SAN ANTONIO (Border Report) — The ambassadors to the United States and Mexico on Wednesday both threw their full support behind an ambitious and costly environmental conservation project on the South Texas border, saying it will save the Rio Grande and improve border security.

During the opening day of the U.S.-Mexico Border Environmental Forum XXVI, held in San Antonio, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar and Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Esteban Moctezuma urged private investors, municipalities and federal officials from both countries to get behind a binational river park project that is being developed on the Rio Grande between the cities of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

And they said it should be a model for development along the U.S.-Mexico border from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas.

“These types of projects that are typified by Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, and the leadership of those two communities with the help of the City of San Antonio, are projects that should be imagined, envisioned and planned up and down the 2,000-mile border,” Salazar said in response to a question from Border Report during a news conference after his presentation.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar, left, and Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Esteban Moctezuma, center, touted the binational river park project in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas, on Aug. 24, 2022, during the U.S.-Mexico Border Environmental Forum in San Antonio. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Both were keynote speakers at the forum, hosted by the North American Development Bank (NADBank), where the theme of the two-day conference is “Creating a Greener and More Prosperous Border.”

Nuevo León Gov. Samuel Alejandro García Sepúlveda on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in San Antonio, signed an agreement with NADBank Managing Director Calixto Mateos Hanel for a technical assistance grant totaling $500,000 by both entities to study water conservation and resiliency methods in the northern Mexican border state. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Both ambassadors touted the need for more binational agreements that promote trade, a cleaner border and more opportunities for investments

“We have to see the border as a region,” Moctezuma said. “The different pressures we have on the border can be an opportunity to create a secure border investing in it. Investing in infrastructure. Investing in environment. Investing in people.”

That request turned into real money during a lunchtime speech a few hours later when Nuevo León Gov. Samuel Alejandro García Sepúlveda signed an agreement with NADBank Managing Director Calixto Mateos Hanel for a technical assistance grant to study water conservation and resiliency methods in the northern Mexican border state.

García pledged $250,000 from his northern Mexican border state to match the $250,000 that NADBank has promised for studies to identify diversification and other water sources for the border region.

“I’m glad that the border has been raised to a level where Washington, Mexico and others see us with value,” Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said as he spoke about the particulars of the river park project.

The agreement signed Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, between the government of Nuevo León, Mexico, and NADBank is in Spanish. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“I think we’ve gotten there. Ambassador Moctezuma said you really can’t create something without imagining it. Well, we have imagined it. We have a vision and we’re beginning to create that there at the border and it begins with the river,” Saenz said.

Phase I, or Project Uno, of the proposed binational river park, includes the cleanup of carrizo cane and other invasive species along the banks of the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas. On the Mexican side, officials are investing $72 million to clean up a sewage plant that is spewing toxins into the river, which is the sole source of drinking water for 6 million residents in South Texas.

But the project, called “ambitious” by almost every speaker on Wednesday, could total $500 million and take a decade or longer to complete. It could rival San Antonio’s Riverwalk in terms of infrastructure and would create development opportunities and commerce between the nations in areas that Salazar said have been “neglected.”

An aerial view of an architectural schematic of what the proposed binational river park could look like between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. (Rendering courtesy of Overland Partners Architects in collaboration with Able City)

“We’ve developed a plan,” Saenz told the audience filled with investors, bankers and well-tied developers from both nations. “But it lacks money and locals can only provide so much because this is a very ambitious program.”

Salazar said cleaning up the river banks will also improve border security, as well as help ecological sustainability.

“Laredo and Nuevo Laredo are an example of that where they now have a plan to create a 10-kilometer binational river project on both sides of the river that will address first of all security because you’ll be able to secure that area. Second of all, development because you’ll be able to create development on both sides of the border. And third, environmental because right now the invasive species that inhabit that part of the river are essentially sucking up and drying up a lot of the water,” Salazar told Border Report.

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022 in San Antonio challenged the Biden administration to fund a “virtual wall” by helping to fund the Binational River Project between the two nations. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Saenz called the project the equivalent of a “virtual wall” and he challenged President Joe Biden’s administration to come up with funding.

“This project not only restores the ecology,” Saenz said. “It also secures the border through a virtual wall, which is basically removing these invasive species, and more openness for our authorities to detect and come to the aid of the border that is also provided in this plan that we have.”

Rick Archer, chief architect for the project, from the San Antonio firm of Overland Partners Inc., said a working group that is promoting the project just returned from a trip to Mexico City on Sunday where they met with several officials from the cabinet of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

They also met with environmental groups, non-governmental organizations and municipalities, and Archer told Border Report they got a “wonderful reception” from Mexican officials and government leaders.

“They share a general enthusiasm for the project,” Archer said. “We are creating a conservation theme that’s done together — juntos,” Archer said.

“It’s the first of its kind and is a symbol of how other border cities can be,” he said.

Some in the audience of 200 agreed.

Coleen Clementson of San Diego said she’d like to see this developed on the West Coast.

“I would hope us to become what we’re seeing with the two Laredos,” Coleen Clementson, deputy CEO for the San Diego Association of Governments, told forum participants during a later session.