Environment and Security Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

I wrote this for the New Security Beat blog of The Environmental Change and Security Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began the construction of a massive earthen, concrete, and metal security barrier along much of the U.S.-Mexico border, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Framing it as an issue of national security, DHS used provisions in the Real ID Act to waive environmental laws and citizen review for the controversial infrastructure project.

Smuggler's Gulch on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Unfortunately in Imperial Beach, California – my corner of the U.S.-Mexico border – the poorly engineered barrier has caused serious environmental mishaps and damage. In 2009 the Voice of San Diego reported that DHS circumvented numerous local and state laws in the course the barrier’s construction:

Were it anyone else’s project, state regulators would’ve required irrigation to ensure that plants grew. But the federal government is responsible for the $59 million effort to complete and reinforce 3.5 miles of border fence separating San Diego and Tijuana. The Department of Homeland Security exempted itself from eight federal laws and any related state laws that would have regulated the project’s environmental impacts.

The Voice goes on to report that state water regulators also have no jurisdiction over the project since it has been exempted from the federal Clean Water Act.

“They did better engineering in 8th century China,” said Joe Sharkey of The New York Times, whom I took on a tour of the border, about the massive amphitheater of dirt that DHS dumped in Smuggler’s Gulch a few miles from the Pacific.


The beach on the Pacific Ocean at the U.S.-Mex...

Image via Wikipedia

Ironically, while DHS has focused its efforts on the massive earthen and concrete wall, the ag

A small fence separates densely populated Tiju...

Image via Wikipedia

ency has virtually ignored the tidal wave of polluted sewage water and garbage that flows across this section of the U.S.-Mexico border, a problem that makes the very people charged with safeguarding our security – border patrol agents and even Navy Seals – often unable to carry out their mission.

Over the past 20 years, border patrol agents have become ill from contact with the region’s polluted rivers, as well as the Pacific Ocean. In the Calexico-Mexicali region, border patrol agents worked directly with the Calexico New River Committee to clean up the New River – a drainage canal turned toxic hot spot.

Navy Seals based in Coronado, California, about 10 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, train in an area of the ocean that is directly impacted by polluted water flowing across the border from Mexico, bypassing the vaunted concrete and metal border barrier.

The organization I run, WiLDCOAST, is now working with U.S. agencies such as the International Boundary and Water Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency along with agencies in Mexico (e.g., CONANGUA and the state of Baja California) to reduce the threats to our military personnel and federal employees as well as border residents from cross-boundary pollution.

This cooperation has required a significant investment on the part of both the Mexican and U.S. governments in developing real solutions to our environmental security crisis on the border. Unfortunately the massive Berlin Wall-style barrier on our southern border is of little assistance in this effort.

Solving complex transboundary issues sometimes requires ignoring the cacophony of politics from distant capitals and instead working on the ground with colleagues from both nations who are experts in their shared geography. It appears the Obama administration is now slowly trying to repair some of the damage done to local communities, the cross-boundary relationship with Mexico, and our fragile shared environment.

But much more work and investment is needed to safeguard those we entrust to protect our security along the borderlands, as well as the residents of the region, from pollution that ignores international divisions and concrete walls. We must remember not only the national security component of our border-strengthening efforts but also the effect on human and environmental security as well.

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