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Laredo officials want to use border wall money to fund a riverfront project

A decade ago, Laredo leaders hatched an idea for a riverfront development aimed at luring more people to downtown. Now they're trying to get the federal government to make it part of President Donald Trump's border wall.

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LAREDO — As President Donald Trump continues pushing to build a wall on the country's southern border, elected officials here know that Laredo and Webb County are on the short list of places that are next in line for a barrier. So city leaders are promoting their own vision for a wall that they say will fulfill Washington's goals while enhancing the quality of life for local residents.

Previous city councils first envisioned the River Vega Master Plan project more than a decade ago as a riverfront development to lure shoppers and tourists to downtown Laredo, similar to San Antonio’s River Walk. The project never got off the ground under previous administrations, and its final price tag swelled to more than $72 million, according to a 2006 project summary. But the city was able to complete one piece of it: an outlet mall where dozens of national chains now do business.

City leaders have dusted off the plan, and now they're trying to convince the federal government to finance it. They want to build a concrete bulkhead near the banks of the Rio Grande that incorporates green and recreational space, a promenade and flood protection — and they say it would also fulfill the federal government’s demand for a border barrier.

“If you’re going to force a wall down our throat, then have it be done on our terms and not yours," City Council member George Altgelt said, "because we live here and we know border security better than anybody else. The bulkhead approach allows us to address water quality, water quantity, lines of sight, invasive species control, mobility and border security — all at the same time.”

The project would run through about 12 miles of city property that includes a large swath near the city’s downtown outlet mall, soccer fields and parks that sit on or near the banks of the Rio Grande. Its height would range from 18 to 22 feet, and it would cost about $18 million per mile, Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said. That's about $6 million less per mile than the steel barrier the Trump administration wants to build, according to the latest estimate by the Office of Management and Budget.

The project has support from U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who represents Laredo in Congress and said it's a modern way to address border security concerns.

"I support the development of mutually beneficial border security infrastructure projects based on mutual agreements between local communities and the Department of Homeland Security, that will produce viable alternatives to a 14th century wall," Cuellar said in an email, adding that Laredo officials presented the concept to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan during a visit to Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

CBP spokespersons in Washington and Laredo did not respond to requests for comment.

The north end of the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas. The area is part of the proposed site of the city's River Vega project.

It's not the first time local officials have asked the federal government to combine a local project with its border wall construction. More than a decade ago, Rio Grande Valley officials convinced the government to improve miles of local flood-control levees in exchange for allowing border fencing to be built atop the levees.

“We’re saying if monies are available and you’re insisting on this physical wall, then we’re proposing this alternative,” Saenz said. “It’s an ugly wall versus this promenade, or river walk, which is a tool for economic development.”

But Laredo environmentalists argue that city leaders are surrendering to the White House prematurely and placing the environment in harm's way while they promote the River Vega project.

Tricia Cortez, the executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, said the city's eagerness to make a deal on a customized barrier around downtown has put sensitive habitats outside the project's boundaries at risk. A barrier in Webb County would also include dozens of miles in rural areas near the Rio Grande.

The roughly 650 miles of border barriers already built cut through sensitive ecosystems and tribal land, cause flooding and disrupt animal migration, she added.

“It’s like they’re putting a gun to the head of 10 people and are going to say, 'You can shoot those nine and just save us.' And our organization, we’re not OK with that,” she said. “That river is our lifeblood, it’s our only source of water and it’s an endangered river.”

The local fight comes as Trump continues to double down on building a wall and fulfilling his signature campaign promise. After a five-week government shutdown triggered when Congress refused to approve more than $5 billion that Trump requested for the wall, the president issued a national emergency declaration last month that would divert billions in defense spending to construct the barrier. The U.S. House and Senate voted recently to oppose the declaration, but the president vetoed the measure, saying it was "his duty" to do so.

Cortez’s group has joined the Carrizo-Comecrudo Nation of Texas, border landowners and other environmental groups in a lawsuit filed Thursday by Washington, D.C.-based environmental group Earthjustice against Trump, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and U.S. Treasury Department Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. The lawsuit accuses the president of violating the Constitution by using an emergency declaration to circumvent Congress. It also claims that the accumulation of natural debris and trash along a border wall would exacerbate flooding, cause major property damage and put lives at risk.

