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Untreated sewage will flow to Rio Grande for months, El Paso Water says

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More than 150 million gallons of sewage from El Paso’s West Side is flowing into the Rio Grande. The wastewater, which includes waste from toilets, showers and sink drains, is untreated.

While that amount only accounts for a fraction of the capacity of the Rio Grande, the plan by El Paso’s water utility to use the river to divert wastewater on the West Side will impact the environment for the next few months, though the long-term consequences of that are still murky.

The river usually runs dry at the end of irrigation season as water deliveries from Elephant Butte Reservoir upstream ended Aug. 31.

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Officials from El Paso Water, which manages the municipal wastewater and storm systems for the city, said “unprecedented” catastrophic failures of two wastewater lines means waste usually stored and treated at the Hickerson Water Reclamation Facility will instead be diverted to the Rio Grande.

El Paso Water is using a retention pond behind Doniphan Park Circle businesses to pump wastewater out of a work site to reach the mains that broke. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Gilbert Trejo, the chief technical officer at El Paso Water, told El Paso Matters the utility had to choose between impacts to public health and safety with sewage backing up into roadways and homes, or discharging the waste into the river.

“Discharging to the river is not something that’s taken lightly. There are going to be adverse effects to the river, terribly regrettable that we have to do something like this,” Trejo said. “But it is the only water system that can take such a large amount of water, but you know, regrettably there are going to be environmental effects to the river, and the ecosystem.”

Trejo said the plan is to finish the replacement fiberglass pipeline by December instead of March 2022. That means, Trejo said, wastewater will still be diverted into the river “well through October, maybe into November.”

El Paso Water is releasing the wastewater at the riverbed near Paisano Drive and Racetrack Drive.

El Paso Water officials and the Texas Commission for Environment Quality, the state environmental regulatory agency, requested that the public avoid contact with the Rio Grande river water and disinfect shoes and clothes that do touch the water.

This measure will not impact drinking water because El Paso Water stopped taking water from the Rio Grande in mid-August as a precaution when the first line broke, El Paso Water spokeswoman Christina Montoya said. Wastewater service remains unaffected across the city.

Lori Kuczmanski, a spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission that oversees water treaties that affect the Rio Grande, said the binational agency receives a daily update from El Paso Water, and is notifying Mexico about current river conditions. The IBWC deferred further comment to the utility.

During a meeting Wednesday of the Public Service Board, a seven-member body that oversees El Paso Water, Trejo said other customers who rely on treated wastewater are having to take cuts.

He said the utility is providing potable water to Coronado Country Club, schools and parks for landscaping irrigation needs and various industry clients to use in cooling equipment.

John Balliew, the president and CEO of El Paso Water, said waiting out the repairs is the only solution.

“There’s no alternative to having this wastewater go into a river,” Balliew said. “We’re trying to minimize it as much as possible. But it’s going to happen for some period of time until we get this thing fixed.”

Broken pipes

The pipes that broke last month are 25-year-old welded steel pipelines wrapped in anti-corrosion materials, called the Frontera Force mains. They collect waste from 17,500 people living on the West Side, an average of 10 million gallons a day. They’re buried 20 feet below ground, span three and a half miles, and are more than three feet wide. Trejo called installing two pipes a “belt and suspenders situation,” to prevent major breaks that would cripple wastewater infrastructure.

Trejo said the measures to keep the pipes from corroding were cutting edge in the 1990s, but the soil, which ranges from moderately to highly corrosive, has since damaged the pipes.

A view of one of the broken mains near Doniphan Park Circle. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Water)

After a line break in March 2020, the utility’s governing board authorized a project to design and build a fiberglass replacement pipe, which is 60% finished, Trejo said. That pipe will be finished in December 2021 rather than March 2022, after the contractor tripled the work crews after the August breaks.

Trejo said wastewater diversion will not stop entirely until the new pipeline is finished and the southern Frontera Force main is repaired. The northern pipe, which suffered five breaks in August, will be abandoned.

“For something to happen like this is very improbable,” Trejo said. “The reasons for why it happened are still being understood.”

Shane Walker, an associate professor in civil engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso, said the utility did things right from an engineering standpoint.

“The pipes were designed with 100% redundancy, which is excellent engineering practice,” he said. “For both sections of pipes in parallel to break, that is really highly unlikely.”

Walker said he’s not concerned about the long-term impacts to the environment, saying that El Paso Water’s disinfection methods can handle any lingering microbes or pathogens.

“It’s a really robust disinfection process. I’m not worried about it at all, as a drinking water treatment and wastewater treatment person,” Walker said.

The backups

El Paso water officials said sewage from the broken pipes backed up onto streets, affecting about 40 homes in the River Bend Drive and Esperanza Circle area.

Balliew said most of the backups were contained within sinks and bathtubs and front lawns, calling it “relatively minor.”

“On a couple of occasions, we did have more widespread backups. For those we do remediation, we do cleanup and have a damage claim process. Also, I’m expecting that from the two hotels that we’ve drastically impacted, we’ll be getting some sort of claim from them as well,” Balliew said.

Anthony Montez, the general manager at the Holiday Inn El Paso West, said the hotel received negative reviews for the smell for the break on Doniphan Park Circle at the end of August.

“We had a lot of unhappy guests, even though there was nothing we could do about it,” Montez said.

The situation has improved, he said, as the area was cleaned and disinfected right after the break. El Paso Water closed the road connecting to Sunland Park Drive to allow workers to continue working on the break.

Management for the Best Western Sunland Park Inn on Doniphan Park Circle were unavailable for comment Wednesday.

What’s next?

Trejo, the chief engineering officer, said the utility is investigating what exactly caused the breaks and will continue to monitor the impact of sewage on the river.

Until then, he said, one of the priorities of El Paso Water is to keep the microorganisms that filter waste out of the water alive in preparation for when the wastewater plant is operational. He said for the better part of three weeks, the utility has trucked in fresh wastewater from other plants or the retention ponds currently holding wastewater to feed the microbes.

Wastewater from a worksite off Doniphan Drive flows into the storm system on its way to the Rio Grande. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

El Paso Water said it is not treating the water put into the river upon orders from TCEQ. Trejo said the utility is using a diluted bleach solution to deodorize and sanitize impacted roads and retention ponds.

Tiffany Young, a spokeswoman for TCEQ, said once El Paso Water completes the repairs and remediation of the pipeline and affected areas, the state agency will “determine if their response” was adequate or if the utility will be cited or fined.

TCEQ did not provide comment regarding negative environmental impacts the agency anticipated in the region or downstream.

TCEQ asked all residents impacted by wastewater spills to contact the complaint hotline or regional office: https://www.tceq.texas.gov/compliance/complaints.

Cover photo: The Rio Grande just downstream of the El Paso Water sewage release. (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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