How the Trump border wall sapped a desert oasis dry
Amidst the towering saguaro and pronged organ pipe cacti of southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, a 30-foot-tall fence snakes through the vegetation, shadowed by a barren strip of land that’s been carved into the mountainsides. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a flurry of activity in these borderlands, particularly in the area’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. In the last months of the Trump administration, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) construction crew has been dynamiting and drilling their way through nature refuges and cultural relics to make room for the new border wall. A 30-mile-long spine of steel poles filled with concrete now chokes the monument’s southern edge. Mixing the raw materials for this structure requires a lot of water—some 84,000
The 452 miles of border wall planned in sections of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas have already required more than 971,000 tons of concrete, according to CBP. (About 10 percent of that called for new construction; the rest replaced existing structures.) The demand for water, alongside historic droughts in the West, has had a colossal impact on the surrounding ecology of largely public and tribal lands across the Southwest, which scientists and Indigenous communities fear may take years, if not decades, to reverse.
Near Quitobaquito Springs, located in Organ Pipe, only 600 feet from the border, locals have documented CBP diverting water from the same aquifer that feeds the springs. “Contractors have pumped tens of millions of gallons from a deep aquifer that has what hydrologists call ‘fossil water,’” explains Randy Serraglio, who monitors endangered species and their habitats for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation nonprofit. “It’s water that was laid down thousands of years ago. The aquifer is not easily replenished by the scant rainfall we get now, so the damage is essentially permanent.” Once around 2 feet deep and covering up to half an acre, hydrologists and ecologists estimate the pond at Quitobaquito dropped 15 inches during the summer of 2020, and the spring’s flow reached an historic low of 5.5 gallons per minute this past July.
The ecological impacts may be severe. The Quitobaquito pupfish and Sonoyta mud turtle, both classified as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), reside in the spring and nowhere else in the country.