DONNA, Texas (Border Report) — A wide swath of land in South Texas has been cleared and the side of an earthen levee excavated to make way for new border wall construction that is beginning south of the town of Donna, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials told Border Report on Thursday.

“On September 30th, 2019 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began clearing and grading the project area for new levee border wall system located in the vicinity of the Donna Port of Entry in Hidalgo County, Texas. This project includes the construction of approximately 13 miles of new levee wall system along the existing U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) earthen levee. The levee wall system will be very similar to levee wall constructed in the RGV area in 2008, but the system will also include all-weather roads, lighting, enforcement cameras, and other related technology,” CBP said in a statement to Border Report.

This is the second land-clearing project to be undertaken in South Texas. In July, Border Report spotted gaping area of cleared lands carved from lush forest and brush near Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park, south of Palmview, Texas.

YouTube video by Texas Monthly

The 13 miles of new border wall, to be built atop a levee operated by the IBWC, are part of 65 miles of new wall to be built in the Rio Grande Valley. On Sept. 29, CBP awarded contracts for the new wall totaling at least $386 million, and up to $813 million, according to a CBP news release.

The new border wall, referred to by CBP as the Border Infrastructure System, will include up to a 30-foot tall steel bollard border wall located atop a concrete base, as well as all-weather roads, special floodlights and cameras and underground sensor technology.

This rural, isolated agricultural area where the border wall construction is beginning is where CBP officials say drug-runners often cross and where migrant apprehensions are some of the highest in the nation.

Stakes marked “wall” have been visibly planted near the existing 18-foot steel-bollard style wall in South Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The RGV Border Patrol Sector is the busiest in the United States for apprehensions — accounting for about 40 percent of all migrant apprehensions — and ranks No. 1 for seized cocaine and marijuana along the Southwest border, CBP said.

“The majority of its activity is occurring in areas where RGV has limited infrastructure, access and mobility, and technology,” the news release said.

Stakes marked “wall” have been visibly planted near the existing 18-foot steel-bollard style wall, which was built as part of the 2006 Secure Fence Act. CBP officials have said that the structure could be up to 30-feet-tall, but it is uncertain which points will be that tall, or whether the new wall will be built at the same level with the existing wall.

This area is adjacent to the southern tract of the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area and is near where the Rio Grande takes a sharp turn northward. It is also less than a mile from the Rio Grande and across from La Playita Rio Bravo, which is a popular swimming and recreational area just west of Reynosa in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

The Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area in South Texas preserves of 3,311 acres of brush nesting habitat, some farmland and wetlands for white-winged doves. This particular tract of refuge land sits north of the levee. The existing wall is located south of the refuge, on the IBWC levee.

A new section of border wall is being built adjacent to the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area wildlife refuge, as seen here on Oct. 10, 2019. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report).

The land that is being cleared is not part of the refuge, but is on private lands.

Much of wildlife lives north of the existing wall, but a new wall could make it difficult for land creatures to crawl through to get to the Rio Grande, which could be their only water source, said Jim Chapman, who is vice president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the nearby Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge and Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

“In terms of the effects on wildlife the worst cases are the cases where the wall bisects the refuge, so wildlife on the south side can’t get north and wildlife on the north side can’t get south. So for the wildlife that’s on the north side of the river they would be cut off from their only source of water,” Chapman said. “The biggest impact there is there can be no movement to and from the river and that’s why the corridor in the river is so important because in periods of drought that’s where water is for wildlife.”

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration in 2018 to challenge border wall construction in Hidalgo and Cameron counties, but on Sept. 4, U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson dismissed the lawsuit brought about by officials with the Center for Biological Diversity, Southwest Environmental Center, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The new wall south of Donna is being built in the congressional district of U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela Jr., D-Texas, who is an ardent opponent to the border wall. When reached by Border Report on Thursday, Vela said: “This is no surprise. I voted against it (the wall).”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer last month tried to seek a second vote on the national security emergency that President Trump declared in February to enable the administration to divert money approved for the Pentagon to the border wall. Congress voted earlier this year to overturn the emergency declaration but fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override Trump’s veto.

CBP has said that the project in South Texas is part of CBP appropriations, but is not part of the President Trump’s emergency declaration.

“I’ve been infuriated by all this since the beginning,” Vela said via phone from London, where he is attending the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. “I kept telling people in Congress they were appropriating money for land that didn’t need fencing. They were buying into the argument that it is needed for security.”

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