Trump’s $5 billion border wall plan could wreak environmental havoc, causing rivers to flood and animals to become 'zombie species'

  • President Donald Trump took the national stage last night to make his case for the construction of a wall at the US-Mexico border.
  • But such an enormous construction project would have significant impacts on the environment around the nation’s southern border.
  • What’s more, the Department of Homeland Security has already indicated that it will leverage a law that enables the government to expedite border infrastructure by waiving certain legal requirements, which would allow the project to sidestep dozens of environmental rules in California.
  • Here’s how a border wall would impact the environment – from fauna to the flow of rivers.

President Donald Trump took the national stage last night to make his case for the construction of a wall at the US-Mexico border. But experts say such an enormous construction project would have significant impacts on the environment around the nation’s southern border.

His live address from the Oval Office came 18 days into a partial government shutdown, which is the result of a disagreement over funding for Trump’s desired border wall. The shutdown has impacted nearly 800,000 federal employees (and caused garbage to pile up in national parks), but Trump has indicated that he won’t end the shutdown until he secures $US5 billion in funding for the wall.

Trump most likely intended for his national address to boost public support for a wall – despite the environmental impact.

What’s more, the Department of Homeland Security has already indicated that it will leverage a law that enables the government to expedite border infrastructure by waiving certain legal requirements, which would allow the project to sidestep dozens of environmental rules in California.

Here’s how a new border wall would wreak havoc on the environment.


President Trump’s goal is to build 1,000 miles of wall, in addition to reinforcing the existing 654 miles of barriers along the border.

Along the nearly 2,000-mile border between the US and Mexico,654 miles of wall-like structures already exist.

No new barriers have been erected yet, but Congress approved about $US1.6 billion in 2017 to put towards border projects. That money was allocated mostly for fortifying existing fencing, as NPR noted.

In the effort to build a new, 1,000-mile section of the border wall, President Trump authorised contractors to build eight prototypes from a range of materials.


The carbon emissions from constructing Trump’s proposed 1,000 miles of new border wall could top 7.8 million metric tons, according to MIT Technology Review.

Every cubic meter of concrete that’s poured into a wall or structure results in roughly 380 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a study from the University of Bath in the UK. Producing 1 kilogram of steel also emits 1.8 kilograms of carbon dioxide, according to MIT Technology Review.
Based on those numbers, MIT Tech Review calculated how much carbon dioxide would be emitted total from the construction of a 1,000-mile wall. (By their estimate, it’d be 50 feet tall with an additional 15 feet underground, and one-foot thick.)
Such a wall would need 9.7 million cubic meters of concrete and 2.3 billion kilograms of steel. So in total, that would create 7.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of 877,686,508 gallons of gasoline, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But if animals couldn’t travel back and forth between habitats and resources on either side of the border, many species would face local extinction in the US.

Sam Antonio PhotographyA border wall might prevent the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep — which has an expansive home range — from travelling between California and Mexico.

The US-Mexico border is nearly 2,000 miles long and peppered with marshes, deserts, and grasslands. The construction of a continuous wall could therefore harm species who are, of course, not on the administration’s immigration radar.

More than 1,500 species of flora and fauna, like the Peninsular bighorn sheep shown above, make their homes along this biologically diverse strip of North America. Sixty-two of these species are considered vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). And many of those species would face extirpation – meaning local extinction in the US – if they were unable to access habitats and resources on either side of the border, according to a study from Stanford University.


The Stanford analysis showed that 346 species would lose access to half of their habitat because of a border wall.

Getty Images

Of those species, 17% would be stuck living in an area of roughly 7,700 square miles or less – elevating their risk of extirpation, according to IUCN guidelines. According to the study, which was published in the journal BioScience in July 2018, some of these at-risk species include the endangered jaguar and ocelot.

The two Stanford biologists behind the study, Paul Ehrlich and Rodolfo Dirzo, explained that physical barriers – whether they are rivers, mountains, or a human-made wall – can deter or prevent animals from finding mates, fresh water, and necessary food.

Dirzo told the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment that “cut off like this, the bighorn and other animals and plants will become zombie species – populations that are demographically and genetically doomed.”


Animal migration patterns — even those of birds — would be disrupted.

Fawn Simonds/Getty ImagesEven low-flying birds like the Ferruginous pygmy owl could be impeded by a border wall.

Dirzo and Erhlich noted the border wall could also impede flying species that enjoy riding currents close to the ground. Examples include the ­endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly or the ferruginous pygmy owl.

Echoing those concerns, the National Audubon Society, the National Resources Defence Council, and more than 170 conservation groups penned a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen in November.

The letter elaborated on the impact of a wall on “environmentally sensitive conservation areas” like the Lower Rio Grande Valley area, which has a plethora of butterfly and bird fauna. Bruce Stein, chief scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, wrote, “barriers like border walls can interfere with the ability of animals to meet their daily needs, make seasonal migrations or disperse to new areas.”

