Thanks to aggressive conservation programs and careful planning, El Paso has averted a major water crisis — for now.
By Rod Davis
The Native Americans had come and gone for unknown centuries, and then the Spaniards arrived in 1581, so entranced by what they later called El Paso del Rio del Norte that they celebrated Thanksgiving there in 1598. The pass at the foot of the Rocky Mountains must have looked like a desert Eden. A strong, wide river flowing between scrub-dotted mountains to anchor a lush valley green with cottonwoods and willows, a botanic harbor of black bears, mule deer, rabbits, eagles and hawks, nurtured by the thick, fertile soil of an ancient silt basin nothing like the parched floor of the Chihuahuan desert.
Who could have imagined the riverine valley 400 years later? The fecund topography more brown now than green, dense with houses and highways, factories and high-rises, the river choked into concrete channels, its very volume and purity measured and debated daily. More than 2 million humans divided into the cities of two different countries and the original wildlife all but obliterated.
And who would have guessed that what might save the 21st century descendants of those first settlers was not the river that had drawn them, but vast pockets of water unseen, honeycombed thousands of feet underground? And who could have foreseen that even this serendipity — so uncharacteristic of the harsh rules of desert life — might itself be spent dry?
We don’t know. What we do know is that people came, and prospered, and built El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Today, across the Southwest, the life-and-death battle for their survival, led decisively, if almost at the eleventh hour, by the former, is being watched with more than passing interest. Call it the ultimate reality show.
El Paso and Juárez, whose ecological destinies cannot be separated, share the mixed honor of being among the most rapidly expanding cities in their respective countries. Growth in El Paso and Juárez is up more than 50 percent in the last two decades, so El Paso Water Utilities now serves about 700,000. Juárez has virtually exploded, to at least 1.3 million. The combined population is predicted to double by 2020, to about 3.4 million, and that’s probably conservative.
The numbers are important, because water is ultimately a numbers game. How many drops quench how much thirst? For whom?
For most of El Paso’s history, the numbers have turned on the bounty of the river. But it is famously stressed by the dozens of communities and hundreds of agricultural and industrial needs along its 1,900 miles, beginning in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, then running down through the middle of New Mexico and finally defining the 1,250-mile Texas-Mexico border until it hits the Gulf at Boca Chica. More than once in the last decade, the river dried up en route.
In good years, such as this one, the river is high from unusually heavy rains (12.20 inches compared to an average of 811 inches) and deep snowpack. El Paso can draw from it about half of its total demand. In bad years the draw is less. It’s a sliding scale.
The upper limit of water that can be taken from the river is about 100 million gallons per day, the capacity that can be handled by the city’s two river water treatment plants. Allotments are delivered by El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 and indirectly by a variety of federal and international treaties. It rarely gets to that. Although the river averages a flow rate of 573,000 acre-feet a year, the volume is usually much weaker. In 2004, the flow was only about 40 percent of its average. It could rise up to 70 percent this year.
The other end of the sliding scale leads to the aquifers, or bolsons (also bolsónes in Spanish — the unique Southwestern term for the broad pockets of underground water reserves is listed in dictionaries in both Spanish and English forms). The biggest bolson is the Hueco, about 9,000 feet of porous silt, sand and granite at its thickest. The smaller Mesilla is about 2,000 feet thick.
The Hueco Bolson stretches along the east side of the Franklin Mountains, which cut through the middle of El Paso, and runs down the length of the county, more or less along the line of the river, but also stretching into Mexico, Hudspeth County to the east and New Mexico to the north. The Mesilla is basically west of the mountains but also crosses the same boundaries.
The actual volume of the bolsons is still being measured, or, in geologist terminology, “modeled,” but the basic game plan for the city is to draw 40,000 acre-feet from the bolsons in “normal” years and up to 75,000 in dry years.
In Juárez, the Hueco Bolson has no self-imposed gauge. It is the only source of drinking water. The city takes as much as it wants. The 60,000 acre-feet of the Rio Grande it gets under international treaty go to agricultural or industrial uses.
In the years to come, especially during periodic droughts or because of other problems along the troubled Rio Grande, the water from down under could be tapped even more. Consider recent numbers: Of the 101,495 acre-feet demand from the city of El Paso in 2004, a total of 71,701 acre-feet came from the bolsons (49,480 acre-feet from the Hueco and 22,221 acre-feet from the Mesilla) and only 29,794 acre-feet came from the low-flowing river.
The 2004 demand was down considerably from 120,485 acre-feet in 2002, but in that year the river input was much higher, at 58,743 acre-feet, prompting a lesser proportion from the bolsons, which combined for 61,742 acre-feet.
Both amounts are within the city’s projected range of use, but clearly, the bolsons are taking strong hits in their backup role, and it’s been noticed. Five years ago, newspaper articles and early interpretations of groundwater studies were predicting that the Hueco already would have been sucked dry by now — or would be in another 20 years.
