A right-wing group led by Stephen Bannon and prominent allies of President Donald Trump has been bulldozing the banks of the Rio Grande to erect a privately funded border fence along the water's edge despite lacking permits to build on the international flood plain in Texas.
We Build the Wall plans to install a 3.5-mile "water wall" and paved road on private land immediately adjacent to the river, which serves as the U.S.-Mexico boundary. Construction activity along the river banks is tightly regulated under international treaties because structures can exacerbate flood damage and alter the course of the river channel.
The International Boundary Water Commission, which issues permits to build in the Rio Grande channel, has asked the group to suspend construction, submit a detailed engineering study and withdraw its excavators and other heavy equipment from the river levees.
We are building 3.5miles of pure excellence in 21st century human engineering. @WeBuildtheWall is @DHSgov + @cbp APPROVED & ENDORSED! @CNN @DeplorableChoir @DRUDGE @RyanAFournier @charliekirk11 @TrumpStudents @LouDobbs @kimguilfoyle @MailOnline @realDailyWire @AP @CBSNews pic.twitter.com/aKQvTYemAI— Brian Kolfage (@BrianKolfage) November 21, 2019
Brian Kolfage, president of We Build the Wall, said his group is barreling forward anyway, newly emboldened by praise for its work from senior Department of Homeland Security officials.
"Who else loves the fresh smell of diesel in the morning when we're building the wall?" Kolfage wrote on Twitter, posting videos of the banks of the Rio Grande scraped bare by graders and bulldozers. "Does it look like we were told stop? NOPE! Burning & Churning suckers."
In Kolfage's tweets and the online monologues of "Foreman Mike," the group's project manager, We Build the Wall also continues to serve as an elaborate trolling exercise for Trump's critics and a showcase for the company hired to perform the work, North Dakota-based Fisher Industries. The private land in Mission, where the group is building the structure, was acquired by Tommy Fisher, the company's CEO, Foreman Mike said.
"The people of Texas are rising up because We Build the Wall and Fisher Industries are going forward with this build," shouted Foreman Mike, real name unknown, in another video. "Don't listen to these freaks!" he says of the group's opponents.
Nearby is the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre nature preserve that claims to have the country's highest concentration of the insects. The foundation that runs the preserve is suing to stop the Trump administration from building a barrier through its land, making it a target for the president's supporters.
We Build the Wall fashions itself as a grass roots organization collecting hundreds of thousands of micro-donations. Its leadership page displays an all-star cast of conservative culture warriors, led by Bannon, Trump's former adviser and the co-founder of Breitbart News.
Kris Kobach, the immigration hard-liner and former Kansas secretary of state, is the group's general counsel. Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince, retired pitcher Curt Schilling and ex-GOP congressman Tom Tancredo are board members.
According to its website, the group has collected nearly $25 million in private donations and pledges, with plans to build at least 35 miles of barriers at up to 10 locations along the U.S. southern border in support of Trump's mission to seal the border off to migrants. Jennifer Lawrence, a spokesperson for We Build the Wall, did not respond to a request for comment about the group's new project and questions about the solidity of its hydrological modeling.
Fisher Industries has bid repeatedly on billions of dollars in government border wall contracts under Trump, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not chosen the company for the work even though the president has personally encouraged military and Homeland Security officials to hire the firm.
Tommy Fisher, the company's CEO and a Republican donor, has claimed in repeat appearances on Fox News that can build the wall faster and cheaper using patented techniques. Those appear to include what Kolfage presented in a rendering of the Rio Grande project this week depicting what he called a "water wall" that would place the structure right next to the river, instead of on higher ground along the river levees, where the U.S. Army Corps typically builds.
"The water wall is the first of its kind, and will be the first high tech smart border wall that is built near the water," Kolfage wrote in another post. "This is the 21st century let's start building civil projects like it is! No flood or storm will affect this wall!"
