Say hello to River Watch of #Colorado

Screen shot from the River Watch of Colorado website (https://coloradoriverwatch.org) January 17, 2019.

From the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (Tanya Ishikawa) via The Telluride Daily Planet:

Local volunteers sample waterways throughout the year

Once a month you can find Ethan Funk kneeling down at the edge of Red Mountain Creek with a few bottles at his side. The bottles start out empty, but within a few moments they are filled with water tinted red from the high level of iron in it. After taking temperature readings of the water and air, he gathers up his supplies and heads back to his 2003 Toyota Tacoma truck, where he places the samples in the flatbed, records the time and temperatures, sets the paperwork aside, turns on the engine, and heads back down the mountain towards Ouray.

But Funk is not heading home yet. Before returning, he will visit five more streamside sites to gather more water samples. Then, he will head back to his lab in the back of his office, where he will analyze some samples for pH/alkalinity and hardness levels. Others he will package up to send to a laboratory in Denver, where they will be tested for heavy metals.

He is a citizen scientist for the River Watch program. Though he modestly claims not to be a water expert, the electrical engineer by day and radio DJ by evening has been volunteering to sample water in local creeks and rivers for nearly 13 years. The hydrological data Funk has gathered over the years adds up to thousands of points of data that help characterize water quality in Ouray County.

“I’m not doing this for people today. I’m doing this for people 100 years from now,” Funk said. “If we had information like this from 100 years ago, we would know how much of an impact that all the mining in our area has had on the watershed. But, we don’t, so we have to make estimates. With the data from the samples I take, now people 100 years in the future will understand what has happened to their water quality.”

Photo via TellurideValleyFloor.org

“Real people doing real science for a real purpose” is the tagline for the statewide River Watch program, which has multiple purposes. Its mission is “to work with voluntary stewards to monitor water quality and other indicators of watershed health and utilize this high quality data to educate citizens and inform decision makers about the condition of Colorado’s waters. This data is also used in the Clean Water Act decision-making process,” according to the group’s website (http://coloradoriverwatch.org).

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Barb Horn started River Watch in 1989, modeled after monthly water sampling programs on Clear Creek and the Eagle River. Both streams were impacted by heavy metals flowing from shut down mines and tailings, which became EPA Superfund sites. Regulators, as well as stakeholders, needed a way to monitor the success of the cleanups.

“The Idarado Mine had just been declared a CERCLA (superfund) site, and I found ways to start River Watch,” recalled Horn, who is part of a five-person team that oversees the program throughout the state.

Starting with five school groups collecting samples at five sites on the Yampa River in 1989, the program grew to include more than 1,200 sampling sites called stations on 700 rivers across the state. Though all of those stations provided samples at some point, not all are actively being sampled today, due to a shortage of volunteers.

The national nonprofit Earth Force, in cooperation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), operates the program. Neither group has the funds to pay hundreds of people to monitor water quality monthly at more than 1,000 sites. CPW uses a mix of federal funds and Colorado Lottery funds to finance the program’s organization, database, heavy metals analysis, shipping cost and other administration.

“Volunteer monitoring produces data that is not free, but cheap,” Horn said.

Besides volunteer time, producing data from the hundreds of water samples each month takes additional time. While volunteers enter pH/alkalinity and hardness monthly numbers every month, data for the heavy metals takes up to six months for professionals to enter into the database.

“There’s a funny disconnect in this world right now: wanting all this accountability and wanting all this clean air and water, but not understanding that it costs money to get it,” she said. “What each taxpayer is paying to have clean water via the Clean Water Act is practically nothing.”

Horn describes the results of River Watch monitoring as baseline data — similar to when a person goes in for a physical at the doctor’s office.

“We are doing the same thing for our rivers and that kind of monitoring takes a lot of time. It’s not glamorous. We’re not putting out fires. We want to know what preexisting conditions are,” she said. “The public believes that somebody is doing that but it’s expensive. The limited budgets that agencies have get used up for those (metaphorical) fires.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment implements the Clean Water Act in Colorado and does water quality monitoring. Due to limited funds, the agency cannot monitor the whole state every year, so they divide the state into four sections that align with major river basins. They have funds to monitor between 40-60 sites annually, 10 or so are monitored every year, the others every five years. When each site is monitored, data is gathered four to six times per year, not monthly.