Quartz, which first reported on the letter to Nielsen, noted that an unfamiliar obstacle could even deter birds, despite the fact that they could theoretically fly to heights above it.


A wall would also make it harder for many animal species to adapt to climate change.

Mario Tama/Getty ImagesMexican kids peer through the fence that already exists along part of the US-Mexico border.

Dirzo also told the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment that a barrier like a wall would limit how much a species could move “to track habitats that shift due to a changing climate.”

Rising temperatures and extreme weather are already altering certain regions’ ecology, leading animals to shift their behaviour in order to survive and find food. A wall could prevent creatures from successfully adapting. Stein also pointed this out in the letter to Neilson.


One of the greatest potential environmental impacts of a border wall would be almost invisible at first: it would lead species to become less resilient to stress.

A wall that cuts animals’ habitat into pieces would consequently force their populations into smaller subgroups that are effectively unable to interact and mate with one another.

That would make each remaining subgroup more vulnerable to diseases and natural disasters. Plus, less gene flow between individuals within a species means less genetic diversity, and a higher possibility of inbreeding. Overall, these consequences would increase a species’ overall risk for extinction.


Conservationists are particularly concerned about the future of the Mexican grey wolf.

Vichai Phububphapan/GettyAs of 2016, only 113 Mexican grey wolves lived in the US.

According to Vox, fewer than 200 total Mexican grey wolves remained in the wild in the US and Mexico in 2016. A report from the Center for Biological Diversity in July 2018 noted that the US population of Mexican grey wolves increased by only four individuals between 2014 and 2017. In the report, Bryan Bird, Defenders of Wildlife’s southwest program director, said that the “Mexican grey wolves are in a race with extinction, and the clock is ticking.”

A wall separating the some three dozen wolves in Mexico from their counterparts in the US could therefore be a deadly blow for the world’s most endangered wolf.


A border wall would also change the flow of major rivers.

Deb Snelson/Getty ImagesThe border wall would have to bisect the Rio Grande, which divides Texas and Mexico.

Impacts on wildlife aside, the proposed border wall could also impact the quotidian movements of three major rivers and their tributaries.

The wall would need to bisect the Rio Grande, Colorado, and Tijuana Rivers. Bob Irvin, president of the environmental group American Rivers, told News Deeply that between 100 and 500 rivers and streams would be affected.

The wall would “undoubtedly change the flow of those rivers and streams, and it would also impair the water quality in them,” he said.

Irvin added that “when you change the flow of a river, you’re changing the natural cleansing mechanisms of that river. So you certainly could see a buildup of pollutants – both solid and chemical – as a result of that.”


Depending on where and how a wall were erected — in the middle of a river, say — it could even act like a dam.

If the border wall wound up acting as a 2,000-mile dam, debris could pile up any time there was a storm, impeding the flow of the river. Irvin told News Deeply that’s already happening along some sections of wall that already exist in Arizona.

According to a report by the Sierra Club, such walls have contributed to severe flooding and flood damage before when constructed across natural drainage points.


One example of such flooding was a 2008 disaster that happened along the US-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona.

Ana Maria Serrano/EyeEm/Getty ImagesA continuous border wall could contribute to deadly flooding.

During a seasonal rain storm, that wall acted as a dam, flooding the sister cities of Nogales and Sonara in 6 feet of water. The disaster caused $US8 million in property damage and two deaths. Six years later, a similar flood happened again in Nogales, when debris blocked a 60-foot section of the border.

There’s little evidence that the designs for the proposed continuous border wall would account for mitigation of possible flood risks. Quartz even reported that 8 miles of the planned wall in Texas would be built on a floodplain.

In a letter to the leaders of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a group of environmental advocates including Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club said they anticipated that the section of the wall planned for Hidalgo County, Texas might worsen flooding in adjacent parts of Mexico.

“We are extremely concerned that CBP does not appear to be conducting this project in compliance with NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] or other applicable federal laws,” they wrote.


The border wall could have other impacts as well, like imperiling water-sharing agreements.

Gallo Images/GettyRoughly 30 bird species living in the Rio Grande Valley don’t live anywhere else in the United States.

A new barrier between the US and Mexico could also affect water sharing agreements between the two nations.

Equitable sharing of the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers is imperative to agriculture, fracking, and energy production in both countries, According to a report by the Brookings Institution. US-Mexican cooperation around water use has benefited both countries, but those agreements could now be at risk.

The wall could also disrupt designated conservation areas. The wall’s proposed path initially sent it barreling through the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, though environmental activists convinced lawmakers to leave the refuge untouched for now. The National Butterfly Center, a state park, could still be threatened.

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