Quenching Our Future: City of El Paso to wean itself from river water

By Marty Schladen, El Paso Times, 11/18/14

Read the full story, with video: http://www.elpasotimes.com/news/ci_26958537/becoming-independent-rio-grandes-dead-pool

The pool of water on which El Paso depends to meet peak demand has been perilously shallow for about a decade.

Climate scientists, the Bureau of Reclamation and others are predicting even less water from the Rio Grande in the future, and the El Paso Water Utility is searching for ways to end the city's dependence on surface water from the river.

Coming in 2018 is perhaps the most dramatic step yet. The utility will begin reusing the water that runs out one of the city's four wastewater-treatment plants.

"We want to prepare for the real possibility that there will be no river water at all," said water utility spokeswoman Christina Montoya.

Over the past year, the utility has begun the process of educating the public about its plans to build an $82 million advanced-purification plant that will further clean 10 million gallons per day from the Bustamante Wastewater Treatment plant in the Lower Valley.

Starting in 2018, the recycled water will be placed directly into the city's water supply. Officials say it's an essential step as the water utility works to diversify its portfolio as river flows dwindle.

Last option?

In some other locales, such projects have drawn strong opposition. But residents of drought-ridden El Paso appear receptive to the idea.

A survey commissioned by the utility reported that 84 percent who were asked said they would support taking water that already is clean enough for irrigation, treating it again and then adding it to the city's water supply.

Perhaps it's because El Pasoans know how little water they have.

Elephant Butte Reservoir is the primary repository for river water used by El Paso residents, businesses and by irrigators in El Paso County and the Mesilla Valley.

In years when it's full, it can make up half of the El Paso Water Utility's total supply. Last week, it was less than 10 percent full, or 97 feet into the reservoir's "dead pool" — the zone in which gravity alone is insufficient to get water out of the reservoir.

The low levels come after a decade of relative drought that scientists think might be the new, old normal.

They think the climate in the river basin might be returning to historical norms after a few abnormally wet decades. Man-made global warming, which almost all climate scientists believe is happening, would only make the scarcity worse, they say.

"You need to live with the cold, hard fact that the river is not a reliable resource," said Richard Bonart, a former member of the water utility's governing board who pushed for greater conservation. "With the river, you need to plan for low numbers, not high numbers."

John Balliew, president and CEO of the utility, is trying to plan for no water at all from the river.

"You don't want to get tied to the Rio Grande," he said.

Unfortunately, the utility is inextricably tied to the river in a sense.

When little surface water is available, the utility makes up the difference by pumping more from the Hueco Bolson on the eastern side of the Franklin Mountains.

This summer, amid meager surface flows, the utility maxed out its groundwater production — about 165 million gallons a day. It had to rely on surface water from the Rio Grande for the rest.

One resource

Simply pumping groundwater is not a solution, water managers and other experts say. The utility has relied on groundwater during droughts, but it can't do so indefinitely.

The Hueco Bolson is part of the same hydrologic system as the river, so if decreased snowmelts at the river's headwaters diminish flows, there is less freshwater to recharge the Bolson, said Bill Hargrove, director of the Center for Environmental Resource Management at the University of Texas at El Paso.

There are great quantities of water in the bolson, but most of it is too salty, or "brackish," to be used as drinking water.

"You have a lens of freshwater in a vast sea of brackish water," Balliew said.

In the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, the utility has a way to make use of some of that brackish water.

The largest inland desalination plant in the world, the facility is located on the northeast side of El Paso.

It draws from a series of 16 wells, forces water through tubes of rolled filters and it can augment the city's freshwater supply by 27.5 million gallons a day. That's about 17 percent of this summer's peak demand.

But desalination is not the solution to all of El Paso's water problems, experts warn.

It's expensive — the plant and its supporting infrastructure cost $91 million.

At least for now, 20 percent of the water runs through it is returned to the ground in the form of extremely salty wastewater. That has to be pumped into 4,000-foot injection wells and into a separate aquifer that is so deep that its water is 160 degrees.

