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Climate ChangeAs Rio Grande Shrinks, El Paso Plans for Uncertain Water Future

As Rio Grande Shrinks, El Paso Plans for Uncertain Water Future

Since before El Paso was founded by a Spanish missionary within the late seventeenth century, the Chihuahuan Desert region has been nourished by a gradual supply of water: the Rio Bravo Del Norte, because the river is understood in Mexico, or the Rio Grande, because it’s known in america.

Today, the population on either side of the international border is booming, fast approaching 3 million. But whilst the Paso del Norte region — which encompasses El Paso, Texas; Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; and Las Cruces, Latest Mexico — prospers, a two-decade-long megadrought exacerbated by a warming climate is bringing more extreme weather and shrinking the lower Rio Grande.

As temperatures have risen and rainfall has decreased, the river’s flow along its entire length will proceed to say no, and peak runoff could occur a month earlier. As temperatures proceed to rise, scientists predict additional losses may exceed 20 percent by mid-century and 35 percent at the tip of the century.

The changes have left urban water authorities scrambling to search out ways to offer cities with alternate supplies of water. “We now have to arrange for the 12 months that there isn’t a river water,” says Lisa Rosendorf, a spokesperson for El Paso Water, the utility that serves the town, “because that 12 months will come.”

The Rio Grande flows some 1,900 miles from its headwaters within the San Juan Mountains, in southern Colorado, to its mouth near Brownsville, Texas. The nation’s fourth longest river, the Rio Grande has long been known for its low and infrequently intermittent flows; it’s jokingly known as the Rio Sand.

Yale Environment 360

However the flow through southern Latest Mexico and West Texas is exceptionally paltry as of late. The Elephant Butte Reservoir — which holds Rio Grande water that is shipped downriver to Las Cruces in southern Latest Mexico after which on to El Paso and Mexico — is currently at 5.6 percent of capability.

Eighty percent of the river’s flow has historically been diverted to agriculture. But now diminished flows have forced many farmers to either fallow fields or switch from water-hungry crops to those which are more drought tolerant.

Intermittent water shortages have long plagued El Paso, and within the Nineteen Fifties a withering regional drought spurred the town to start interested by sources beyond the river. El Paso Water, the municipal utility, has been ahead of other cities in working to determine these latest sources, including desalination, residential and business conservation, “toilet-to-tap” wastewater recycling, and importing water from distant. Now, as the town experiences its longest drought on record, these alternatives might be put to the test.

Town of El Paso gets 40 percent of its water supply directly from the Rio Grande. One other roughly 40 percent is pumped from wells drilled into the Hueco Bolson aquifer, which is 200 miles long and 25 miles wide; one other 17 percent comes from the smaller Mesilla Bolson aquifer. Town normally pumps from the Rio Grande for 30 continuous weeks of the 12 months. But during this most up-to-date drought, the river has provided water for under six to eight weeks a 12 months.

The Kay Bailey Hutchison desalination plant, accomplished in 2007, is able to supplying 5 percent of El Paso’s water. Most individuals assume that desalination turns only seawater into fresh water, but El Paso’s system — the world’s largest inland municipal desalination plant — generates fresh water from brackish, or mildly salty, groundwater. (Texas aquifers contain roughly 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish water.) The plant cost roughly $90 million to construct, and the town already has plans to expand it.

Elephant Butte Reservoir on the Rio Grande in New Mexico in August 2022. The reservoir is currently less than 6 percent full.

Elephant Butte Reservoir on the Rio Grande in Latest Mexico in August 2022. The reservoir is currently lower than 6 percent full.
Mitch Tobin / The Water Desk

On a tour of the plant, Woody Williams, the plant’s lead technician, points out row upon row of reverse osmosis filters stacked atop one another. Brackish water is piped from deep wells and compelled through these membranes, which have pores so tiny that water molecules can go through, but not molecules of salt and other impurities.

Desalination along coastlines, where most such plants are positioned, has some major drawbacks. It’s an expensive, energy-intensive process, and plants suck in fish and other marine creatures with the ocean water. Inland desalination, which can also be energy intensive, doesn’t kill fish. But like ocean desal, it leaves behind mountains of briny waste. Ocean plants return that salt and other chemical residues to the ocean — a possible threat to marine health. El Paso solves its brine problem by piping the waste 22 miles across the arid plains to an injection well where it’s stored permanently 4,000 feet underground.

Like other cities within the Southwest, El Paso has long recycled used residential water through its so-called “purple pipe” system, which cleans up wastewater and delivers it for non-potable use on golf courses and park lawns. Town is now upgrading its water recycling plant with a UV disinfection system, reverse osmosis, and microfiltration that can make its end product potable. The “toilet-to-tap” system — the technical term is direct potable reuse — will provide the town with water so clean that minerals could have to be added to enhance its taste. The most important such plant on the planet, it’ll cost $150 million to construct and is scheduled to open in 2025.

“All over the place within the Southwest goes to have dearer water,” says a water expert on the University of Texas.

