McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A proposed binational river park, which would straddle and unite the border cities of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, has gotten some financial support and political backing, and organizers hope to get even more support from the president of Mexico.
Lead architect Rick Archer, of the San Antonio-based firm Overland Partners Inc., says he and a binational delegation from South Texas and northern Mexico are traveling to Mexico City on Sunday to meet with cabinet leaders of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
He said they also will meet with business and local leaders to try to get more buy-in on the project, which includes the restoration of 1,000 acres of riverfront land on both sides of the Rio Grande.
“It’s a new way of thinking about borders,” Archer told Border Report via Zoom on Tuesday.
The project is unlike any other undertaken on the Southwest border, and involves 6 miles of riverfront restoration on both sides of the border, several officials familiar with the project have told Border Report.
And while it is still mostly in a conceptual stage, what’s clear is that there is international buy-in from Mexican and U.S. officials, and federal funding has been made available from both countries to get it started.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, recently announced that $2 million has been appropriated for the Fiscal Year 2023 to kick off the binational river park project on the U.S. side.
That money is in the form of community project funding for the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center (RGISC) and the city of Laredo to help restore a segment of the Rio Grande.
The $2 million will fund the first phase — Project Uno — which involves the eradication of invasive carrizo cane along the river banks on the Texas side, as well as planting native plants and trees that hopefully will not soak up as much water from the river, Cuellar told Border Report. Project Uno is expected to take 12 to 18 months.
“It’s not only a beautification project but it also affects water. Because if you get rid of one of those cedar trees that we have over there, that sucks up hundreds and hundreds of gallons of water a day just with one particular tree itself,” Cuellar said Monday in Zapata, Texas, where he announced federal emergency funds to help dredge the Rio Grande, which is drying up due to drought.
Mexican officials have also pledged $72 million to revamp a sewage system on their side of the Rio Grande, which Archer says will help to significantly clean up the river.
The Rio Grande supplies 6 million people with drinking water. It is the only source of water for Laredo and several other South Texas communities.
“So talking about the drought, it actually would help us when we talk about improving our water systems,” Cuellar said.
Archer says his firm is working to thread together 40 projects that were planned on both sides of the river for the 6-mile area into one expanded and enticing restoration that “brings people together.”
“Part of our job was really to begin to stitch those together, to weave those together into a cohesive whole,” he said.
There are a series of community parks and community green spaces that would be “inter-connected along the river,” Archer said. In addition, there would be urban parks at the core of both city centers.
Organizers also want an amphitheater to be built on both sides of the river bank so concerts can be held on one side and heard on the other, and listeners could also be in boats on the international river.
Archer also said they have designs for a new bridge where people from both sides could meet over the river and visit, similar to Friendship Park in southern California, but without a border wall in between them.
“What we’re really trying to do is create a real place where people can interact without boundaries between them,” he said.
Archer said he had an opportunity to present the project directly to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz in Washington, D.C., earlier this year to tout the project, along with a delegation from South Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
He said he was impressed that Haaland actually took the meeting herself and listened to a 30-minute presentation.
Ortiz, who is from South Texas, is familiar with the region. and Archer said he discussed how restoration efforts could help Border Patrol agents along the riverbanks.
They also met with members of Congress and officials with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he said.
“So on all fronts, we’re getting incredibly positive feedback. We’re headed to Mexico City on Sunday to basically make the same presentation to political and business leaders in Mexico,” Archer said.
Those familiar with the project say it could be decades in the making and could cost upwards of $500 million once fully completed.