The International Boundary Water Commission has yet to be convinced of that. Created by a 1970 U.S.-Mexico treaty to manage the river, the agency requires detailed hydrological modeling for major projects in the flood plain to determine whether a proposed structure will deflect or obstruct the path of the river during a flood event. Such diversion of the river's waters can alter the contours of the border itself, said Sally Spener, U.S. Secretary for the commission.
"The river channel does move naturally, but we want to make sure it does not move as a result of construction activity by humans that creates a deflection," Spener said.
Fisher Industries submitted a hydrology report to the commission in late October before it began work on the project. The study consisted of six pages of slides that appeared to have been produced with basic paint-and-draw software.
The first page, labeled "typical cross section," showed a pool of blue water with a tree and grass on one side labeled "United States" and the same tree and grass on the opposite bank, labeled "Mexico."
Fisher project engineer Greg Gentsch wrote in the report that by stripping the vegetation from the river banks and paving them with a roadway, the barrier project will improve the flow of the Rio Grande. "A less obstructed and well maintained riverbank will lower the flood elevation since there will be less obstructing vegetation on the banks in the floodway," the report states.
Spener said a project of the magnitude proposed by We Build the Wall would require a "technical report at least a couple hundred pages in length," as well as modeling studies calculating hydraulic impacts with a "grid-by-grid" analysis to show the structure's potential impacts on different segments of the river channel during flooding events.
"Once the model is completed, it should be summarized in a technical report to include a description of findings, tables, maps, and the models with the calculations," she said.
An attorney for the commission sent a letter to Kobach and Gentsch asking the group to suspend construction and submit a more sophisticated study.
"We Build the Wall representatives have told us they are working to provide the documentation we have requested, including the hydraulic model information," Spener said. She did not say what recourse the agency could take if the group begins work on a structure, and videos and images of the work thus far show most of the work has consisted of brush clearing and site preparation.
The group has criticized the way federal agencies are building the new barriers and insist their privately funded initiative would be better.
"The barrier going up in South Texas is the first wall system that won't cause flooding and won't deflect the water," Kolfage claimed in another tweet. "The best engineers in the world designed this for floods, not government employees."
After We Build the Wall completed a new span of steel bollard wall this spring on private land in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just outside El Paso, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials appeared hesitant to endorse the group's freelance efforts but were privately pleased with the result.
This week, however, the group got a ringing public endorsement from El Paso Border Patrol sector chief Gloria Chavez, who spoke to reporters during a visit from acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf. Wolf toured the private barrier during his visit to El Paso in what appeared to be the first visit to the site by a top Homeland Security official.
HUGE Endorsement from @DHSgov & @CBP. @WeBuildtheWall has been "GAME CHANGER," Border Patrol Chief says.@CNN @RyanAFournier @DonaldJTrumpJr @realDonaldTrump @RealCandaceO @OANN @charliekirk11 @HollyKFOX_CBS @DRUDGE @JackPosobiec @DailyMail @IngrahamAngle @nytimes #buildthewall pic.twitter.com/pQXEoHkxef— Brian Kolfage (@BrianKolfage) November 21, 2019
"Whether it's privately owned or publicly government owned, I welcome it," Chavez said of the border barriers. "Because I know it is a proven concept, 24 years in this organization, border wall works."
Chavez said that after We Build the Wall completed the new barrier, "everything changed for us and we were able to manage the border enforcement actions there even better."
The flow of illegal traffic has shifted around the structure, she said, to an area where agents are able to respond more effectively.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who has championed the company to the president and alleged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has unfairly discriminated against Fisher by not accepting its bids, said the group's new work in south Texas would allow it to prove doubters wrong.
"If We Build the Wall produces another superior product along the Rio Grande and does it on private land actually close to the border in a timely manner, it could be a breakthrough that would actually get us to the 450 mile goal," Cramer said in an email, referring to the Trump administration's construction target.
To date, the administration has completed 83 miles of new barriers, according to the latest CBP data, nearly all of it in areas where the structure is replacing shorter, older fencing.
The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey in Washington and Robert Moore in El Paso contributed to this report.