Also, pumping brackish water in great quantities runs the risk of fouling the fresh or "sweet" water that makes up a precious fraction of the bolson, Bonart said.

"We know in certain parts of the city that if you pump too much sweet water, you can drag in brackish water," Bonart said. "The opposite can happen, too."

Earlier steps

The El Paso Water Utility has already taken important steps to reduce its dependence on water out of the river or underneath ground. The most obvious way is simply to use less.

Hargrove, of UTEP, said the utility already is well ahead of many of its peers in that department.

Per capita water use in El Paso is the lowest in Texas and, thanks to measures already taken, it's fallen 41 percent since the 1970s. Among the results the utility reports from its conservation efforts:

• A turf-rebate program that paid people to rip out water-hungry lawns. It resulted in 11.2 million square feet of grass being removed from 3,000 sites.

• More than 53,900 ultra-low flow toilets installed as a result of the Cash for Your Commode Rebate Program.

• 185,000 low-flow showerheads given away, along with 9,000 evaporative cooler bleed-off line clamps.

The water utility is always looking for new ways to conserve, but Balliew, its CEO, said it's already grabbed the low-hanging fruit.

"We've done just about everything there is to be done in terms of water conservation," he said.

Hargrove said the utility has done much, but it can still do more. For example, he said, the utility should emphasize rainwater harvesting as Tucson does, he said.

An oft-recycled resource

There appears to be strong support in El Paso for reusing wastewater. Part of that might be due to geography.

"We are in the desert and people who are from here are used to the idea that we don't have much water," Hargrove said.

But those who are squeamish about bathing in and drinking water that's run through sewage-treatment plants should consider a few things.

Albuquerque treatment plants already dump their effluent into the river. We've been pulling that out and running it through the city's treatment plants for decades.

More broadly, water has been used, cleaned and reused basically since forever.

In his book, "The Big Thirst," author Charles Fishman describes officials' feckless efforts to explain water reuse to a frightened Australian town that saw recycled water as "poo water."

The officials "failed to find a good-humored way of pointing out to people that if you insist on thinking of it this way, every drop of water on Earth is 'poo-water' because that water has been around longer than life itself, so every creature that has ever lived on Earth has done its version of pooping into that water, whether it comes from Cooby Dam (in the Australian town) or the springs at San Pelligrino (in Italy, where water is bottled commercially.)

"It's all recycled water — it's just a question how big a gap in time and space and imagination has opened."

The El Paso Water Utility has been cleaning wastewater to drinking-water quality as long as any utility in the United States, an official there said.

In Northeast El Paso, where U.S. 54 runs toward the New Mexico state line, the Fred Hervey Water Reclamation Plant can take in 12 million gallons of wastewater a day. It runs the sewage through a series of settling pools, carbon filters, lime treatment, sand filters, ozone disinfectant, more carbon filtration, chlorine treatment and then to holding tanks for testing.

"These are natural treatment systems, we've just concentrated them," plant Superintendent Vic Pedregon said. "It meets all drinking-water standards and it has since 1985."

Thirty years ago — when Hervey was the only plant in the nation reclaiming water on such a scale — there was no state or federal regulatory framework to allow the utility to simply plug the water back into its distribution system, Pedregon said. So the Hervey plant pumps its water back down into the Hueco Bolson, where it is pumped back up and into the El Paso water system.

The water is not appreciably different when it comes back out of water-utility wells, but for some, its trip through the ground might supply the "gap in time and space and imagination" that Fishman mentioned in the book.

As the water leaves the plant, however, it smells and tastes just like the water that comes out of any kitchen faucet in El Paso. No sudden cramps or urgent calls to the bathroom follow in the hours after drinking it.

Water utility officials say water from the Bustamante plant in the city's Southeast will be at least as clean as that coming from Hervey or the city's other water plants and will be among the cleanest drinking water available.

For Bonart, the logic of water recycling is obvious.

"We have the opportunity in El Paso to really have a sustainable water supply," he said. "A lot of it is just common sense."

 

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