Stark warnings by federal scientists and wildlife experts about the grave threat posed by Donald Trump’s border wall to rare and endangered species were repeatedly ignored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), according to documents seen by the Guardian.
A cache of emails obtained using the Freedom of Information Act (Foia) by environmental groups reveal multiple efforts over several months by experts at the San Bernardino national wildlife refuge in south-eastern Arizona, to save rare desert springs and crystalline streams which provide the only US habitat for the endangered endemic Río Yaqui fish.
Even before Trump’s water-guzzling concrete barrier, the border region’s water reserves were depleted due to prolonged drought linked to the climate crisis. The expansion of water-intensive cash crops and urban growth have also drained aquifers in the arid region, leaving several endangered and threatened species wholly reliant on the freshwater ponds found in the refuge.
In an email sent last October, the long-serving refuge manager, Bill Radke, warned colleagues at the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that the threat of groundwater depletion was a “dire emergency”.
It was around the same time that DHS contractors began pumping massive quantities of water from the aquifer relied upon by the refuge to mix concrete for construction of a 20-mile stretch of Trump’s 30ft-high border wall.
A few weeks later in early December, Radke described the water usage for the border wall as “the current greatest threat to endangered species in the south-west region” – referring to the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.
According to the emails, refuge staff began monitoring the impact and felt forced to take “life support actions”, allowing three ponds to dry up in an effort to save some of the fish. “We are monitoring pond levels. We are developing/implementing contingency plans to protect at least a subset of the endangered fish population that once thrived on the refuge. We are hoping for the best, but are planning for the worst,” wrote Radke.
The documents suggest as much as 700,000 gallons of groundwater was being extracted per day to construct the barrier, and DHS officials ignored direct requests from the FWS to avoid drilling wells in a five-mile buffer around the refuge. “Instead contractors made plans to drill even closer to the refuge, drilling their second new well 480 feet east of [the refuge],” Radke wrote.
The DHS was warned that wall construction would drain artesian pools and kill wildlife … The DHS knew it and did it anyway
The multibillion-dollar border wall project has avoided proper environmental, scientific and cost oversight as the government suspended 28 federal laws relating to clean air and water, endangered species, public lands and the rights of Native Americans, in order to expedite construction despite multiple legal challenges.
“The DHS was warned that wall construction would drain artesian pools and kill wildlife, including endangered species. The DHS knew it and did it anyway. None of this would be legal if the environmental laws were still in place,” said Laiken Jordahl, the borderlands campaigner at the not-for-profit Center for Biological Diversity which obtained the emails.
“These documents make it very clear: the survival or extinction of these endangered desert fish is entirely in this administration’s hands.”
An FWS spokeswoman said larger pumps were now required to maintain pond levels and appropriate pond outflows due to a drop in pressure in the aquifer. “The border wall construction contractor has purchased and is currently installing the needed higher capacity pumps,” she said.
But, pumping water is only a temporary solution and the pumps are already too late for at least three ponds. A document obtained by Defenders of Wildlife, suggests water extraction was still having a detrimental impact to the refuge as late as May 2020.
The endangered and protected species under threat from the lowered water levels include the Yaqui catfish, beautiful shiner, Yaqui chub, Yaqui topminnow, Chiricahua leopard frog and Mexican garter snake.
The DHS insists that it continues to operate under the spirit of the National Environmental Policy Act (Nepa), considered the cornerstone of environmental protection in the US, and takes into account public and expert comments.
A Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesman told High Country News that “DHS and CBP have and continue to coordinate weekly, and more frequently on an as needed basis, to answer questions concerning new border wall construction projects and to address environmental concerns from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.”