By Ann Espinola - First of two parts / AWWA 1/7/16
EL PASO -- On the east side of this Chihuahuan Desert city, home of the first high-rise Hilton Hotel, Fort Bliss military post, and a gigantic man-made star that hovers overhead, an off-white tent rises unceremoniously next to clumps of trees and a gravel parking lot.
The tent covers approximately 4,000 square feet, less than the size of two average single-family homes, but it’s here that El Paso water managers are making history through a pilot project that is poised to become the first-of-its-kind direct potable reuse facility in the Northern Hemisphere.
And on a recent Monday morning, visitors to the makeshift tent caught a glimpse of the future.
“This water has been purified by the most advanced process in the industry,” said the project’s design engineer, Daniel Olson, before raising a beaker filled with water treated at the pilot plant. A camera clicked. A videographer zoomed in for the shot. “It’s state of the art. It’s the cleanest water that can be made.”
El Paso’s DPR journey is one of several reuse projects that will take center stage during AWWA’s International Symposium on Potable Reuse, Jan. 25 – 27 in Long Beach, Calif. Among the 90 presenters are Olson, Brent Alspach, both from Arcadis, which designed the pilot facility; Marlo Wanielista Berg, an engineer at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is monitoring the project; and Christina Montoya, Communications and Marketing Manager for EPWU who will reveal how the utility engaged with the public to gain critical support.
While some public officials duck the media spotlight, a la 60 Minutes, EPWU’s leaders adopted a different approach. They conducted public tours of the pilot facility, customer surveys and focus groups, formed a speakers bureau, saturated their website with DPR news, and courted the local press.
“They were kind of relentless in getting us to cover it,” said Marty Schladen, who reports on water issues for the El Paso Times. “They bent over backwards to give me access to their people and their facilities. Heck, I couldn’t even tell you how many different top executives I interviewed. They put me in a conference room with CEO John Balliew four or five times. They took the show on the road to as many places as they could.”
There was a lot to showcase even before the DPR project. The city operates eight treatment plants, including the world’s largest inland desalination plant, and the Fred Hervey Reclamation Plant, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. The Hervey plant practiced indirect potable reuse before there was a word for it, and the utility’s Upper Valley plant is believed to be the largest arsenic-removal facility in the United States. On the east side of town, the TecH20 Center draws more than 35,000 visitors annually to its colorful, hands-on exhibits.
And the crowning jewel: the DPR project that will pump 10 million gallons per day of purified wastewater directly into the drinking water system. Two other facilities in the United States – in Wichita Falls and Big Spring, both in Texas – have successfully implemented DPR.
But only one other city in the world has built a separate DPR plant like El Paso proposes. For more than four decades, Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, has produced purified water that is not treated again at conventional water treatment plants. Instead, it goes directly into the distribution system.
El Paso’s facility would produce about 50 percent more potable water than Windhoek’s.
Meanwhile, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is monitoring El Paso’s DPR proposal, known as the Advanced Water Purification Pilot project, a name the utility chose carefully. As the pilot project in the tent winds down, EPWU continues to send weekly samples to the state for analysis. If TCEQ approves the full-scale project, the utility will begin facility design, construction and more testing of the water, a process that could take several years.
Moments before that recent Monday morning tent tour, AWWA CEO David LaFrance met with EPWU employees as they continue on their DPR path. “As you begin to take the work you’ve done to the next step……everybody is looking to El Paso for leadership,” LaFrance said. "The things you are doing set you apart.”
Balliew, an El Paso native who has shepherded the project from the beginning, was later asked what he would tell a fellow utility manager about DPR.
“Sooner or later, if your water resources are uncertain, you will probably do this,” Balliew told Connections. “Effluent is a resource you already own. You don’t have to go out and buy it, and with the systems we have now, direct potable reuse is completely feasible. The technology we have now is more than capable of taking that effluent and turning it into the best quality drinking water in the system today.”
And what advice would he give managers currently considering DPR?
“Find the best people you can,” Balliew said. “Find highly trained operators and then get higher salaries for them. Those kinds of people are out there. It’s just a matter of identifying them. What you really want at the end of the day is dedicated professional operators who are invested in the community, who have the safety of the customers in mind.”
Gilbert Trejo is chief technical officer for EPWU and he still remembers the afternoon of Sept. 5, 2012. That’s when Balliew drew him a picture.
“He takes out a piece of paper and drew a schematic.” Balliew sketched a box representing the utility’s Roberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant then drew a line to a blank box. In it, he scrawled “nitrogen removal” followed by another line and boxes for “membrane filtration”, “nanofiltraton,”, “ultrafiltration”, ”advanced oxidation”, followed by another line and boxes for blending with water from the Rio Grande and dewatering wells.
At the time, Trejo was a consultant for the utility. “That was the first time I’d heard anything like it. I thought it was a great idea: Why not keep this water in our system and truly reuse it, not just reclaim it? I started to pursue it through my firm and my business sense kicked in. John and I talked about it over the next several months and how we could develop the concept and work it through the state regulatory system."
To understand El Paso’s road to DPR acceptance, it is important to know the numbers. The town averages 8 inches of rainfall a year. The average across the United States is 37 inches. Per capita consumption for the nearly 700,000 residents averages 129 gpd, an incredible 40-plus percent drop from the 1970s, largely due to conservation measures embraced by residents.
El Paso sits about mid-way along the Rio Grande River, which begins in northern Colorado and flows more than 1,800 miles through New Mexico and Texas before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Spring snowmelt runoff from Southern Colorado and northern New Mexico is stored in the Elephant Butte Reservoir, about 125 miles north of El Paso, before releases are made for irrigation and municipal use in southern New Mexico and the El Paso area.