But El Paso continues to hunt latest water sources. Because the Nineteen Nineties, the town has emphasized conservation as a approach to stretch its limited water supplies, requiring builders to put in low-flow toilets and taps and limiting the quantity of turf in latest construction. “The entire culture of landscaping has modified here,” notes El Paso Water’s Rosendorf. Per person usage dropped from 200 gallons a day 30 years ago to about 139 today. The utility has a goal of 125 gallons per day by 2030.

To further assure its supply, the town can also be buying 70,000 acres of farmland in Dell City, 90 miles to the east. The Texas town has just a number of hundred souls but an abundance of groundwater provided by the Bone Spring-Victorio Peak Aquifer. The system is just not expected to return online until 2050.

The concept of “buy and dry” — purchasing land only to fallow it, then moving its water elsewhere — has a controversial history within the West. Owens Valley in Southern California is the case study. The valley was home to a prosperous farming community within the early 1900s. But in 1913, agents of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, posing as farmers and ranchers, began to surreptitiously buy up land and the water rights that got here with it. They diverted that water 233 miles to support the burgeoning metropolis. Springs and seeps soon disappeared, and agricultural land was ruined.

There’s nothing surreptitious about El Paso’s approach to the Dell City project. The utility has purchased 20 farm properties for greater than $222 million, and until water starts being pumped west, those farmers are leasing back their land at attractive rates.

Left: The El Paso Water Desalination Plant, the largest groundwater desalination plant in the United States. Right: The average amount of salt removed from a beaker of brackish groundwater.

Left: The El Paso Water Desalination Plant, the largest groundwater desalination plant in the United States. Right: The average amount of salt removed from a beaker of brackish groundwater.

Left: The El Paso Water Desalination Plant, the biggest groundwater desalination plant in america. Right: The typical amount of salt faraway from a beaker of brackish groundwater.
Ted Wood

But Dell City makes an expensive source. Pumping and piping water to El Paso will cost the town $3,000 an acre-foot. Treating and distributing an acre-foot of water from the Rio Grande — enough to offer indoor and outdoor water for 2 urban households for a 12 months — costs $300.

Rate hikes that cover the increased costs will cause financial pain to many. “It’s estimated that households in the bottom income bracket could have to pay 10 percent of their income for water,” says Alex Mayer, director of the Center for Environmental Resource Management on the University of Texas at El Paso. “All over the place within the Southwest goes to have dearer water.” Fortunately, utility assistance programs can be found to assist the very poorest.

“It’s an ongoing adaptation [for everyone],” says Sam Fernald on the Latest Mexico Water Resources Research Institute at Latest Mexico State University, in Las Cruces. “Latest Mexico is paying the value for climate change.”

With almost half of its water derived from two aquifers, El Paso worries about overpumping groundwater. Town acknowledges that the way in which it manages the Hueco Bolson aquifer is just not sustainable. It’s currently pumping between 60,000 and 70,000 acre-feet of groundwater a 12 months but replacing only about 5,000 acre-feet. Municipal pumping has lowered the aquifer several hundred feet.

Texas has sued Latest Mexico alleging that its increased groundwater pumping was depriving Texas of Rio Grande flow.

This overdrawing is typically known as Managed Aquifer Depletion. “Notice the acronym,” says Mayer, with a smile.

Groundwater and rivers are connected, after all, and abstracting an excessive amount of water from one source can negatively affect the opposite. In 2013, Texas filed suit against Latest Mexico, alleging that its increased pumping of groundwater was depriving Texas of Rio Grande flow. The case has continued for nine years, with a hearing in front of a federal judge appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court scheduled for January.

Water authorities try to make groundwater use more sustainable, says Scott Reinert, water resources manager for El Paso Water. The utility uses injection wells to return treated wastewater to aquifers, and when it is out there, it directs excess Rio Grande water into the town’s Enhanced Arroyo Project — two miles of human-made river channel that permits water to slowly filter into the Hueco Bolson aquifer. Rain can also be diverted into basins designed to permit recharge of groundwater reserves.

Mayer says there may be a great deal of uncertainty about those reserves. Right away, experts estimate that fresh groundwater will hold out for a number of many years, while brackish groundwater might be available for generations.

Alex Mayer, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso, at the Mexican border.

Alex Mayer, a professor of civil engineering on the University of Texas at El Paso, on the Mexican border.
Ted Wood

The tip of surface water, nonetheless — if it involves that — signals the tip of a living river. Already, the shortage of river water within the Rio Grande has robbed people of the chance to swim, raft, and gather along its banks, especially within the region’s poorer areas.

To start to treatment this loss, the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, a Las Cruces-based nonprofit that helps communities of color gain access to public lands, has worked with volunteers to create a really modest natural area, called La Mancha Wetland Park, on land donated by an area builder. Here, families can benefit from the outdoors and observe birds and other wildlife drawn to a cattail-rimmed pond dug by machine. “It’s among the only year-round water on this area,” says Olivia Jensen, Nuestra Tierra’s operations director.

It’s clear, though, that regardless of how much infrastructure is built to assist offset the good drying of the Rio Grande — whether it’s multimillion-dollar plants or small community-based efforts like this one — the region’s water future stays uncertain.

“The river,” says Mayer, “has proven itself to be unreliable.”

Reporting for this text was supported by a grant from The Water Desk, an initiative based on the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.


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