El Paso Water Utilities had been having similar thoughts, or nightmares, but for longer. Fifteen years ago, the city’s big utility began buying “water ranches” near Valentine and Van Horn, augmented since then by more land over the Bone Springs and Capitan Reef aquifers, preserving holdings in four different counties (Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis and Presidio). EPWU reasoned that the way to assuage the thirst of its citizens might be to “mine” water from distant wells and pump it in through long pipelines not coincidentally similar to the oil patch models, since a number of oil firms also started looking at water the way they had once looked at petroleum.
Today, speculation in other water ranches and the groundwater drilling rights necessary to profit from them is roiling old farming and ranching communities like Dell City, 90 miles east of El Paso, on the theory that one day the aquifers in the playa-filled region may also be exploitable not only for El Paso’s needs, but possibly also for Juárez. Lawsuits and hard political infighting there involve big developers like Woody Hunt of El Paso and Philip Anschutz of Denver and longtime local ranchers like the Lynch family. It also brings into play the evolving role of local groundwater districts in modifying Texas’ much-criticized Rule of Capture regulations that effectively put limits on how much water can be pumped and sold by which landowners.
The water rush is even being pursued on state-owned lands, such as in the six Trans-Pecos counties: Presidio, Jeff Davis, Brewster, Culberson, Hudspeth — and El Paso. There, water rights are being sought by Midland-based Rio Nuevo, Ltd. for export to various thirsty cities, potentially including El Paso. In that brawl, state agencies such as the General Land Office, which owns the public lands, are pitted against the Department of Agriculture, which essentially wants greater regulation in leasing them out, if it has to be done at all.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has entered its own objections, chiefly over the potential effects of aquifer pumping on wildlife habitats and in numerous pristine conservation areas including Big Bend Ranch State Park, Balmorhea State Park and Big Bend National Park. “Careful and deliberate actions regarding privatization of water seem especially prudent to minimize further conflict, and frankly, to provide the best opportunity to conserve this important element of Texas’ natural heritage,” TPWD Chair Joseph Fitzsimons wrote in a lengthy memo to Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson last March.
Wherever the battles — and the state is teeming with them — the basic premise is poised nowhere more dramatically than in El Paso. The premise is that the city will not be able to hydrate itself much longer.
But is that true?
In 1989, the year EPWU’s new general manager, Ed Archuleta, came in from Albuquerque, the city drew a record-shattering 80,000 acre-feet of supplemental water from its bolsons. Total demand spiked to 131,700 acre-feet, way more than the city could sustain. Visions of bleached bones among the ocotillo and hot winds whistling through vacant, forlorn streets weren’t difficult to conjure.
“We didn’t have a long-term plan for water,” Archuleta recalls of that critical year. “And we were in major litigation with New Mexico over water rights.” The city was spending $8 million in legal and technical fees, and getting nowhere. Doing nothing was not an option, so Archuleta and his staff began drawing up a 50-year plan, which he says was “the genesis of all we’ve done.” The result is an information and technology-driven approach called “Total Water Management.” Its basic prongs are conservation, reclamation, more efficient use of the river and bolsons, and, as necessary, importation.
Conservation is easily the cheapest and probably the most effective way to manage water. To date, EPWU programs have given away more than 200,000 low-flow showerheads and hundreds of free clamps for swamp cooler hoses (which reduce the amount of water used by evaporative coolers). It offers substantial rebates for water-conserving horizontal (front loading) washing machines, xeriscaped lawns and low-flow toilets. Newsletters and brochures tout conservation, as does a monthly program on public television.
Results are impressive. Not only are total citywide demand and peak use down, so is the all-important per capita use. From a high of 200 gallons per day (gpd), El Pasoans have reduced their draw to 139 gpd, which already beats the target of 140 gpd by 2010.
Across the river in Juárez, the per capita use is said to be about half that, but there are twice as many residents.
What else have you got?
The water El Paso can’t save by not using, it can partly reclaim. Infrastructure investments have given the city some of the country’s most comprehensive and innovative water-recycling programs. Over the next 10 years, EPWU plans to spend another $1.1 billion in capital improvements. The state and federal governments offer relatively minor funding, so the burden is borne by the taxpayer-users. This year, the city authorized a 35 percent rate increase, to minimal ratepayer objections.
The money goes to facilities such as three secondary-level wastewater treatment facilities and a tertiary-level reclamation plant. These currently reclaim about 11 percent of the city’s indoor (nonevaporative) water and wastewater, and might climb up to 17 percent. Reclaimed water goes to nonpotable uses such as electric power plant cooling or landscaping, and thus saves an equivalent amount of water for drinking, lowering the demands on the river and bolsons.
The city is also building four new arsenic treatment plants, mandated by changes in EPA rules. In the Hueco and Mesilla bolsons, arsenic is a naturally occurring mineral, averaging about 12 parts per billion (ppb), well below the previous federal standard of 50 ppb. The new plants will take the level to below the new level of 10 ppb.