River Watch data is much more comprehensive and long-term for rivers where the program consistently has volunteers.

“If we sample monthly, think of it as if we are writing a ‘War and Peace’ novel. If the state health department sampled at 40 sites two times a year, while we sample at 600 stations monthly, it’s like they are writing the abridged version of ‘War and Peace’ that you use to cram for the test. But they actually sample each site only twice in five years, which is like ripping a page out of that book and only having that much information,” she explained.

All River Watch data is public information available on its website, as well as on the Colorado Data Sharing Network (coloradowaterdate.org) and National Water Quality Portal (waterqualitydata.us). The data is also delivered to the state Water Quality Control Division annually.

In Ouray County, River Watch data has helped organizations like the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety and the nonprofit Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (UWP) make decisions about which reclamation and water quality improvement projects to pursue. It has also helped them analyze and understand the success of projects.

“Water quality data will become more and more important as climate change worsens,” Horn added.

Besides gathering this significant data, the other primary goal of River Watch is to give people hands-on science experiences, and an understanding of the value and function of Colorado’s river and water ecosystems. That’s why the program originated with teachers volunteering to do the sampling with their classes. Currently, teacher-led groups are estimated to make up approximately 80 percent of the sampling volunteers. The remaining 20 percent are a mix of individuals and adult groups.

Some volunteers have been sampling for the program for up to three decades, while others only last a couple years. Some have one site to sample, but others like Funk have six or more. The time commitment is usually about 15 minutes at each site, plus driving time. Both can take longer during the winter, when snow makes the roads more difficult to navigate and some riversides are only accessible by snowshoes. Sometimes it is even necessary to break through ice to get samples.

It typically takes around 30 minutes to analyze and record the pH/alkalinity and hardness data for each site; the paperwork, computer input and shipping of samples can take an additional 30-plus minutes for each site. A volunteer responsible for one site commits to around two hours a month, while those doing four or six sites pledge six-plus hours. Other annual requirements include a multi-day training, a half-day of demonstrating procedures with Horn, and sampling for habitat and possibly microinvertabrates, plus an extra sample of nutrients quarterly.

“It’s a rigorous program that produces high quality data. Field and lab methods align with the health department’s, so data is comparable. When River Watch goals match a volunteer’s interests, they get really excited about making an impact,” Horn said. “Volunteers are happy to be a cog in this big wheel that delivers data to organizations that can use it to make a difference.”

In Ouray County, Funk was preceded by student volunteers led by a Ouray High School science teacher. The other four sites in Ouray County, all downstream on the Uncompahgre River, started out with volunteers from Ridgway High School. Volunteers from the UWP took over the sites almost a decade ago, including Dudley and Sharon Case, most recently.

The Cases had previously volunteered to sample and test water for 10 years with their Sierra Club group in Illinois. For the past five years, the retired couple could be seen once a month, driving in their Jeep through Ridgway en route to Pa-Co-Chu Puk, north of the Ridgway Reservoir. They methodically stopped at spots along the Uncompahgre River. They found their way through willows, down boulders, under bridges and over mud and snow to get to the river banks — he with a handful of water bottles and she with a clipboard and thermometer.

“I was volunteering with the UWP river cleanups and plantings in Ridgway, and I mentioned to Agnieszka (the former UWP coordinator) that Sharon and I might be interested in River Watch,” said Dudley, who added that curiosity was the driving force behind his volunteering

“I had heard so much about the mines and mining in the San Juans that I was curious to find out how the mining had and was still effecting the Uncompahgre River each year,” he explained. “I am hoping that future generations will be able to use the data I have collected over my five years of doing it to help eventually clean up the mines and thus the river. I might have volunteered longer if we hadn’t decided to move away.”

UWP is currently looking for volunteers to take over the four sites that are no longer sampled by the Cases. For more information, visit coloradoriverwatch.org. If you’re interested in volunteering in Ouray, Montrose or San Miguel counties, email uwpcoordinator@gmail.com.