Beneath the area’s scorched terrain, the utility’s two aquifers – Hueco and Mesilla – are filled with fresh and brackish groundwater.
EPWU is a customer of the local irrigation district and obtains water through ownership of water rights land and leasing. The utility’s customers use about 125,000 acre feet of water per year, but that is expected to skyrocket to 208,000 acre feet by 2060 as the area’s population continues to grow. Every year, about 3,000 to 4,000 new homes are built in the area.
Up until five years ago, the river was a primary source of the utility’s water supply. The Elephant Butte dam has comprised half of the utility’s water supply at times, but in the past decade of relative drought, it has sometimes been less than 10 percent full.
The utility is trying to reduce its dependency on the river and further diversify its portfolio.
“Up until 1980 we had complete redundancy,” said Balliew, pictured at right. “We had enough groundwater to meet all demands if there was no water in the river. We are trying to get back to a redundancy so we can keep running if the river is completely dry in June.”
The Advanced Water Purification project is part of an $885 million sustainability plan that also includes expanded desalination, a near importation project, a water rights land purchase and a plant expansion, among other things. The cost estimate may be covered by bond issues, loans and rate increases.
The utility has implemented many initiatives to hold down operating costs, Balliew said, including preventative maintenance programs. The utility’s high bond rating keeps borrowing costs low.
The utility approved a five-year rate plan that began two years ago and will gradually increase water bills by about 40 percent. This year’s proposed increase is 11 percent, which will bump average residential bills from about $41.56 per month to $46.08.
Montoya, the utility spokeswoman, noted that El Paso remains one of the most affordable cities for rates when compared with other Texas cities. Perhaps that’s why there's been little community pushback on the rate increases, she said.
Meanwhile, EPWU continues to operate its two surface water treatment plants, the largest arsenic removal plant in the United States, the largest inland desalination plant in the world, four wastewater treatment plants and 175 wells.
But it’s not enough.
The DPR project would add 10 million gallons per day, or about 6 percent of the utility’s output on a hot summer day.
The Advanced Water Purification Facility, estimated to cost $100 million, would be built in the Lower Valley next to the Bustamante facility, which abuts the Mexican border. There, under El Paso’s plan, treated wastewater would be treated in a rigorous four-step process to create high quality, purified water: Membrane filtration, membrane desalination, ultraviolet light advanced oxidation, and granular activated carbon. The water will then be stored in a tank before being pumped into the distribution system.
But getting past public squeamishness – dubbed the “yuck factor” by the media -- can be more daunting for utilities than the technical hurdles.
“The media will say, ‘Do you want to drink sewage?’” said Patsy Tennyson of Katz & Associates, a consulting firm which has helped El Paso with its DPR communications strategy. “The correct answer is ‘No, that’s not remotely what we are talking about. We are talking about starting with water that has been cleaned at least twice, if not three times. You’re not talking about sewage.’”
Asked how the utility will prevent the proverbial “plane crash” -- putting out contaminated water -- Balliew talked about two things: storage and monitoring. He noted that there is storage at the end of the DPR plant. He talked about the importance of monitoring and the integrity of the membranes, to keep the microbes out, and disinfection, to kill the microbes.
The storage system, Balliew said, will allow the utility time to react – to fix and find the problem. He also mentioned other built-in barriers, including real-time monitoring that will allow the utility to constantly measure water quality as it moves through the facility, rather than intermittently like it would at a traditional water treatment facility.
“Your Number One task to prevent bad outcomes is to do membrane integrity testings, both on your microfiltration and on the reverse osmosis, or nanofiltration,” Balliew said. “The $64,000 question is what are we going to test for? We were thinking one test we can do is the GC/MS (gas chromatography – mass spectrometry) survey search. You can get same-day results. We will have a lot of online instrumentation.”
And finally, Balliew cited the utility’s clean track record at its other facilities, most notably the Fred Hervey plant, which has practiced indirect potable reuse round-the-clock for more than three decades. “We have not crashed and burned,” Balliew said.
An independent advisory panel is guiding EPWU through the DPR process. It includes health professionals, scientists and engineers with expertise in areas such as public health, risk assessment and treatment processes. The panel reviews and makes recommendations on regulations, plant design, pilot plant data and public outreach.
Mark Millan, owner of Data Instincts, public outreach consultants who have worked with utilities to raise awareness and acceptance of reuse projects, said a third-party expert panel “gives a community confidence.
“It’s not that the utility is saying the water is safe. They can defer to the third-party group of experts.
“And anybody who has a demonstration site where they invite the public, that is a winning strategy. To have a place where people can come, they can see how the water is made, that’s huge. I believe this is how people gain trust.”
But just as important, Balliew said, is hiring highly trained operators.
Texas, like most states, has an A-to-D certification process, with A operators completing the highest level of training. “What we are trying to strive for is the highest number of A-certified operators as possible.”
In Texas, the only requirement for D water operators is to complete one, 20-hour course, said Daniel Nix, utilities operations manager in Wichita Falls. By comparison, A operators complete 164 hours of training credits that include core requirements.
“Depending on your level of education, it takes four to eight years of experience before you can test for A,” Nix said. “The test for B, C, and D is multiple choice, but the test for A is multiple choice and an essay test. The A operator license definitely says something about your experience and capabilities. John has a valid point in wanting those A licenses.”
Trejo, the chief technical officer at EPWU, works on the scientific issues that undergird the operators’ role. He still has the drawing that Balliew scrawled more than three years ago.
“I immediately pinned it on my bulletin board so that I see it every single day,” Trejo said. “I realized how much of a game changer this would be for our community if we could actually get it done. I recognized the significance of what he wanted to do and I wanted it to be a daily reminder in order to stay focused on the task.”
Next edition: How EPWU won public support