McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A day after some members of the Laredo City Council and the mayor expressed concerns about the costs of a multi-million-dollar Binational River Park, two ambassadors on Wednesday touted the project during a border trade conference Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Border Report has learned.
The Laredo City Council on Tuesday night ultimately tabled an item to discuss “a special election for funding” for a sprawling 6-mile ecological restoration zone that is being proposed on both sides of the Rio Grande between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, according to the agenda item. But it was after Mayor Pete Saenz said he believed the federal government should fully fund it and two city councilmen said the city has other pressing needs, like fixing its aging water pipes, according to a video of the meeting.
Environmentalist told Border Report they were concerned about the discussion and that it’s too early to talk costs for such a massive project. They also feared that if the council had discussed and voted on the item it could have been killed just as it is getting off the ground.
But Gerald “Gerry” Schwebel, the executive vice president of the International Bank of Commerce who is part of a binational working group that is studying the project, told Border Report that the U.S. ambassador to Mexico and the Mexican ambassador to the United States speak favorably about seeing the project come to fruition. And, he says, international plans continue “very much” to move forward.
Both Ken Salazar, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and Mexican Ambassador to the U.S., Esteban Moctezuma, were keynote speakers Wednesday at the Eighth Annual Building a Competitive U.S.-Mexico Border Conference hosted by the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute and the Border Trade Alliance in Washington, D.C.
Schwebel says throughout the day, they discussed the merits of the Laredo and Nuevo Laredo river project.
“Both ambassadors talked about the project and it’s a dynamic project they want to pursue,” said Schwebel. “It’s an evolving process. We do have the ambassadors on board and they want to move swiftly but this is like anything else we’re all working together.”
This is Schwebel’s second trip to Washington, D.C., in two months in which he touted the virtues of this project to lawmakers and officials within the Biden administration.
The project is in its early phases but proponents hope it will evolve eventually into a 6-mile ecological restoration zone with trails and other educational infrastructure along the Rio Grande. It could even include amphitheaters on both sides of the river, as well as other amenities.
Tricia Cortez, executive director of the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center, is also part of the binational working group that is studying the project.
She was at Tuesday night’s Laredo City Council meeting and she said her group implored the council to be patient and allow them more time to present more concrete financial figures to the council and community.
“I know there are questions about costs and what will it all look like and so we’re working to answer those questions but we do believe it is a critical investment we have to make for Laredo because the Rio Grande is such an endangered and stressed river system and we need this type of restoration for it ecologically and to preserve our water source,” Cortez told Border Report.
All of the water for the 256,000 residents of Laredo comes from the Rio Grande, but Cortez said city estimates show that unless more preservation efforts are embarked upon now, by 2040 the city will have to find an additional water source.
“By the city’s projection, we only have 18 more years,” Cortez said. “So it’s a critical infrastructure project.”
Schwebel has said the entire project could cost $500 million. Currently, they are working on Phase 1, called Project Uno.
The council tabled the item and plans to take it up in a couple of weeks. Border Report has reached out to ask council members if they have concerns about the project and this story will be updated with any new information.
Cortez says community buy-in is extremely important and she said they also are rethinking changing the name to expand it from a “park,” in order to give it more context and scope to the general public.
“It is the right thing not only for water quality and water flows but to provide much-needed recreation and amenities for Laredoans and we are worthy of this scale of a project and we deserve this as a really special unique border community,” Cortez said.