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Government scientists predicted border wall construction could harm wildlife refuge

Government scientists predicted border wall construction could harm wildlife refuge
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Construction of President TrumpDonald TrumpMcCarthy says he told Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene he disagreed with her impeachment articles against Biden Biden, Trudeau agree to meet next month Trump planned to oust acting AG to overturn Georgia election results: report MORE’s border wall moved forward last year even after government scientists said it could harm a nearby wildlife refuge, according to an internal report obtained by The Hill.

The report, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, showed that the construction of the wall would pull water from the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge. 

The wall construction would have pumped water from an offsite Glenn Ranch Well, which the report said would cause water levels of wells at the San Bernardino refuge to be drawn down by as much as 13.7 feet. 

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The report notes that refuge wells “support several endangered species” and raises concerns about potential impacts to the refuge, saying "it is reasonable to assume ... that any ongoing withdrawals will have large impacts on the system as a whole.”

The technical report, put together by two Fish and Wildlife Service hydrologists, seeks to estimate the amount that water levels would be lowered based on varied water pumping speeds and time periods. It noted that discussions with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and refuge leadership “have not identified exact figures for water use.”

The report does not detail the potential impact on specific species, but does note that “there is concern that ... pumps do not have the capacity to pump adequate water to sustain fish if ground water levels were to lower.”

Advocates say the report shows that there could have been harm to species that live at the refuge and that the administration knew of this possibility but continued with work on the wall, a top political priority of the president’s.

“There’s no way in the world that decision-makers working on the border wall didn’t get this information,” said Jacob Malcom, a former biologist at the refuge. “They got it and they were told ‘you are putting at risk of extinction a bunch of species that the U.S. government is responsible for.’ ”

“There had to have been a conscious decision to say ‘to heck with those species,’ ” said Malcom, who now directs the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife. 

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Randy Serraglio, a Southwest conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, specifically singled out four species of fish that the refuge provides critical habitat for: Yaqui catfish, Yaqui chub, Yaqui topminnow and beautiful shiner.

“Those fish in particular are vulnerable because the minute that aquatic habitat dries up, then they’re toast,” Serraglio said.

The federal government considered the Yaqui chub and Yaqui topminnow as endangered and the Yaqui catfish and beautiful shiner as threatened, and has listed habitat loss or destruction as a reason the fish are vulnerable. 

Of the fish, the catfish is the largest, as it's about 15.7 inches long and can appear to be a greyish color with whiskers. The smallest is the 2-inch topminnow, which the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) describes as “guppy-like” and said its breeding males are black with yellow fins. 

Asked about the report and what steps were taken to mitigate the impacts of the construction, Customs and Border Protection and the Fish and Wildlife Service pointed to the installation of higher-capacity pumps to reduce the harm. 

However, FWS spokesperson Beth Ullenberg clarified that these pumps were installed in fall 2020, while CBP spokesperson Matthew Dyman said that the pumping in question began in October 2019, around the same time the report was issued.

“San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge ponds remain intact and the refuge continues to manage for endangered fish and wildlife,” Ullenberg said in an email. 

Critics say these steps didn’t do enough to provide protections after the warnings in the report.

“Short term that may solve the problem but the total storage in the aquifer will still be damaged and given the general characteristics in the region likely for some time due to the pumping,” said Thomas Meixner, a hydrology professor at the University of Arizona, in an email.

And a newer analysis prepared by an FWS statistician this year that was obtained by Defenders of Wildlife shows that offsite pumping was affecting water at the refuge, as the 2019 report predicted. 

The June report that was obtained by the environmental group compares water use at the Glenn Ranch well with weekly pressure readings at a well inside the refuge, called Mitigation well. 

It found that as weekly gallons increase over time at the Glenn Ranch well, pressure at the wildlife refuge well "declines significantly."

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“These analyses provides additional evidence that pumping at Glenn Ranch Well is significantly impacting wells located at San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, leading to immediate and significant loss in pressure at Mitigation Well within a week,” the report concluded.  

“This correlates with why some ponds at the Refuge are void of water, and why it is so difficult to maintain water levels at other ponds that currently have threatened and endangered fish species,” it said. 

Refuge staffers have raised concerns internally in the government about the pumping.

High Country News and other outlets reported on internal emails by refuge manager Bill Radke in which he said “the threat of groundwater depletion” had become a “dire emergency.” 

According to the news outlet, he called water withdrawals “the current greatest threat to endangered species in the southwest region.” 

The High Country News story also said that FWS officials sent the Department of Homeland Security a hydrology analysis to raise concerns and request a wider buffer, though it did not relay details of what the analysis said. 

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The border wall was a centerpiece of President Trump’s 2016 campaign, which he frequently claimed was a national security necessity. 

His administration drew headlines and lawsuits after declaring an emergency to divert congressionally appropriated funding to wall construction. 

They’ve also waived environmental laws that would have impacted construction at various parts of the border, including Cochise County, Ariz., where the San Bernardino refuge is located. And green groups have filed lawsuits challenging the national emergency on environmental grounds. 

“It was all about him getting reelected and it was all about making a big show of building a 30-foot tall wall along the border,” said Serraglio.