Border wall can’t be built in flood plain, South Texas rancher says

Dob Cunningham opens a manila folder full of photographs taken on his Maverick County ranch, which features mesquite bushes and prickly pear cactuses on 100-foot hills overlooking the Rio Grande.

The pictures, taken at night by motion-activated cameras installed to keep track of deer and other game on more than 600 acres north of Eagle Pass, show grainy images of men crossing into the United States from Mexico. Some are carrying military-size backpacks stuffed with marijuana. Some of the smugglers were caught and the pot seized by Border Patrol or state troopers, he says, but most of them got away.

“See the backpacks with dope?” Cunningham, 83, a retired port of entry director and Border Patrol agent, asks visitors excitedly as he spreads the photos out on a wood kitchen table inside his modest ranch house.

Other snapshots show men carrying nothing but water bottles.

“Some of them are just what I call brush walkers. They’re just going north and looking for a better way of life,” he said. “These guys here don’t bother me.”

If anyone would seem a likely candidate to support President Trump’s proposed border wall, it might be Cunningham, who has lived on the ranch since 1949 and long ago lost count of the number of smugglers he has seen trespassing during that time.

But Cunningham is against the wall.

Although Cunningham supports Trump on many political issues — including some immigration stances — he sympathizes with undocumented immigrants. But his opposition to the wall isn’t based on issues of morality.

Instead, he said, it’s based on logic, common sense and a desire to protect thousands of acres of private property on the United States’ southern boundary.

Flood-prone territory

Cunningham’s ranch in the tiny city of Quemado, about 15 miles north of Eagle Pass, is deceivingly dry. The landscape is thick with desert-friendly plants but few grasses suitable for grazing.

Most of the ranch, which is mainly used for hunting, actually lies within a flood plain, he said. Every few years, this region of South Texas gets so much rain that the river, which is normally about 100 feet wide, floods almost all the way to Cunningham’s ranch a quarter-mile away. Sometimes the water covers the terrain for weeks at a time, before it recedes back to the Rio Grande.

Short of building a concrete dam several miles long, Cunningham doesn’t believe the federal government can commission a wall that will withstand the pressure of that much water along his property line. During those massive floods, such a wall would just wash away, he believes.

To avoid that problem, the feds could simply build the wall outside the flood plain. But that would require the government to take most of Cunningham’s ranch, not to mention property from farming and ranching neighbors. Such a solution would drive up the cost of property acquisition, and would place hundreds of acres of South Texas property on the Mexican side of the wall.

Also, the U.S. and Mexico have entered into a series of treaties and other agreements dating to the 1930s that prohibit one side from building anything that could increase flood risks, said Stephen Mumme, a political science professor at Colorado State University who specializes in border water management issues.

When the federal government under President George W. Bush built 700 miles of border fence in mostly urban areas beginning in 2006, they were mostly constructed on levees to avoid changing floodwater patterns, Mumme said.

There is “no question” that federal law gives President Trump the authority to build a border wall, but if it changes flood patterns, Mexico could file a lawsuit alleging the wall violates one of the many treaties, Mumme said.

If a border wall is built in a flood plain, the treaties call for Mexico to be involved in the design, he said.

“They have to agree on the physics and engineering, and that the river flow would not alter the international boundary,” Mumme said. “There has to be an agreement the boundary will not be affected. It takes two to tango.”

The U.S. State Department traditionally has avoided going to court with Mexico over border flood disputes, he said.

Alternatives to the wall

Cunningham, who lives on the ranch with his wife, Kay, and makes daily trips to the border in one of his off-road vehicles, is a proponent of cracking down on illegal immigration. He just thinks the proposed wall would be a tremendous waste of money that could otherwise be spent on more efficient border improvements.

“An electronic wall is so much cheaper and effective,” Cunningham said. A couple of years ago, a man with university grant funding visited his property for about a week and used a simple drone with camera mountings — not unlike the remote control vehicles sold at hobby stores — to patrol the Rio Grande along his property line. The researcher went up and down the border in Maverick County and was able to quickly spot immigrants trying to cross, making it possible for authorities to stop them before they got away.

“For a week, he shut the border, and I mean he shut it down,” Cunningham said. “Nobody got across illegally while he was out here flying that drone, which was like a toy plane with a camera.”

The FAA, which at the time was writing rules to crack down on drone use for commercial purposes, stepped in and stopped the research, Cunningham said, and the man hasn’t been back.

But Cunningham said he doesn’t see why the Border Patrol can’t deploy a robotic armada of drones with cameras up and down the river, and all but shut down illegal immigration for a fraction of the cost of a wall.

“Compared to what the wall is going to cost, it would be a drop in the ocean,” he said.

Tony Payan, director of Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute, agrees with Cunningham’s assertion that technology can be successfully deployed along the border.

Payan, who is considered a national expert on border security, said the border doesn’t need any more walls beyond the metal fences that were erected as part of the Secure Fence Act passed by Congress in 2006.

That law, which was supported by then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, led to the installation of metal fencing in urban areas such as El Paso, Del Rio and Laredo where illegal pedestrian crossings had been a problem.

“There is sufficient walling in urban areas such as El Paso and in South Texas. No more is really needed,” Payan said in an email. “Those who live in Kansas may think it is good. But just about everyone who lives on the border knows that this is much more damaging to their land, the environment, and the binational relationship than Washington, D.C., thinks.”

Sheriff chimes in

Sheriff Tom Schmerber is a fifth-generation Texan with portraits of German ancestors hanging on his wall at the Maverick County Jail in Eagle Pass. He also is somewhat dark-skinned, and speaks with a thick Spanish accent — a living example of the blended cultures on the border.

He was a Border Patrol agent until about nine years ago, when he retired and began a second career in elected office.

Like Cunningham, he said he believes common sense dictates that technology can be used. Combined with a smarter deployment of the Border Patrol’s ranks, electronics can go a long way toward making the border safe without spending tens of billions of dollars on a wall that immigrants will eventually find a way around.

“Over in states like California, there’s no river. It’s just land, and there are places where you can’t tell the difference between Mexico and the United States. Maybe there you need a wall,” the sheriff said. “But here, we have a river that divides both countries.”

“If they were to build a wall, we would have no access to the river anyway. Both sides would belong to Mexico. Ranchers would have no access to the river for their horses and cattle to drink, or even for fishing,” he said. “Ranchers won’t be able to take their livestock to the river. It’s essential for them.”

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson