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Recent flooding could be repeated as El Paso’s monsoon season approaches

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With an uncertain monsoon season ahead, weather experts warn another round of wet weather in El Paso could mean additional flooding in the Sun City through the rest of the summer. 

Meteorologist Anthony Brown with the National Weather Service-El Paso forecast office told reporters last week that most of the city received between four to six inches of rain in the June storms — making up half to two-thirds of the yearly average. However, select spots on either side of the Franklin Mountains received more than six inches of rain and flooded. 

“It just takes one big event to change things quickly as we’ve seen the past two weeks,” Brown said. “Even if the rest of the monsoon (season) is dry, we get two weeks or so of wet weather that can cause serious issues.”

Brown said two models from the federal Climate Prediction Center disagree on rainfall totals for this year’s monsoon season. One predicts a drier than average summer for the Western portion of the United States, while another forecasts the rest of July will see rains and end with cooler temperatures before a normal August and September. 

The recent flash floods killed one woman in El Paso and a man in Presidio, damaged  stormwater projects, inundated streets, and led to several flood rescues by first responders.

During the severe thunderstorm Sunday, Menendez said eight vehicles on Doniphan Drive and Mesa Street needed to be extracted from flood waters. 

Flash floods hit different portions of El Paso at different times during the sustained rains last month and the recent monsoon storms last week. U.S. Highway 54 was closed at Dyer Street in the Northeast as floodwaters covered the road. In the east, Edgemere Boulevard between Lee Treviño Drive to Red Sails Drive closed due to floods. Mesa Street, Doniphan Drive and Redd Road on the city’s West Side saw flooding and water rescues.  

A car sits in water ponded along Emory Road, next to the Doniphan Drive ditch alongside the railroad tracks. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Despite the downpours, improvements to city infrastructure helped prevent damage similar to what El Paso experienced in the past.  

Families near Doniphan Drive told El Paso Matters there was some flooding, but measures taken by El Paso Water, such as widening concrete ditches, reduced the impacts on their homes. 

One of those residents, Rosa Villalba, has lived in her house for 15 years. She remembered the 2006 flooding, which required her to pile sandbags around her house to try to prevent flooding. 

“We actually had a tree fall down in 2006, a really big old tree,” she said. “But this year, we didn’t really have flooding besides the backyard on one side.” 

She said the one noticeable issue was the ponding all around the ditch area next to the train tracks on Doniphan. 

“The water is there from the first rains, a couple weeks ago and now algae’s starting to grow, so the smell can be pretty strong,” she said. 

Bryan Blair, 39, has lived on the streets of El Paso for a year. The tent he used for shelter blew away during the severe thunderstorm Monday from the spot near South Desert Boulevard and Redd Road. He said the experience was stressful for him and his dog Fred. 

“I was gonna try and wait it out under the bridge, but the wind just got too crazy and we ran out,” he said. “I got to this parking lot right here. And it started hailing. And they let us come into the gas station until the hail passed.”

Bryan Blair pictured with his dog Fred, lost his tent in the severe thunderstorm Monday. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

The wind also picked up a small trailer attached to his bike, carrying it several blocks down Redd Road. He said the rain is better than the extreme heat, since he can’t bring Fred into most shelters. 

The 2021 rains were a fraction compared to the record flooding in 2006 that caused $200 million in damages to homes and businesses. However, the buildout for stormwater systems meant to stop events like the catastrophic damage 15 years later are only partially complete, according to officials at El Paso Water, the city’s water utility.

Alan Shubert, the vice president of technical services at El Paso Water, said the completed utility improvements to holding ponds, drainage and pumping means it can handle 100 million gallons, more than double the 50 million capcity 13 years ago. But more work is ahead.  

“I want to emphasize we’re just starting, we’re $150 million into a billion dollar problem,” he said. 

Shubert said the recent flooding prompted the utility to skip seeking approval from its governing board to ramp up construction on projects damaged by heavy rains. 

“(The resolution) will allow us to fast track emergency repairs and contractors without having to go through our normal process,” he said. 

This portion of the ditch was expanded and lined with concrete by El Paso Water, part of a series of projects to prevent flooding along Doniphan Drive. Neighbors living on Emory Road credited the ditch’s expansion to making the flooding less severe than 2006 event. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Shubert pointed to flood damages on the nearly completed Pico Norte Pond project at Sam Snead Drive and Lee Treviño Drive as an example. He said that rains hit “at the worst time, when we’re 80 to 90% done,” causing significant delays to completion. He said the utility hired a contractor to start work through the emergency process.

The El Paso Water Public Service Board on Wednesday unanimously approved the resolution allowing the president/CEO or other designee to contract and purchase without further action of the PSB “because of unforeseen damage to public machinery, equipment, or other property.” 

Shubert said the biggest ask is for people to stay off the roads and out of arroyos during the monsoon season. 

“While we’ve done a lot to reduce flooding, streets are still designed in El Paso to convey stormwater and I cannot emphasize enough don’t drive on flooded streets, stay out of flood control structures,” he said. 

Denise Parra, a spokesperson for the utility, confirmed there was damage to stormwater infrastructure, but said that a cost estimate was unavailable. 

Cover photo: Ponding remains on Doniphan Drive after recent weeks of rain flooded parts of the road, requiring flood rescues by firefighters. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

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Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached at dprokop@elpasomatters.org.

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