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

donald trump border wall prototypesU.S. President Donald Trump speaks while participating in a tour of U.S.-Mexico border wall prototypes near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego, California. U.S., March 13, 2018.Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

President Donald Trump will take the national stage tonight to make his case for the construction of a wall at the US-Mexico border.

His live address from the Oval Office comes 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 $5 billion in funding for the wall.

Trump most likely hopes that his national address and visit to the southwest will boost public support for a wall. 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 are five ways that a new border wall would wreak havoc on the environment.

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Many species would face local extinction in the US if they 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 if they couldn't travel back and forth between habitats and resources on either side of the border.

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 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 that would lose access to half of their habitat because of a border wall.

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

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 be 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.

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

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 Defense 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.

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

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 behavior 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.

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 gray wolf.

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

According to Vox, fewer than 200 total Mexican gray 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 gray 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 gray 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.

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

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.

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.

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

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 $8 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.

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