Heavy rainfall expected to deluge South Texas could make border crossings a more risky endeavor for migrants crossing the U.S. southern border after the expiration of asylum restrictions known as Title 42.
The weather conditions, which are expected to swell the Rio Grande River along the border, come just after the pandemic-era restrictions were lifted, timing that could put lives in danger as the number of people crossing the border rises.
“The last time they saw rivers run this high in the area would be 2017 or 2018,” said Gregory Waller, a service coordination hydrologist with the National Weather Service West Gulf River Forecast Center, of river levels. “These flows are not common.”
The rain had begun already Friday and was forecast to continue into the weekend.
The Rio Grande is the fifth longest river in the U.S. and extends some 1,900 miles from Colorado through New Mexico and down into Texas and northern Mexico. It supplies drinking and irrigation water for roughly 6 million people and 2 million acres of land, according to the International Boundary and Water Commission.
A stretch of the river between the Texas border towns of Del Rio and Laredo, which twists and turns for more than 150 miles, is of most concern, Waller said. That’s because dams and reservoirs provide flood control along the Rio Grande.
The Amistad Reservoir near Del Rio is at 35% capacity and the Falcon Reservoir near Laredo is at 21% capacity, according to the Texas Water Development Board, meaning both should be able to capture and control floodwaters effectively.
Stretches of the river between those two towns could see heavy rainfall and localized flooding, Waller said.
“This can be interpreted as a possible worst case scenario forecast,” a message posted to the agency’s Twitter page said. “We are seeing a 60%-70% probability of at least 4 inches of rainfall.”
Drowning deaths have been reported along this stretch of water before. Last year, nine migrants died near Eagle Pass after heavy rainfall in the area, and a Texas National Guardsman drowned while attempting to save two migrants from being swept away by the current.
On Thursday, Texas Public Safety law enforcement officers erected barbed wire near the river to deter people from attempting to swim across. The city of Eagle Pass warned residents the area could receive as much as 10 inches of rain in some areas.
Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this week directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management to prepare for severe storms and flash floods. The governor ordered several swift-water boat squads to prepare to respond and perform rescues in southeast Texas.
On the Rio Grande near El Paso, dam operators were releasing water for irrigation from the Elephant Butte Reservoir, which could complicate water crossings in that area, according to the local water utility, El Paso Water.
“After minimal flows for many months, the increase of flows could pose a risk for anyone who might be crossing,” El Paso Water said in a statement. “We want our community and migrants to be aware they may find themselves in danger while trying to cross the river or canals.”
The utility said it was working with the Hope Border Institute, a community organization, to distribute flyers to migrant shelters across the border in Juarez warning of the risk.
It was not clear how much water was being released from the Elephant Butte reservoir and a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates its dam, did not return a phone call.