Editor’s note: Tanya Ishikawa is a public relations professional for the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership.

Flood, fire preparations could save U.S. billions of dollars — @CUBoulderNews #ActOnClimate

Air search for flood victims September 2013 via Pediment Publishing

Here’s the release from the University of Colorado (Daniel Strain):

Communities that act now to protect themselves from future hazards like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and wildfires can save themselves as much as $11 for every $1 that they initially invest, according to recent research.

The findings are part of an update to “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves.” This landmark report was first published in 2005 by the National Institute of Building Sciences and was led by CU Boulder’s Keith Porter, who also spearheaded the most recent findings.

The report examines how homeowners, developers and municipalities might save lives and money in the long term by implementing a variety of mitigation efforts before a disaster strikes. That might mean raising houses above floodplains or strengthening office buildings against earthquakes.

There’s a lot to be gained from that kind of forward thinking, said Porter, a research professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering.

“Natural hazard mitigation saves,” Porter said. “Mitigation can be a costly decision, but this study should help people to make a more informed choice about how to save their property and their wellbeing.”

His research shows that communities in the United States stand to save billions of dollars by making sure that new structures meet, or exceed, the International Building Code—a set of widely-adopted recommendations for designing safe buildings. Such measures could also prevent an estimated 600 deaths and one million injuries at the same time.

Porter and his colleagues released their findings this week at the Building Innovation 2019 conference in Washington, D.C.

Staying safe
The report comes after a record-breaking wildfire season in California. This year, one blaze alone—the Camp Fire—killed more than 80 people and consumed roughly 14,000 homes in the northern part of the state.

It also matters for Colorado, where large numbers of residents are vulnerable to wildfires and flooding. Wildfires burned hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Colorado in 2018—one of the worst fire years on record for the state. Historic flash floods in September 2013 destroyed or damaged thousands of homes across the Front Range.

More stringent codes can limit some of the biggest losses from such events, Porter said. Most states and communities in the U.S. have requirements for how buildings weather natural hazards. But research suggest that they may not go far enough, and many older buildings still fall short of these codes.

Porter pointed to the case of existing codes that require homes to sit a foot above the 100-year flood level…

“That doesn’t make your house floodproof. There’s still a significant chance that a flood would be higher than that,” Porter said. “It’s actually cost-effective in many places to build up to 5 feet above the base flood elevation.”

Saving money
To put numbers on the benefits from such mitigation efforts, Porter and his colleagues turned to a wide range of data to write their 2005 report. That includes records from past disasters and computer simulations that test how buildings might respond to future floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires.

What they found in the most recent update was staggering: While the benefits vary from place to place, communities in the U.S. on average may save $11 in the decades ahead for every $1 they spend now to meet current building codes. Going beyond those codes, too, can bring an extra $4 for every $1 spent.

Those gains come in a variety of forms. When buildings are built to better withstand earthquakes, for example, more stores stay open after a big tremor and fewer people go to the hospital for injuries.

The new round of numbers, together with a related report published last year, were also the first to look at the benefits that come from safeguarding buildings against wildfires. According to the team’s calculations, communities living at the edges of forests can save $4 for every $1 they spend to plan ahead for flames. Common recommendations include creating “defensible” spaces free of brush and other flammable material around homes.

“As we saw from the California wildfires last year, that’s crucial,” Porter said. “If you don’t build for fire resistance, you run a much higher risk of having your home burn down.”

He acknowledges that those sorts of measures can be costly in the short term. But Porter hopes that his group’s findings will motivate governments and other entities to do more to help home and business owners plan for the inevitable.

“You can spend money up front to better prepare for a disaster, and that should save you in the long run,” Porter said.

Democrats are divided over the #GreenNewDeal — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
By US House of Representatives – https://ocasio-cortez.house.gov/about, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75556027

From The High Country News (Maya L. Kapoor):

Last fall, on Nov. 13, more than 200 activists protested on Capitol Hill, demanding a Green New Deal — a massive economic stimulus package designed to create jobs, remake the U.S. energy system and fight climate change. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., waded into their midst, vaulting the movement to national prominence. As determined young protesters in matching brown T-shirts hunkered in front of the unoccupied desk of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., holding signs reading “Step Up or Step Aside” and “Green Jobs for All,” Ocasio-Cortez addressed them.

