Questioning clear-cutting: Some concerned about wildlife affected by flood plan

HARLINGEN — Christina Mild remembers the big backhoes tearing trees from the banks of the Arroyo Colorado.

That was about two years ago, she said from her home, which overlooks the arroyo near Ed Carey Drive.

Now, she’s bracing for the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission to return to continue its ongoing project aimed at flood control in many residents’ backyards.

This year, crews plan a five-month project to clear 50-foot buffers along a 3.7-acre stretch of the arroyo from the McKelvey Park to the Treasure Hills areas.

Clearing parts of the banks will allow the arroyo — part of the IBWC’s regional floodway system — to carry more floodwater, said Sally Spener, the agency’s spokeswoman in El Paso.

This year, the agency plans to cut about 19 acres of trees and vegetation.

“That’s horrendous,” Mild, a master naturalist who lives off the arroyo on Clifford Street, said yesterday. “That’s 19 acres worth of food for animals.”

Yesterday, crews were scheduled to launch the project but canceled work in the McKelvey Park area, Javier Mendez, the city’s parks director, said.

Mendez said crews continued to gear up for the project.

“They’re mobilizing,” Mendez said. “They’re moving their equipment into town.”

The IBWC is focusing on the area critical to the agency’s flood control program, Spener said.

“Our studies showed a chockpoint where we needed more aggressive action,” Spener said. “Some areas, over time, built up heavier levels of vegetation.”

Heavy vegetation causes floodwaters to crest the twisting arroyo’s banks, flooding the area, said Jimmy Stout, an official with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“It acts like a big catcher’s mitt that blocks the flow,” Stout said. “It catches all the debris and prevents water from flowing and it spills over. I don’t like to see any habitat loss, but if it’s a threat to human life, it’s going to go and I understand that.”

The arroyo’s banks nurture one of the area’s last wildlife habits, said Jim Chapman, president of the Sierra Club’s local chapter.

“It’s probably the best habitat in Harlingen,” Chapman said. “Everything’s living down there — javelina, bobcat. It’s a tremendous asset for Harlingen.”

About two years ago, IBWC crews cleared parts of the arroyo’s banks near Hugh Ramsey Nature Park, said Mild, who lives across the road from the park.

Mild said the agency’s backhoes destroyed trees, leaving the area exposed to erosion.

“They did a good bit of clearing, a lot of it was irresponsible,” Mild said. “The IBWC came through with these huge machines, pulling out trees, pulling out entire root systems. They were just driving back and forth and back and forth on those banks, compacting the soil. It destroys the river banks, increases erosion and destroys vast areas.”

But Spener said crews will work with Fish & Wildlife officials to plant native plants such as black-eyed Susan, climbing milkweed and cutleaf daisy along the 50-foot buffers to avoid disturbing wildlife and prevent soil erosion.

Crews also will leave tall grassy areas five- to six-feet wide next to the arroyo, Spener said.

But Mild said the clearing of trees and vegetation will leave hatching birds and butterflies with less food and shelter.

“Fall is a terrible time to prune because all the birds and butterflies are hatching out and will need this growth,” Mild said. “This time of year, wildlife pressure on the brush is so high.”

Mild said the IBWC’s work could hinder the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, the Harlingen-based event running from Nov. 2 to 6.

“It’s especially important to take out a bunch of stuff before or during the birding festival,” Mild said. “All the migratory birds are coming through here.”

Last week, city officials expressed concern in a meeting with IBWC officials.

Mayor Chris Boswell warned the work could hamper the annual birding festival, the city’s top tourist draw.

But Spener said crews will avoid Hugh Ramsey Nature Park — part of the World Birding Center — during the festival.

Commissioner Michael Mezmar also expressed concern the IBWC’s work could drive javelina from the arroyo’s banks into nearby neighborhoods.

Early this year, city animal control officers captured javelina in the Parkview Terrace subdivision after herds climbed from the nearby arroyo, apparently in search of food.