Levee system’s integrity questioned as crews begin fixing more prominent breaches in South Texas

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PALMVIEW, Texas (Border Report) — As federally-authorized construction crews toiled away Thursday to repair four giant breaches in the earthen levees caused by border wall construction in South Texas, concerns surfaced about how secure from flooding the entire border levee system is since construction has been done at “numerous locations.”

Hidalgo County officials scored a huge victory on Friday when the Department of Homeland Security announced it would start repairing four giant breaches in the border levee that were caused during border wall construction that had gone unchecked since the Biden administration halted construction.

The announcement came after Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said he was sending in work crews with or without federal permission because he feared for the safety of residents and businesses as the start of hurricane season on June 1 quickly approaches and this flood-prone low-lying delta region remained vulnerable.

A giant cut in the 25-foot-tall earthen levee is seen being repaired on May 6, 2021. The breach was made during border wall construction during the Trump administration. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

But questions remain about the other sections of the border levee where work crews cut through and started projects, and what the timeline is for fixing all cuts. What remains unclear is how secure and safe adjacent lands are from flooding.

These are concerns that have come up this past week during several federal eminent domain cases heard before U.S. District Judge Randy Crane of the Southern District of Texas in McAllen.

There are over 100 border wall land acquisition cases that were filed by the federal government during the Trump administration that are still making their way through the court system. And just because President Joe Biden halted construction of the border wall when he took office, does not mean that all of the cases will be settled, or the land will be returned, a federal prosecutor indicated Thursday.

Piles of metal border wall bollards are stacked in an open-air stockyard in Mission, Texas, as seen on May 6, 2021. It is unclear what the Biden administration will do with border wall plans devised during the Trump administration. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

This became obviously clear to border landowners in the Rio Grande Valley last month when a well-known family was ordered by a federal judge in McAllen to surrender 6.5 acres of riverfront land to the federal government for border-related security.

That wasn’t Crane’s case, but on any given day he has several eminent domain cases on his docket, along with drug smuggling, human trafficking and other criminal cases.

This week during various borderland cases he has repeatedly pressed federal prosecutors for more information on exactly where and when construction repairs to the levee system in Hidalgo County would be made.

This could also shed more light on the federal government’s plans regarding the border wall moving forward, especially in South Texas where large gaps in between sections remain.

“What can you tell me about these particular gaps and these particular problems and how they’re being resolved?” Crane asked Assistant U.S. Attorney John A. Smith III during a Thursday morning eminent domain case that was heard via Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Smith responded that there are some timelines in the works but nothing is approved.

He said just prior to the hearing he had been on a conference call with four agencies involved in decision-making regarding the border wall. These agencies included: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Border Patrol, the Land Acquisition Section of the Department of Justice, and the White House.

Smith described it as “running traps” between the various agencies. “I just got out of a meeting with all four agencies involved and we discussed this and everybody knows the urgency,” he said. “But I need time for them to review it.”

Crane reset the case for Friday afternoon.

But that was after defense lawyer Nick Laurent, of Austin, said: “What has been helpful is having some urgency and these hearings looming, I believed have helped to move the government along and to keep that pressure — not a negative pressure — but a helpful pressure.”

On Monday, Crane even indicated that he might order fixes to start later this week on the levee breaches if he didn’t receive sufficient information, according to an article in the Progress Times.

The order wasn’t necessary, however, because the next day as Judge Cortez and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, toured the region via helicopter they spotted work being done at two of the four giant breaches in the rural town of Palmview, Texas.

But there are many other spots along the miles of border in South Texas where crews have partially completed border wall sections that raise serious concerns.

Construction crews work on a section of earthen border wall in Mission, Texas, on May 6, 2021, where border wall construction had been halted near a popular RG park. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

And what Laurent calls “helpful pressure,” apparently got to Smith earlier this week.

On Thursday, Smith admitted he had lost his cool during a Wednesday morning land acquisition hearing when was again hammered on the issue. He apologized in Crane’s court on Thursday for what he called a “spirited debate,” with Laurent.

“I owe him an apology. My grumpy old man came out probably more than it should have yesterday,” Smith said.

And although still scant on details, Smith during Wednesday’s hearing divulged how the government is now categorizing the land condemnation lawsuits. According to an article in the Progress Times, the categories are:

  • Cases where the federal government had started building the border wall on parts of the levee in Hidalgo County.
  • Cases with earthen levees adjacent to land where the government built concrete-reinforced levees as part of the border barrier system.
  • Eminent domain cases where construction never began.

Smith said that in some cases land might not be returned in order for the government to build access roads for Border Patrol agents to better traverse the region, even if there is no border wall.

Structural engineers still must evaluate and determine whether the sections where just dirt levee remains are sufficient for flood control.

Crews are seen on Thursday, May 6, 2021, working on a section of border wall where the concrete barrier was built in Mission, Texas. Whether the bollards will be placed atop is uncertain. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Biden halted construction and told media he would not build another foot of wall.

During a speech on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., before the Conference on the Americas, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas touted the need for “smart border management.” And he said that involves “international partnerships,” “rather than viewing borders solely as the lines that mark national boundaries and that divide us from one another.”

The above photos were taken on May 6, 2021, two days into construction crews working to repair a giant breach in the border levee in Palmview, Texas. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez)

In Palmview on Thursday afternoon, heavy earthmovers worked to fill in a road-sized gap in a section of the levee where no concrete or bollards were built but the area had been cut in order to drive equipment to the south side of the levee for construction.

Cortez said filling in the dirt should take two weeks, but trickier areas where parts of the levee were shaved or abutt to existing concrete and border wall will require several months, possibly up to five, to repair.

A National Guard soldier remained position atop a breach in the levee to keep onlookers safely back, while 18-wheeler trucks full of dirt and rocks came in and out of the site.

From the horizon, another breach can be seen about a mile to the east where a section of the border wall was built. Panels of border wall remain on the ground. And a few miles up the road a well-known open-air storage area for the rusting metal bollards is filled with border wall materials.

What will become of it all remains uncertain.

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