“I just want to let you all know how proud I am of each and every single one of you for putting yourselves and your bodies and everything on the line to save our planet, our generation and our future,” she said, as cameras rolled. Indeed, by day’s end, many protesters were arrested.

The Green New Deal is popular: According to a recent poll by Yale University and George Mason University, more than 80 percent of registered voters support the concept. But it’s also vague about details, and Democratic leaders are divided on how to respond. Even as newly elected progressives and activists push for sweeping policy change, the party’s established powerbrokers favor caution. How the party resolves this discord could determine whether climate change becomes a prominent issue in the 2020 elections — and what action Democrats are prepared to take on it, should their power expand.

efore taking office, Ocasio-Cortez pressed Pelosi to create a Green New Deal select committee, which would have one year to design a job-creating solution to climate change. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal — crafted in partnership with the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee working to get corporate money out of politics — calls the transition away from fossil fuels “a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States.” A Green New Deal would include job training programs in renewable energy and guaranteed employment for all Americans.

“Climate change is an urgent issue,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., who campaigned on getting the country to 100 percent renewable energy and was an early supporter of the Green New Deal. “We have to do something now.”

The Green New Deal’s massive scope and ambition — to wean the entire country from fossil fuels in just over a decade — comes in response to scientists’ ever more urgent warnings. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nations must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, or face increasingly catastrophic consequences. Yet the politics of climate change remain fraught — even among Democrats.

Democratic House leaders firmly rejected Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a select committee. According to E&E News, the Democratic chairs of existing committees bristled at the possibility of a new select committee usurping some of their own powers. Instead, House Speaker Pelosi reinstated the defunct Climate Crisis Select Committee, which is charged with investigating and recommending climate change solutions. However, it lacks authority to craft legislation, and its members will be allowed to accept campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry, something Ocasio-Cortez wanted to ban.

“The title is the only thing about the committee that begins to acknowledge the magnitude and urgency of the crisis we are in,” said Benjamin Finegan, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement.

University of Oregon law professor Greg Dotson, who worked on climate policy for former Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., believes the party’s internal disagreement is a symptom of the growing pains it’s experiencing as it regains power. “We are in an interesting situation where the Democratic Party agrees on the most important things, which are climate change is happening, it’s caused by humans, and we have to take action to address it,” Dotson said. “Because they’re coming out of the minority, how exactly to do that, they’re still working on.”

Although the Green New Deal select committee would have a new and specific mission, there are other ways to advance its goals. Democrats on House committees like Transportation and Energy and Environment have expertise on key climate issues, and could do similar work. “Advocates should understand that there’s a tremendous amount of institutional history and expertise on all the committees,” for even the most far-reaching goals of a Green New Deal, Dotson said.

But a new generation of climate change activists, including Finegan, dismisses the idea that the existing power structure can address the climate crisis. “I think that argument is politicians being politicians,” Finegan said. After all, for decades, politicians have known climate change was happening, but they’ve done little to stop it. It’s a frustration with the old guard that some early-career Democrats, like Ocasio-Cortez and Haaland, seem to share. “We should have done something decades ago,” Haaland said.

To be clear, even if a new committee were created, Green New Deal legislation would have a snowball’s chance in Phoenix of passing the Republican-controlled Senate, never mind being signed into law by President Donald J. Trump. Still, the debate matters: “For the next two years, the most successful outcome would be for the Democratic Party to come to a view on how to address climate change and the equity issues that the Green New Deal points to,” Dotson said.

The sooner that happens, the better. Leadership has never been more needed: In 2018, after years of decline, carbon dioxide emissions again surged in the United States, even as climate change’s impacts became harder to ignore.

Maya Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News, overseeing California, the American Southwest, the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands and the Southern Rockies. Email her at mayak@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

The West’s Great River Hits Its Limits: Will the #ColoradoRiver Run Dry? — Yale360 #COriver #aridification

Grand River Ditch

Here’s Part I of a series about the Colorado River from Jim Robbins writing for Yale360. Click through and read the whole article (and enjoy the beautiful photographs). Here’s an excerpt:

As the Southwest faces rapid growth and unrelenting drought, the Colorado River is in crisis, with too many demands on its diminishing flow. Now those who depend on the river must confront the hard reality that their supply of Colorado water may be cut off.