The city also has just awarded contracts for a new $7.6 million International Water Quality Laboratory to consolidate testing of more than 40,000 samples each year.
Investors like what they see. Fitch Ratings gave EPWU an AA rating (the highest is AAA+) on a recent bond issue, citing “solid debt service coverage, strong legal provisions, competitive rate structure, extensive financial capital and water resource planning.”
For Kevin Ward, executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, a state agency that helps funnel funds to some of the city’s water projects, El Paso has demonstrated “an enterprising … and healthy balance in growth and supply of water.”
The bottom line for residents may come from the Texas Commission on Environ-mental Quality, which rates the city’s water as “superior.”
Get the Salt Out
But what has gained most publicity as El Paso tries to get control of its use-it-but-don’t-lose-it future, is desalination. Water in the aquifers is brackish, or salty, in varying degrees, and has to be treated to achieve drinkability standards of less than 1,000 parts per million (ppm) of salinity or other solids.
Construction was scheduled to begin in June on an $83.6 million desalination plant — the largest such inland facility in the world. It will be able to deliver 27.5 million gallons per day (mgd) of blended drinking water, all from the Hueco Bolson, when it begins operation, which is scheduled for 2006. The site is located on easements on Fort Bliss, which will share a small portion of the water for its own needs, scheduled to increase as the base takes in more troops in the next few years.
Also to be located on Fort Bliss is the logical consequence of desalination — the brackish residue. As the plant pumps out 15.5 mgd of pure water, it will also produce, from reverse osmosis filters, 3 mgd of saline concentrate. The pure water will be blended with 12 mgd of other aquifer water in accordance with drinking water standards.
Getting rid of the concentrate is the problem. EPWU’s decision, selected from several alternatives, is to inject it underground. Pending approval from the TCEQ, the EPWU will sink three Class-V, gravity-fed injection wells to pump the brine to a zone 2,350 to 3,770 feet deep, near the New Mexico border.
The saline extract, which is clear and looks just like water, will contain 6,000 parts per billion of dissolved solids. That’s not only considerably less than the 35,000 ppb found in sea water, but also less than the 7,000 to 8,000 already in the porous rock injection zone of fractured dolomite and limestone. (Anything under 10,000 ppb is considered a potential source of drinking water if treated.)
The major environmental concern is possible seepage. The injection zone holds a “plume” of the pumped-in material, and although shale layers are supposed to prevent spreading, the EPWU will monitor the injections. If leaks occur, the EPWU will make adjustments, according to Bill Hutchison, EPWU’s manager of hydrogeology. But he says any seepage from the Fort Bliss site, if occurring, would not be catastrophic, since the salinity of the concentrate would actually be lower than that of the brackish aquifer into which it is injected. Effects of the drilling on already compromised habitat on the Fort Bliss property is not considered to be significant.
Can It Work?
The El Paso chapter of the regional Sierra Club has long been watching the problem, especially how watering a city affects the ecology around it, from natural habitat to the homes of its neighbors. Club President Laurence Gibson says that while the city and EPWU have “made a lot of progress,” especially in conservation, for the most part all the technical achievements ignore the more important questions of the city’s ethical soul.
“We think it’s dishonest,” Gibson says of a plan that not only tolerates but encourages continued growth and continued draining of the aquifers and the river. “The city needs to acknowledge the fact that we’re living in a desert. Our position is that we should be living sustainably. The real problem is that we’re not. Look, we’re switching from freshwater to desal, and the city’s fathers are looking to a future of importation. … We need a huge change of morality to understand that it’s not right to take other people’s water.”
Desalination, he says, at least is “a more honest approach than importation,” but it only begs the morality question again: Why the growth, and why the territorial imperative to take whatever is needed. The problem, to him is political, not technical. “The people are not calling the shots,” he says. “The good-old-boy network is still alive here.”
Even with these and other criticisms, the Cassandra outlook of only a few years ago has been dialed down significantly. EPWU says its data show that El Paso has sufficient groundwater resources, at current growth projections, to last 75 to 100 years. “We’re not declining like we were,” says Archuleta. “We’ve seen dramatic changes in groundwater projections …There’s a lot more recharge from the river than we thought. If we keep doing what we’re doing … we’re going to be fine for a long time.”
Archuleta says the earliest time frame that importation — the likely source of the biggest battles to come — might begin would be 2015, and then only on the water ranches the city owns and, much later, in Dell City or other areas. “We told them, when the dust settles, come and see us,” he says.
Juárez remains the unknown factor. Its engineers are sharing data with El Paso’s, and the two cities have agreed to use the same modeling projections, but the Mexican city is hampered by inadequate treatment facilities, limited budget and rampant growth. Ecological issues are not exactly on the front burner. Juárez is even said to be considering tapping into the Mesilla Bolson, where, like El Paso, it can draw as much as it wants, for as long as it has to, but only for as long as it lasts.