s victorious 2018 bid, according to campaign finance records. Cramer’s spokesperson did not return emails for comment.
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