Texas is planning to install floating barriers in the middle of the Rio Grande in an attempt to block migrants from crossing the river into the United States, Governor Greg Abbott announced Thursday.
The barrier will be composed of large orange buoys held together by a cable and anchored in the riverbed, according to mock images of the plan presented by Abbott and other state officials during a border security bill signing ceremony in Austin. The state is planning to start next month with a 1,000-foot span of barrier in the river near Eagle Pass that has been a busy crossing point.
“We can put mile after mile after mile of these buoys,” Abbott said.
The governor, a Republican, did not say what the state planned to spend on the floating barriers, but the legislation he signed authorizes $5.1 billion for border security.
The Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector, where Eagle Pass is located, has become one of the deadliest places along the US southern border. Migrants are routinely swept away by powerful river currents, and more than 200 deaths were recorded in the sector between 2017 and 2021, the latest year for which US Customs and Border Protection statistics are available.
Eight people drowned on a single day last September after dozens were swept away in the Eagle Pass area, and a Texas National Guard soldier died near there in April 2022 trying to rescue two people who turned out to be drug smuggling suspects.
The Trump administration solicited proposals for floating border barriers in 2020 but did not award a contract. One CBP official said Thursday the agency opted against installing the buoy system because it was expected to increase drownings and risks to US agents conducting water rescues. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Abbott was joined by Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who told reporters the purpose of the barrier was not to deter crossings by increasing the mortal risks. “We want to prevent people from drowning, and this is a proactive way,” McCraw said.
The floating barrier will include a layer of webbing anchored beneath the surface of the water that is designed to prevent people from swimming under the buoys, McCraw said. The buoys range from 4 to 6 feet in diameter, and their rounded shape makes them extremely difficult to climb over.
“What these buoys are going to allow us to do is to prevent people from even getting to the border,” Abbott said. “When we’re dealing with gatherings of 100 or even 1,000 people, one of the goals is to slow down and deter as many of them as possible.”
Abbott has been a frequent critic of President Biden’s border policies amid record numbers of illegal crossings. The governor has deployed state troopers and National Guard soldiers to the border, while adding miles of concertina wire and other obstacles to migrants.
Officials at CBP and the Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to requests for comment following Abbott’s announcement.
Some hydrologists and engineers have warned about the environmental risks of placing large floating objects with cables into the middle of a dynamic river channel, noting they are likely to clog with debris. If the anchor system fails or the cable were to be severed by smugglers with power tools, the unmoored barrier could create a downstream hazard.
The images of the barriers presented by Texas officials were stamped with the logo of a company called Cochrane USA. The company’s website advertises floating barrier systems with sharp spikes, but the version Texas plans to install lacks that feature. A company representative who responded at Cochrane’s office in Fredericksburg, Va., said he did not have authorization to respond to questions.
The US International Boundary Water Commission, which works with Mexican authorities to regulate activity and water use along the Rio Grande, has opposed the introduction of barriers into the river and along the flood plain. Frank Fisher, a spokesman for the commission, said Abbott’s announcement “caught us by surprise.”
“Our door is always open to discussions with Texas and we have recently shared information with them about our permitting process and federal law,” Fisher said in a statement, adding the IBWC is now “studying what Texas is proposing.”
The Trump administration built 458 miles of new border barriers at a cost of more than $11 billion, but relatively few miles of the towering steel fencing was installed in the state of Texas. The state’s boundary with Mexico is defined by the nearly 1,300-mile course of the Rio Grande, but the river’s circuitous path makes it essentially impossible to erect a physical barrier along the border itself.
Nearly all of the riverfront land in Texas is held in private hands, which posed an additional obstacle to the Trump administration’s efforts to install hundreds of miles of steel barriers along river levees and across farms and ranches.
Putting a floating barrier in the middle of the river would, in theory, allow the state to avoid some of the disputes with private landowners that Trump officials faced.