A drier, hotter El Paso is the “new normal”
It is hotter and drier in El Paso — the numbers back it up.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released new climate data this month that shows much of Southwest, including El Paso, dried out and heated up at a faster pace than other parts of the country.
The data, which the NOAA calls normals, compare current precipitation and temperatures to 30-year averages. These numbers are updated every decade.
The data shows Southeastern New Mexico and Far West Texas received between an inch to an inch and a half less precipitation — a decline of between 6% to 12%. Temperatures in the region averaged 0.6 to 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the normals measured between 1981-2010.
The increases are higher than the national average, which showed most of the U.S. warmed half a degree — 0.46 degrees Fahrenheit (0.26 degrees Celsius) — in a decade.
Jason Laney, a warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Santa Teresa, said that a half-degree increase in 10 years has global impacts.
“That half a degree of warming is reflected in extreme weather: more floods from bigger storms, stronger droughts, the icecaps continue to recede, glaciers disappearing,” Laney said. “It sounds small, but the impact is very very large.”
Recent studies from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show human activity, not nature alone, is the main reason for climate change through a combination of burning fossil fuels, deforestation and land use changes.
While El Paso might not see the impacts of strong hurricanes or flooding, drought is a constant threat to people and property, Laney said.
“A lot of people forget about the heat, which is the number one killer nationwide associated with weather,” he said.
Laney said the National Weather Service partnered with researchers at University of Texas at El Paso in 2020 to identify the hottest parts of the city, called “heat islands.”
According to the map of the project, some of the hottest parts of the city include the Interstate 10 corridor, parts of the Northeast triangle, Northwest El Paso County and Far East El Paso. They include spaces with higher levels of concrete and asphalt that act like heat traps. Prolonged exposure to those heat traps can be deadly to vulnerable populations like the elderly and children.
Laney said some damage can be reversed, with a trade-off to use more water.
“A few more green spaces, some more trees, some more shade, could help drop temperatures by maybe that extra half degree that we gained in the last 10 years,” he said.
The source of El Paso’s water
The warming trend also impacts El Paso’s water sources. The city uses a combination of surface water from the Rio Grande and groundwater from bolsons, underground pools of water, salt and other minerals.
The source of the Rio Grande’s water is snowpack in southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. This season, the snowpack decreased to 40% of its normal levels and peaked several weeks early in March. Hotter temperatures can mean more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow, which means less snowmelt in the river during hotter months.
Dry, sunbaked ground also will soak up snowmelt and less water will flow into rivers and streams. That means lower water levels in reservoirs like New Mexico’s Elephant Butte, a major source of Texas’ water.
Less water with more demand pushes people to pump for groundwater, a finite resource. Drilling for water is also an expensive enterprise and drilling deeper can add to those costs.
“We’re drier now than we were 10 years ago that the impact that has had on our water table has been significant,” Laney said. “Over the last, I want to say 10 to 12 years, the water table has dropped on average by about 10 feet.”
While concerning, the situation isn’t so dire that the city won’t survive, he added. But he hopes El Pasoans will heed the warnings in the latest data.
“This is just a warning,” he said. “But a warning without action is no warning at all.”
Less rainfall also means that El Paso-area farmers and ranchers will continue grappling with lower river levels for several more years.
Officials with El Paso County Water Improvement District One warned farmers in January and April this year that the expected water allotments from the Rio Grande will be about 12 inches, compared to a “normal” year with 48 inches. That causes concern for pecan farmers whose trees need hundreds of gallons of water per day.
Orlando Flores, an agent with the Texas A&M Agrilife extension office for El Paso County, said that although area agriculture has lined canals and leveled farmland for better water use, significant challenges for water conservation efforts remain.
Saltier groundwater is unusable in drip irrigation in much of eastern El Paso County because the mineral harms plants. Instead, farmers use flood irrigation to dilute the salts, but the method leads to evaporation and water loss. Flores said without significant infrastructure improvements to filter water, which would be costly, he doesn’t see a change happening soon.
“I don’t know what the answer is. We pray for rain, north of us anyway,” Flores said. “It’s going to continue to impact us. And when there’s water shortages, then there’s water wars.”
The health of the river doesn’t just impact farmers and crops — city life depends on its flow.
John Balliew, the CEO for El Paso Water, said the city’s work in water conservation is not greatly impacted by less precipitation because conserving the current supply is more important. That includes artificially recharging underground aquifers at El Paso’s Fred Hervey water reclamation plant, treating groundwater and getting rid of excess salts, recycling wastewater and decreasing individual use.
“The key is for every person that comes into El Paso to use less water than the person before them,” he said.
And compared to the 1980s, that’s been a success. Back then, the average EL Pasoan used 230 gallons every day, Balliew said. Now, that’s down to 129 gallons per person per day.
“Going forward we need to ratchet that down a little bit more. We need to get down to 115 or 118 gallons (per person),” he said.
He said projects for the future are looking to “bank” excess water underground, treat wastewater for human use, and in the far future, import water.
“What it means is a viable, sustainable community, the ability to have these water resources in the future,” he said.
Balliew said the border city has a finite basket of resources and limited funds to spend on saving water supplies. “We can’t just plow ahead and spend as much money as we want, we don’t have that option,” he said. “We can’t just hop on over to Lake Superior next door and have an unlimited source of supply. That doesn’t exist to us either.”
Other repercussions of changing climate
A sustained drought also has repercussions beyond agriculture and ecosystems, said Deborah Bathke, a researcher for the National Drought Monitor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“It can also impact human health as well, whether it’s from increased dust and respiratory illness,” said Bathke, who served as New Mexico’s assistant state climatologist from 2005 to 2008 “Water (shortages) also affect business and industry or tourism.”
Bathke’s research dates back to the last century and shows a deep, extended drought in the Southwest, including much of New Mexico and Far West Texas. She said the current situation is more complicated because of the larger population.
“We’re having to support larger populations with less water under warmer temperatures,” she said. It posed an existential question to researchers and residents who live in the Southwest.
“When will it no longer be a drought, and instead a shift to a new regime?” she said.
Cover photo: The dry riverbed of the Rio Grande, looking downstream towards El Paso from the Vinton Road bridge. More arid conditions mean more strain on the river which supports El Paso. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)