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Border Wall Construction Trumps Jacumba Wilderness Area

Existing border wall outside the Wilderness on eastern side with the visible pipeline. | Julio Morales

The once-quiet Jacumba Wilderness Area in the southwest corner of Imperial County was set aside by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 as “an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation,” as defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964. As vehicular travel of any kind is prohibited, the area is visited by only a few hikers and an occasional Border Patrol officer. However, the construction of the border wall has brought a flurry of activity that could lead to profound and irreversible environmental changes to the area. 

The requirements for public review were waived in the interest of border security, and consequently most information about the project must be obtained from a detailed online search or by physically walking into the area. Edie Harmon, a biologist, longtime resident of Imperial County and Sierra Club member, describes the rapid changes occurring at the site in her first observations from May 2020: 

“Leaving Highway 98 on the east, a recently graded, heavily packed dirt/gravel road enters the Wilderness. It appears to be 18 to 20 feet wide at this point, with orange survey stakes a considerable distance on each side. One security guard volunteered that the new road would eventually be 40 feet wide with a water pipeline buried alongside.<br> At a high place along the road, and within Wilderness, there are floodlights that I can see from my home at night, and beside these are two large excavators, a massive bulldozer, a storage shed, a picnic table, and several porta-potties. The new road then continues down a wash with a locked gate cemented in place. I fear many ironwood [trees] will be damaged or destroyed if steam shovels or dozers attempt to remove rock walls that are on either side of the gate to allow equipment to pass farther on to the border.<br> A security guard told us that in addition to widening the gravel road (which was likely packed down using a lot of water), the pipeline will bring water into the wilderness to make the concrete for the barrier wall.” 

Now, a couple of months after this initial investigation, the road, along with a pipeline 12 inches in diameter, extends to the international border at the south end of Skull Valley. Here, another road is being graded for access to Davies Valley farther to the west. At the border are stacks of bollards which will become the vertical wall itself, along with the heavy equipment that will be used for installation. 

Click through below to see more photos of the situation at the Jacumba Wilderness Area.

Edie Harmon looks at the water pipeline and pump station along the road into Skull Valley. | Nick Morales
1/4 Edie Harmon looks at the water pipeline and pump station along the road into Skull Valley. | Nick Morales
Existing border wall outside the Wilderness on eastern side with the visible pipeline. | Julio Morales
2/4 Existing border wall outside the Wilderness on eastern side with the visible pipeline. | Julio Morales
Several excavators and a floodlight sit along the border in Skull Valley. | Craig Deutsche
3/4 Several excavators and a floodlight sit along the border in Skull Valley. | Craig Deutsche
View westward along the border within Skull Valley. Beyond the equipment the graded road rises steeply as it crosses the ridge in Davis Valley. June 28, 2020. | Craig Deutsche
4/4 View westward along the border within Skull Valley. Beyond the equipment the graded road rises steeply as it crosses the ridge in Davis Valley. June 28, 2020. | Craig Deutsche

The security guard shared that the work crew spotted a group of bighorn sheep in a wilderness wash in Jacumba. This raises concerns about the project’s impact to wildlife in the area. “I would not have expected the sheep at that location, but rather higher up in the bouldery mountain sides,” said Harmon, who is concerned the wall will leave no place for “any large mammals to cross the border as they regularly do today.” 

On her hikes through Jacumba Wilderness, Harmon has discovered artifacts that represent another reason why the wilderness area was created in the first place. “In the times when earlier peoples occupied this area 10,000-12,000 years ago, there may have been periods of standing water or possibly a permanent body of water near this site,” Harmon said. “That could account for the numerous pieces of broken pottery and ancient tools made from quartz and volcanic debris in Skull Valley along the many ancient foot trails.” 

Pottery shards within the Jacumba Wilderness Area | Nick Ervin
Pottery shards within the Jacumba Wilderness Area | Nick Ervin

Beyond evidence of human occupation, another indication of standing water within Skull Valley is the presence of a small but significant stand of crucifixion thorn. The California endangered species with small greenish-yellow flowers has a tap root enabling it to reach for water at depth but also has another system of roots that utilize surface water if and when it is available. Following along the international border, there are several places where the newly graded road crosses and blocks a large wash running from Mexico into the U.S. As there is no culvert under the road (personal observation of this author), it is expected that after a rain, water will be pooled in Mexico and will not reach the interior of Skull Valley or the crucifixion thorn. If there should be a heavy rain, other unintended consequences might be anticipated as a result of blocking the drainage. 

Edie Harmon stands next to a crucifixion thorn within the Jacumba Wilderness area on June 7, 2020. | Nick Ervin
Edie Harmon stands next to a crucifixion thorn within the Jacumba Wilderness area on June 7, 2020. | Nick Ervin

It is a well-known saying in California, that “water is for fighting,” and this holds true in Imperial County, where this border wall construction could exacerbate the problem of limited access to water. The large diameter pipeline bringing water for construction is supplied by more than two wells near the border and east of the Wilderness, according to Border Patrol correspondence with Harmon. These wells tap into an aquifer that is the sole source of water for residents of two local communities. The water table in this part of Imperial County has fallen significantly in the past decades and the use of this underground water has been subject to a number of legal proceedings beginning as early as 1972.  

Imperial County regulations require that every well drawing water from the aquifer must receive a permit in advance. When Harmon asked the County Planning Department for information about the wells, the Department was entirely unaware of their existence. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the wells and contracts for the construction, has since received a cease-and-desist order from Imperial County. It should also be noted that the aquifer in question extends under the border to Mexico, so international repercussions are entirely possible. 

View of Skull Valley looking south. The equipment is exactly on the border; the pipeline is slightly visible on the center right; and the mountains in the picture are in Mexico. June 28, 2020 | Craig Deutsche
View of Skull Valley looking south. The equipment is exactly on the border; the pipeline is slightly visible on the center right; and the mountains in the picture are in Mexico. June 28, 2020 | Craig Deutsche

It is reasonable to wonder if the County regulations on ground water use are operative in the present case. Under a state of National Emergency, the Department of Homeland Security is legally permitted to waive a long list of federal laws along with “state and local regulations that derive from them.” It will be for courts to decide if county groundwater regulations “derive” from any of waived federal statues. It should also be noted that the aquifer in question extends under the border to Mexico, so that international repercussions are entirely possible. 

Environmental damage from construction of the border wall in the Jacumba Wilderness will be real and extensive. Some damage is capable of mitigation and some is not. Consequences for the aquifer outside the Wilderness are not yet known. There are a number of legal actions opposing the wall currently in the court, such as the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition’s challenge of funding for the wall, and only time will tell their outcome. It is not a pretty picture, and meanwhile the damage continues. 

Top Image: Existing border wall outside the Wilderness on eastern side with the visible pipeline. | Julio Morales

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