How the Trump border wall sapped a desert oasis dry

Published on 1/6/2021 1:44:40 PM

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

a tree with a mountain in the desert: A newly built section of the US-Mexico border wall lines the entire southern edge of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, where a crucial spring system was drawn up for construction.

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.

a person standing on a dirt track: In 2019 wall contractors began relocating saguaro cacti out of the construction zone on the behest of the Department of Homeland Security.

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.

a body of water surrounded by trees: Quitobaquito Springs is a small but deep network that naturally replenishes a pond at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It's also a religious site for the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Serraglio contends that we don’t yet know the full damage of tapping natural wells and drilling new ones. “The situations at San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in far Southeast Arizona and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southwest Arizona are probably the most egregious, but there are others,” he adds.

Both Serraglio and Misztal agree the incoming Biden administration needs to take immediate action to survey the damage that’s been done, and prioritize restoration to reverse the damage caused by wall construction. Andrews is co-authoring a letter requesting immediate action.  “Joe Biden can stop the construction on Day One, and he must do that,” Serraglio says. “Every day that he waits, this tragedy will continue to unfold in the borderland.”

Biden told reporters last August he would not build “another foot” of border wall, but has yet to address the damage already done. Whatever his plans, Andrews emphasizes the importance of consulting with the O’odham people in how to remedy the destruction. The Trump administration has already secured more construction contracts, largely in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

One way to bring back the ecological and hydrological balance of the borderlands would be to restore the San Pedro River to its original free-flowing state, Misztal says. But in terms of replenishing the springs, she doesn’t know if there’s an easy fix. “Some resources will be changed forever,” she says. “At Quitobaquito, the groundwater is extremely old, and the next 10 years of rain aren’t going to be enough to restore it.” And, although she adds that nature is resilient, the future of the desert and its water is less certain.

 

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