The Never Summer Mountains tower over the the valley to the west. Cut across the face of these glacier-etched peaks is the Grand Ditch, an incision visible just above the timber line. The ditch collects water as the snow melts and, because it is higher in elevation than La Poudre Pass, funnels it 14 miles back across the Continental Divide, where it empties it into the headwaters of the Cache La Poudre River, which flows on to alfalfa and row crop farmers in eastern Colorado. Hand dug in the late 19th century with shovels and picks by Japanese crews, it was the first trans-basin diversion of the Colorado.

Many more trans-basin diversions of water from the west side of the divide to the east would follow. That’s because 80 percent of the water that falls as snow in the Rockies here drains to the west, while 80 percent of the population resides on the east side of the divide.

The Colorado River gathers momentum in western Colorado, sea-green and picking up a good deal of steam in its confluence with the Fraser, Eagle, and Gunnison rivers. As it leaves Colorado and flows through Utah, it joins forces with the Green River, a major tributary, which has its origins in the dwindling glaciers atop Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, the second largest glacier field in the lower 48 states.

The now sediment-laden Colorado (“too thick to drink, too thin to plow” was the adage about such rivers) gets reddish here, and earns its name – Colorado means “reddish.” It heads in a southwestern direction through the slick rock of Utah and northern Arizona, including its spectacular run through the nearly 280-mile-long Grand Canyon, and then on to Las Vegas where it makes a sharp turn south, first forming the border of Nevada and Arizona and then the border of California and Arizona until it reaches the Mexican border. There the Morelos Dam — half of it in Mexico and half in the United States — captures the last drops of the Colorado’s flow, and sends it off to Mexican farmers to irrigate alfalfa, cotton, and asparagus, and to supply Mexicali, Tecate, and other cities and towns with water.

While there are verdant farm fields south of the border here, it comes at a cost. The expansive Colorado River Delta — once a bird- and wildlife-rich oasis nourished by the river that Aldo Leopold described as a land of “a hundred green lagoons” — goes begging for water. And there is not a drop left to flow to the historic finish line at the Gulf of California, into which, long ago, the Colorado used to empty.

Credit: Wikipedia.org

Nature, in fact, has been given short shrift all along the 1,450-mile-long Colorado. In order to support human life in the desert and near-desert through which it runs, the river is one of the most heavily engineered waterways in the world. Along its route, water is stored and siphoned, routed and piped, with a multi-billion dollar plumbing system — a “Cadillac Desert,” as Marc Reisner put it in the title of his landmark 1986 book. There are 15 large dams on the main stem of the river, and hundreds more on the tributaries.

The era of tapping the Colorado River, though, is coming to a close. This muddy river is one of the most contentious in the country — and growing more so by the day. It serves some 40 million people, and far more of its water is promised to users than flows between its banks — even in the best water years. And millions more people are projected to be added to the population served by the Colorado by 2050.

The hard lesson being learned is that even with the Colorado’s elaborate plumbing system, nature cannot be defied. If the over-allocation of the river weren’t problem enough, its best flow years appear to be behind it. The Colorado River Basin has been locked in the grip of a nearly unrelenting drought since 2000, and the two great water savings accounts on the river — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — are at all-time lows. An officially announced crisis could be at hand in the coming months…

Most of the water in the Colorado comes from snow that falls in the Rockies and is slowly released, a natural reservoir that disperses its bounty gradually, over months. But since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has been locked in what experts say is a long-term drought exacerbated by climate change, the most severe drought in the last 1,250 years, tree ring data shows. Snowfall since 2000 has been sketchy — last year it was just two-thirds of normal, tied for its record low. With warmer temperatures, more of the precipitation arrives as rain, which quickly runs off rather than being stored as mountain snow. Many water experts are deeply worried about the growing shortage of water from this combination of over-allocation and diminishing supply.