“The President’s abuse of emergency powers to override the will of Congress is a blatant power grab,” Sarah Burt, lead attorney for Earthjustice, said in a written statement. “It not only goes against our basic form of government, but also harms those who live, work and worship along the border."

Cortez noted that the Trump administration has used its power to fast-track barrier construction in other parts of Texas, including Cameron County, about 200 miles downriver from Laredo, and the barrier in that part of Texas has already hurt endangered wildlife. She said more than 400 species of fish and wildlife — including some in danger of extinction — depend on the river, and the administration is putting them at further risk by waiving environmental regulations to speed wall construction.

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz shows on a map where the city's River Vega project will be built should his administration secure fu…

Saenz, the Laredo mayor, said he shares the concerns about a wall's potential environmental impacts and that he would push to ensure that all environmental regulations were followed.

“We’re mindful of the environment,” Saenz said. “We got to be careful with it and take every precaution.”

But Saenz and other members of the council so far have declined environmentalists' push for a city resolution condemning the president's emergency order — a mostly symbolic gesture but one that environmental groups say would put the city on record opposing Trump's methods for funding the wall. Laredo spokesman Rafael Benavides said Saenz and the council have publicly opposed both the wall and Trump's emergency declaration.

"The city’s leaders have our community’s best interest at heart. Many significant factors are currently at play which impact our community," he said. "Such factors can change quickly as we know and must be evaluated within a holistic-strategic view to achieve better results, including securing other federal projects for our city, along with the protection and preservation of the Rio Grande."

Carlos E. Flores, an attorney working with the Rio Grande International Study Center, said the River Vega project is better than a wall, "but it’s falling into the narrative of Trump, which is that there is this problem and we need to build this barrier in order to solve this problem, and I don’t think that’s correct."

Laredo resident Carlos Garcia, who was enjoying an afternoon beer and pizza last week at Laredo's riverfront outlet mall, agreed.

"I don't see this torrent of people coming in," he said. "I don't see any threat. Billions of dollars could be used elsewhere. There is poverty; there are health issues. I don't see the need for [the wall]."

But Carolina Lamb, who was shopping with her family at the outlet mall the following day, said she fully supports what the president wants to do.

"My husband works his ass off, and other people come over [from Mexico] and benefit more," she said. "We need more border security."

The River Vega project has inspired other border officials. In Starr County — where the federal government has already begun construction on 8 miles of border wall using money Congress approved last year — officials in the town of Roma have proposed a bulkhead retaining wall with a promenade on top that could double as a Border Patrol access road.

"Everyone's just trying to made lemonade out of lemons," said Roma City Manager Freddy Guerra. "If this is happening, how can we maximize this?"

Whenever wall construction begins in and around Laredo, the project will come with millions of dollars in construction contracts. Saenz said he’s aware of the contracting scandal that erupted in the Rio Grande Valley under the Bush and Obama administrations — more than $170 million went into the bank accounts of a Hidalgo County drainage district that oversees levees on which the federal government built sections of border fence.

That project was also pitched as a glass-half-full compromise: The levees would get repaired and help protect the flood-prone Rio Grande Valley while satisfying the federal government’s requirement to build fencing.

Godrey Garza Jr., the former general manager of Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1, negotiated a deal in which he earned 1.5 percent from every dollar spent on the levee-fence project. He ended up pocketing about $3.5 million from the project, a Texas Tribune investigation discovered. Although the contracts and compensation were approved by Hidalgo County's commissioners court, the county later sued Garza to recoup some of the money after alleging that he charged an inflated commission.

The lawsuit was later dismissed after a judge said there wasn't enough evidence to support the allegations. The county withdrew a subsequent federal lawsuit against Garza earlier this year.

Saenz said he’d ensure an open and transparent bidding process to prevent a similar situation in Laredo.

“We’ll be highly vigilant, at least while I’m here," he said. "In my presence, none of that shenanigans would take place.”

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