Boquillas: Tangled History Of Electricity’s Arrival

It’s been almost two years since the opening of the international border crossing into Boquillas, Mexico from Big Bend National Park.

More change is set to come to the small Mexican town of about 45 families. As we’ve reported, the Mexican government is helping to bring solar power to the town, but making that happen hasn’t been easy.

In fact, a similar effort to bring power to Boquillas failed amid a dispute over protecting an endangered bird species.

When you cross over the river into town, you notice a major difference in Boquillas. New utility poles, running wire to each home and business, line the street. These have replaced old poles, bare of wire, that stood for more than two decades – waiting to carry electricity that never came.

Bernado Rogel’s family owns a hotel and restaurant in Boquillas. He was here when electricity came close to arriving the first time around.

“I mean, we have everything ready, everything wired, houses, everything ready,” he says, “but the last minute, they say no, and we never have electricity here.”

In 1988, the Mexican government wanted to bring in electricity from the US through Big Bend National Park. The project appeared to have the green light. Rogel and others villagers wired their homes and installed light fixtures. But, in the final hour, with the utility poles installed, the project stopped, leaving the villagers without this basic amenity, and preventing the growth of the village.

Having no electricity has been hard on restaurants and hotels. Only a few families in town own propane refrigerators. (Ian Lewis/KRTS)

Having no electricity has been hard on restaurants and hotels. Only a few families in town own propane refrigerators. (Ian Lewis/KRTS)

“If we have electricity we can have more, like hotels, more restaurants, more population come here. Without electricity you know, its very hard to live here,” says Rogel.

When the hope of electricity coming from the U.S. vanished, some villagers took the wire from their homes to make small sculptures to sell to tourists.

Others found ways to generate meager power in their homes. Pablo Robles, a resident of Boquillas, uses a small battery and solar panel to generate enough power to light a few bulbs in his home.

Pablo Robles, a resident of Boquillas, shows KRTS intern Ian Lewis how he uses a small battery and solar panel to light his home. (Lorne Matelon/KRTS)

Pablo Robles, a resident of Boquillas, shows KRTS intern Ian Lewis how he uses a small battery and solar panel to light his home. (Lorne Matalon/KRTS)

Now, 25 years later, the long wait for electricity is over. But when the engineers came to install the solar panels, they were as perplexed as anyone by the sight of bare utility poles already in the town.

Ivan Antonov Velev, the project manager, said, “It was very interesting, when we first arrived here to find out that there were some poles already here. We were asking the local guys, whats happening? Why? There’s no electricity.”

So what did happen?

Rogel voices a belief held by many in town, “the last minute a group in the US, they say no, because the peregrine falcon can die in those wires.”

In the 1980’s, the peregrine falcon was an endangered species – its not anymore-  but back then Big Bend National Park was closely monitoring the few birds that lived in the park. Raymond Skiles, the park’s wildlife biologist, was part of that effort.

The Park Service was asked by the federal government to perform an environmental assessment of the project, including evaluating potential impacts on the peregrine falcon. They did, and gave the project the go-ahead, stating that “it would be unconscionable to deny human beings anywhere such a basic amenity.” But some questioned their assessment.

“One of the major environmental organizations, non governmental, questioned whether we had adequately analyzed and addressed the potential for this endangered bird to be harmed by having this power line suspended in this hunting corridor for the bird that is the rio grande river,” says Skiles. 

That group was the Sierra Club. Ken Kramer was the director of the group’s Texas chapter at the time. He says there was concern that development could harm the bird’s habitat – or the bird itself – and that if development started at all – there was no telling where it would stop.

“We had a concern that there could potentially be some large scale development in Boquillas if you had electric power being brought across the border from the United States,” says Kramer, “I mean there was even talk about a possibility of a landing strip to bring people in by air.”

The Park Service made it clear they would not allow any future increase in the power supply, and also took a closer look at the potential impacts on the peregrine falcon. They asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service for their opinion. Skiles found the Park’s statement in the archives.

Raymond Skiles, Big Bend National Park's Wildlife Biologist, retrieves records on the Park's involvement in the project to bring electricity to Boquillas through the National Park. (Ian Lewis/KRTS)

Raymond Skiles, Big Bend National Park’s Wildlife Biologist, retrieves records on the Park’s involvement in the project to bring electricity to Boquillas through the National Park. (Ian Lewis/KRTS)

“A determination was made that this would NOT have any detrimental effects on the peregrine falcon,” says Skiles.

But, by the time the park was able to OK the power lines into Boquillas, the window had closed.The electric company backed out.

Kramer thinks that opposition from the Sierra Club and local ranchers may have had an influence on their decision.

“Maybe in the final analysis it just seemed like a project that had more negative consequences than positive consequences,” says Kramer.

Years have passed, but some people remain bitter towards the Sierra Club.

They believe the group placed the lives of a few birds above the people of Boquillas – struggling without a service that people on both sides of the border have long taken for granted.

But Kramer says the issue is not so simple, saying, “Its hard to divorce issues like development in an area from the issue of protecting a particular species whose habitat can be encroached upon, and perhaps rendered problematic for the species.”

Poles and wires run behind the schoolhouse. The residents of Boquillas are hopeful that electricity will improve their quality of life. (Ian Lewis/KRTS)

Poles and wires run behind the schoolhouse. The residents of Boquillas are hopeful that electricity will improve their quality of life. (Ian Lewis/KRTS)

Now though, Elida Mesa says that she and the other residents of Boquillas are just relieved to have electricity coming.

“We’re really happy here with the project. Thanks to God and the government for giving it to us,” she says.

-Ian Lewis

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