There is tree ring data to show that multi-decadal mega-droughts have occurred before, one that lasted, during Roman Empire times, for more than half a century. The term drought, though, implies that someday the water shortage will be over. Some scientists believe a long-term, climate change-driven aridification may be taking place, a permanent drying of the West. That renders the uncertainty of water flow in the Colorado off the charts. While not ruling out all hope, experts have abandoned terms like “concerned” and “worrisome” and routinely use words like “dire” and “scary.”

“These conditions could mean a hell of a lot less water in the river,” said Jonathan Overpeck, an interdisciplinary climate scientist at the University of Michigan who has extensively studied the impacts of climate on the flow of the Colorado. “We’ve seen declines in flow of 20 percent, but it could get up to 50 percent or worse later in this century.”

Even in rock-ribbed conservative areas, those who use the water of the Colorado say they are already seeing things they have never seen before — this year state officials in Colorado cut off lower-priority irrigators on the Yampa River, a tributary of the Green, and recreation had to be halted, for example — and have grudgingly come to believe “there is something going on with the climate.”

#Snowpack news: The #ColoradoRiver and tributary streamflow likely won’t recover this water year #COriver #aridification

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

Jeff Lukas, who authored the [Western Water Assessment] briefing, says water managers throughout the Colorado River watershed should brace themselves for diminished streams and the decreasing likelihood of filling the reservoirs left depleted at the end of 2018.

That dire prognosis comes even as much of the southern Rocky Mountains have seen a regular stream of snow storms this winter.

“The snowpack conditions for Colorado and much of the intermountain West don’t look too bad,” Lukas says. “They range from ‘meh’ to ‘OK.’”

Snowpack in river basins that feed the Colorado River range from 75 percent to 105 percent of normal. The entire Upper Colorado River Basin’s snowpack is sitting at about 90 percent of normal for this time of year.

So with an ‘OK’ snowpack in the mountains we should be in the clear, right? Not necessarily. If you’re just looking at snowpack to gauge how well a winter is going — you’re doing it wrong, according to Lukas.

The record hot and dry conditions throughout 2018 sapped the ground of its moisture. Leading into this winter, “that puts us in a deep hole,” Lukas says.

Put another way, throughout the southwest, we’re living in a drought hangover. And it’s going to take a lot more snow to pull us out of it.

Lake Powell, the first major reservoir the Colorado River hits on its journey throughout the southwest, is currently projected to see 64 percent of its average inflow. That translates to a one-year deficit of more than 5 million acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is enough water to supply roughly one to two households for a year.

“That’s not as bad as what happened last year, but it’s pretty close,” Lukas says. “That’s going to just drain the big reservoirs — [Lakes] Powell and Mead — even further.”

Border security will always be elusive — @HighCountryNews

The border between Nogales, Arizona, and Mexico around 1898.
“Nogales, Santa Cruz Co. Showing boundary line between Arizona and Mexico.” General view of center of town from hillside, looking west along International Street, ca. 1898~99
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

From The High Country News (Adam M. Sowards):

Reckoning with History is an ongoing series that seeks to understand the legacies of the past and to put the West’s present moment in perspective.

With their armed guards and imposing structures, American border crossings symbolize permanent frontiers. Boundaries are definitional places, lines that demarcate this side as different from that side. From a longer view, though, they look surprisingly transitory, governed by shifting policies and constantly modified and breached. Today’s incessant nationalist rhetoric concerning the border wall imagines a permanently secured boundary, but actual historical borders and policies have proven impermanent over time, a fact that should dampen expectations.

U.S. borders shifted regularly from American independence in 1783 through the first half of the 19th century, as the young, grasping nation bought, conquered and manipulated its way across much of the continent. The imperialist, racist ideology of Manifest Destiny fueled this constant border redrawing, a reminder that boundaries are neither natural nor permanent. The 1854 Gadsden Purchase added southern Arizona and a sliver of New Mexico and established the continental borders of the United States. They have remained the same ever since, though a waterway between Washington state and Vancouver Island remained in dispute until resolved in favor of the United States in 1872. Although the United States gained overseas acquisitions in the 1898 Spanish-American War, few Americans sought to extend continental territory during the last quarter of the 19th century. Once the boundaries seemed stable, Congress moved to restrict immigration, a process that changed the very nature and meaning of those borders.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act symbolized this shift. The law was the first to restrict immigration based on racial, or national, categories, in line with resurgent segregation in the American South and reservation policies in the West. The exclusion act all but stopped emigration from China. It also made deportation a policy enforcement option and led to racialized policing, a practice that hung over all Chinese communities here and created a “shadow of exclusion” or a “shadowed existence” for Chinese in the United States, according to historian Erika Lee.

