A Possible Solution to the Border Wall Issue

So apparently the folks in Washington DC can't seem to agree on (anything) whether or not to build a border wall. Some people want it. Some people think it's a waste of several billion dollars. And Mexico doesn't seem real interested in paying for it.

I may have a solution.

This solution would not only create a definite barrier on our southern border, but it'd address a number of other issues too. It would create jobs. It would clean up the Gulf. Hell, there might even be good reason for Mexico to pay for it.

What is this solution, you ask? Read on...

Do we actually need a border wall?

Instead of a wall made from unnatural materials like concrete and steel, what if we instead built an earthen embankment, or a tall berm, along the southern border? Sure, it might not be as impenetrable as a vertical wall but if you made it tall enough and sloped the sides steep enough, it'd still serve as a formidable barrier.

Not formidable enough? Take it a step further and plant a bunch of thorny stuff on it. The 2,000 miles of wildlife habitat you'd create in doing so is even more reason to adopt my plan. And the fertile soil this long berm would be made from is sure to grow just about anything.

Instead, Build the Southern Border with Iowa Soil

Those southern soils aren't exactly known for how well they grow stuff. But Iowa soil is. And there just so happens to be a shit ton of it (literally, we raise a lot of livestock too) flowing into the Gulf of Mexico every year.

So why not tap into that wasted resource to solve our little border problem?

For years we've been lamenting the fact that midwestern soil and the nutrients it carries with it is wrecking the Gulf. The Dead Zone is like our 51st state, ranging in size from Delaware at a couple thousand square miles to 2017's whopper of a New Jersey-sized 8,776 square miles.

That's a lot of dirt.

Iowa's contribution alone is significant. Our 23 million-or-so acres of row crop ground gives up an average of five tons per acre of nutrient-laden topsoil per year. That's 115 million tons of topsoil washing off our fields annually.

Now what if we could harvest all that dirt and use it to build a big-ass embankment along the southern border? We'd clean up our waters, build the border barrier (say that three times fast!), and create a bunch of jobs in the process.

I'm telling you, I think I'm on to something. But first, let's answer some the questions I know you have already...

How much soil would it take?

I had to consult an engineer friend on this one but I think I have it figured out. Let's say our embankment would be 20 feet tall with a 2:1 or 50% slope, which is about the steepest I'm told we should go to prevent erosion issues. And we don't want our barrier washing out.

So a 20' tall hill would have a base that is 80' wide. In cross section, that's an area of 800 square feet (bonus points for you if you remember how to find the area of triangle without consulting Google). To get total volume, we simply multiply that by the length of our embankment (2,000 miles or 10,560,000 feet).

800 ft2 x 10,560,000 ft = 8.44x10^9 ft3

Then multiply that by the weight of soil (approximately 80 pounds per cubic foot) and divide it by 2,000 pounds in a ton and you get how much of Iowa's soil it would take to build a 2,000 mile 20' tall earthen embankment:

337,920,000 tons

Sounds like a lot, doesn't it? But consider again that Iowa sends an average of 115,000,000 tons of farm field soil down its rivers and streams every single year. At that rate, it would only take about three years' worth of Iowa soil at current loss rates to build the border berm.

How would we get that soil from the Gulf to the border?

Easy. A pipeline.
There are over 190,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipelines criss-crossing the United States.
Source: API
There's already an enormous network of pipelines throughout the US, with a ton of them in the Gulf Coast area. Shouldn't be too hard to build another one. Actually, it'd be significantly easier since it'd be above ground.

One end - the intake - of the pipeline would be at or near the Delta of the Mississippi. Not out in the Gulf where the water gets all salty. We need fresh water (I'll tell you why in a minute). Send some dredges out to start harvesting all that wonderful soil and feed it into the pipeline. Just make sure to only get Iowa's soil because as we all know, it's the best.

The other end of the pipeline would be at the easternmost end of our southern border. The pipeline would deliver the soil-water slurry that was pumped out of the delta and workers would build up the berm as the water drained away.

Photo credit: By Agnes Monkelbaan - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Didn't I mention this would create jobs? Good ones. We'll need pipefitters, machine operators, engineers, surveyors, inspectors, porta-potty providers...It'll be a big project. Huge even.

Then as the berm grows, more sections can be added to the pipeline to deliver our soil farther to the west until, eventually, we have all 2,000 miles built up.

What about all that water?

To prevent clogs in the line, the pipeline obviously can't transport just raw soil. It would carry a watered-down soil-laden slurry that, once delivered to its destination, would have the water drained off leaving behind the soil to build up into the actual embankment. But rather than just waste all that good water, I say we let it help us pay for this project.

And who better to charge than the very southern neighbors we're barricading?

Look, we all know Mexico has its share of water problems. I mean, the first rule of vacationing down there is not to drink the water. I don't actually know why their water is so bad, but hey, it doesn't matter. We'll sell them ours. I've been drinking the water out of the Mississippi River (no, not directly) for years and I'm fine. Mostly. Probably.

Photo source
This seems like a win-win-win scenario to me. Iowa can keep doing precious little about its soil loss, nutrient loading, and water quality problems. We'll clean up the Gulf using proven technology perfected by the oil industry. We'll create oil-industry-like jobs in the process. And Mexico will buy the byproduct which will help pay for the whole project. We could even send some on up to Nevada. I hear they could use it.

Hell, we could take it a step further and solve some of our energy woes by lining the south side of this embankment with solar panels. I don't know how much power 400+ million square feet of solar panels would put out, but I'm guessing it'd be a bunch.

Why stop there?

But why stop at a mere 20 feet tall? It's not like Iowa is going to run out of soil, right? Just keep the pumps running and keep growing the berm. By my calculations, by the time my youngest kid (currently about half-a-year old) graduates high school, Iowa will have sent enough topsoil downstream to make that 2,000 mile embankment 35 feet high and 140 feet wide at the base.

At that size, my kid might be able to see it from the air when he flies over it on during his Spring Break trip to Cancun.

At least he'll be able to drink the water when he gets there.

Funding the Trust Would Be a Better Solution

Our other option is to get serious about our unsustainable rates of soil loss and dismal water quality and create funding mechanisms scaled to the magnitude of the problems.

Like funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.

The soil that’s been lost in the time since voters established the constitutionally protected Fund in 2010 could have built this hypothetical border embankment more than twice over. Yet the Fund still sits empty because Iowa’s lawmakers refuse to act.

Let’s stop hiding behind our mountain of lost soil and make the bold decisions necessary to keep it in place, growing our economy instead of algae…or walls.

And don't forget that the Trust is more than water quality or whatever hot topic prevails in any given legislative session. The Trust is, by design, a comprehensive funding mechanism that addresses a vast array of issues facing conservation and outdoor recreation in this state. But it's also an engine for economic development. For tourism. For commerce. Forever.

The best time to have funded the trust was years ago, right after 63% of voters wrote it into the constitution. The second best time is now.

I have no interest in my kids asking me why my generation couldn't stem the tide of soil loss, poor water quality, and laughable levels of investments in park and recreation amenities in our state. But I can't do this alone.

Contact your legislator and the Governor and tell them you support funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund AND the formula that accompanies it. It only takes a few minutes to punch out an email or leave a phone message at the switchboard.

To learn more about the effort to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, check out the Iowa's Water and Land Legacy website at www.IowasWaterandLandLegacy.org or follow the coalition on Facebook.