Arizona wildlife refuge ‘on a ventilator’ due to border wall construction, activist says

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SAN BERNARDINO NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Arizona (Border Report) — The artesian water that has for centuries flowed under this arid and desolate area part of southeastern Arizona is dwindling and changing as it is being taken and used for border wall construction, and environmentalists say that is threatening several endangered species that live in ancient “thermal ponds.”

Some of these thermal ponds are 30,000 years old and can be as warm as 80 degrees. They were formed when volcanoes and lava flows dominated this region, ecologist Myles Traphagen of the Wildlands Network said as he recently gave Border Report a tour of the area. This also is the headwaters to the Yaqui River, where many of these species live, and where others come for a source of water source after trekking thousands of feet over the Peloncillo Mountains.

This is the first time Border Report has been back to the refuge since documenting last November the first panels of border wall going up. Since then, the Trump administration has built over 19 miles through this wildlife restoration area that is framed by the majestic Peloncillo Mountains and where two deserts converge.

Four endangered species of fish found in the waters of the Yaqui River in southeastern Arizona. (Courtesy Photo)

Traphagen says border wall construction is significantly hurting water resources for four endangered species that live here: The 2-inch-long Yaqui topminnow; the 7-inch-long Yaqui chub, with its short and rounded snout; the bluish metallic 3-inch-long beautiful shiner fish, and the Yaqui catfish, the only native catfish that lives west of the Continental Divide and can grow to 2 feet.

“When they started pumping the groundwater west of here, the artesian flow ceased to exist at San Bernardino,” said Traphagen, who is the Borderlands Program coordinator for the Tucson-based nonprofit Wildlands Network.

As ponds begin to dry up, low water levels can change the pH, ammonia and nitrate levels and can increase salinity, which can kill the fish. In order to save the fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been transferring the endangered species from dwindling ponds into the ponds that have higher levels of water. And border wall contractors hired by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have installed solar-powered wells to maintain the flow in the ponds.

Myles Traphagen is an ecologist who runs the Borderlands Campaign for the nonprofit Wildlands Network. He is seen on Oct. 19, 2020, at San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Arizona, where 19 new miles of border wall were built and can be seen behind him. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“If they didn’t have those, the flow would just stop and the ponds would just dry up. So in essence the refuge is on a ventilator now,” Traphagen said. “But we don’t know how long this will last because this is fossil ground water. We don’t know how much there is.”

Finding water here is like locating a needle in a haystack, Traphagen said. And so when border wall contractors in November began building many here were hopeful that they would not be able to locate an underground water source. But to their dismay, the contractors struck water and began pumping it out to make concrete, which makes up several feet of the underground base of the 30-foot-tall metal bollard walls.

Border wall construction crews can be seen working on Oct. 19, 2020, at the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in rural southeastern Arizona. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/San_Bernardino/what_we_do/partnerships.html

The main concern, now, however after a year of building is how much water is left in this area.

In August, the nonprofit organization Defenders of Wildlife released a report showing a decrease in the water table near San Bernardino and shows “just how critical the water level situation is in San Bernardino refuge and how the border wall is driving species closer to extinction,” the group’s director Jacob Malcom said. The report was written by an employee with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is the federal agency that manages the wildlife refuge.

Wildlife are already feeling the affects of having to search for water sources. Cameras placed throughout the refuge by Wildlands Network show many species pacing up and down the border wall looking for water Traphagen said. These include deer, javelina, bobcats, turkeys and mountain lions.

A night camera placed by Wildlands Network on Oct. 25 captured half a body of an animal at the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge walking near the border wall. (Courtesy Photo)

The 19 miles of newly built border wall snake through these grasslands from the Peloncillo Mountains to Guadalupe Canyon, to the west, where an additional 4.5 miles of border wall is being built to connect that area to the New Mexico state line. It is there that crews are using explosives daily to cut through steep mountain cliffs amd where Border Report witnessed the largest mountaintop blast to date.

South of the border is Highway 2, which runs west from Juarez, Mexico, across from El Paso, Texas. The Mexican town of Agua Prieta, with a population of 80,000, is located south of Douglas, Arizona, which is about 15 miles east of the refuge and has a population of 18,000.

Cochise County, Arizona, is where the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts meet in what is called the “neo-tropics.” The vistas are expansive, the terrain is tough and punishing and despite the harsh climate, border wall miles have gone up quite quickly.

Arizona has had most of the recent border-wall construction because much of the land is federally owned or operated, and the Trump administration waived numerous environmental regulations. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say building the border infrastructure system is necessary to dissuade migrants from illegally entering and to stop drug traffickers.

This CBP map shows new border wall built through the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Arizona. (Courtesy Map)

Light poles tower over the 30-foot-tall metal bollard wall. Traphagen says he has counted 366 light posts with 500 KW LED lights that run the length of the 19-mile wall.

“Just do the math and see the kind of carbon footprint,” he said, adding that light at night will disorient owls and bats and other nocturnal creatures.

“This is one of the wildest places in this part of the world. Unfortunately it has been tamed not in a very nice way — an elbow or a heel on the neck. It’s not a good situation,” Traphagen said.

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The mission of BorderReport.com is to provide real-time delivery of the untold local stories about people living, working and migrating along the U.S. border with Mexico. The information is gathered by experienced and trusted Nexstar Media Group journalists hired specifically to cover the border.