By enacting this law, the U.S. government created illegal immigration and the resulting market for doctored papers and guides for illicit movement. Most illegal border crossings happened in the Northwest, sometimes through the same waters that caused the dispute between Washington and British Columbia, as members of Canada’s substantial Chinese immigrant population crossed over. By 1890, government agents estimated that 2,500 laborers a year were illegally moving from Canada into the United States. But surreptitious migration quickly grew along the southern border as well, as historian Patrick Ettinger has shown, as migrants adapted to changing conditions. Chinese laborers in Mexico learned how to cross with false papers or sneak over the border and quietly blend in. The few U.S. officials managing the southern border called for more money, more people and more technology, initiating a strategy and mantra that continues more than a century later. The federal government bulked up its border personnel and turned back many people, but by the 1920s, officials recognized their basic failure to stop illegal migrations.

During the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920, American and Mexican soldiers guard International Street in Nogales. The border marker still stands today.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. did not build its first border fence to keep the fugitive crossers out, though; it built it to stop tick-infected cattle. Ticks had infested the Western cattle industry for decades. Northern states aimed to confine the problem to the Southwest by halting infected cattle, but the insects persisted, spreading Texas fever among cattle who had not developed immunity from exposure as calves. In 1906, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a massive eradication campaign and began quarantining cattle from Mexico. In 1911, the first fence funded by the federal government went up to stop “Mexican” cattle from infecting “American” cattle. As the historian Mary E. Mendoza, who unearthed this episode, has pointed out, it took no great leap for discourse to shift from pestilential animals to pestilential people, feeding on the common rhetoric that associated foreigners with dirtiness and disease. The fences grew and changed in their purpose. “Fences previously used for cattle became tools used to control and herd humans,” explained Mendoza. By the mid-20th century, American officials saw the border as a biological barrier, a place to stop both diseased animals and people perceived as a threat. Racism and indifference fed this formula. As a result, migrants shifted to more dangerous routes, resulting in greater risks and higher death totals. The ramifications are ongoing: Over time, fences designed to prevent cattle from dying became barriers that increased human mortality.

The first border fences built in 1911 were constructed to curb tick infestations of cattle. Pictured, cattle in Pie Town, New Mexico.
http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b25350
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act further transformed the legal regime for the border. Although it widened opportunities for immigration from much of the world, the law, for the first time, established quotas from within the Western Hemisphere. As a result, Congress produced a system that guaranteed more immigrants flowing outside legal channels. Immigration policy in the 20th century followed narrow nationalist frameworks and generally failed to reckon with larger contexts, according to historian Mae Ngai’s brilliant book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004). “That nationalism,” she wrote, “resists humanitarianism and remains blind to the causal connections between the United States’ global projections and the conditions abroad that impel emigration.” Ngai points out how deeply entwined the past and present of the United States are with the rest of the world, especially with Latin America, where the U.S. has protected its own material interests for two centuries

Occasionally, American officials have recognized the folly of border control. In 1927, an exasperated secretary of Labor, James Davis, declared, “Not even a Chinese wall, 9,000 miles in length and built over rivers and deserts and mountains and along the seashores, would seem to permit a permanent solution.” His remarks stand as a prescient assessment of the futility of “securing” the border by physical obstacles. Trying to stop movement there is much like clenching a handful of sand: The harder you squeeze, the more sand escapes. National lines of exclusion and control — represented today by steel walls — seem destined to fail in a world where capital, labor, ideas and cultural influence ping across boundaries as easily as opening an app on a smartphone. Entrenching those national(ist) walls can only lead to more dangerous and inhumane results.

Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian, professor and writer. He lives in Pullman, Washington.