The untreated sewage from West El Paso has crawled about 20 miles downstream to just outside the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park. But that’s where it will stop.
El Paso Water officials said they are working on a plan to divert and treat all of the raw sewage at the Roberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant on the far southeast side of the city and release clean water downstream, as soon as possible.
“The solution is to treat all of this water and get it out of the environment,” said Gilbert Trejo, who is the chief technical officer at El Paso Water. “It’s a win ultimately, because it’s not going to be in the river anymore.”
Until a complete replacement system is finished, El Paso Water will continue to redirect part of that 10 million or so daily gallons of wastewater from West El Paso into the Rio Grande, and then collect it 20 miles downstream, at a canal near the plant.
The plan will be discussed at an El Paso City Council work session Monday.
Trejo emphasized the water would not impact Rio Bosque Park, which is public land home to more than 200 species of birds.
A now estimated 400 million gallons of wastewater — from toilets, showers and sinks from 17,500 people — is in the Rio Grande riverbed, after a series of breaks in August to two of the utility’s critical pipelines called the Frontera Force mains. Trejo said the large storm ponds that were temporarily used to store the sewage — and caused a lingering smell — are in the process of being drained, sanitized and deodorized.
El Paso Water is installing a replacement fiberglass pipe to prevent the same problem from occurring. That project started last March after a major break in the Frontera Force mains, and is anticipated to be completed in December.
Trejo said the first priority was to keep the sewage from backing up into more homes or streets on the West Side. Now, Trejo said, the plan is to lessen the harm to the environment.
There’s not an answer yet to what caused the corrosion on the two steel pipes that are buried in some places as deep as 20 feet underground, Trejo said.
“We’re doing a forensic analysis on the steel itself,” Trejo said. “We have extremely aggressive soils and we know that hydrogen sulfide gas from the wastewater itself can also cause corrosion.”
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality did not answer questions about the sewage spill’s environmental impacts.
The utility will build an earthen barrier to push all of the water into the Riverside Canal, which is just west of Socorro and operated by the El Paso County Water Improvement District Number 1. El Paso Water is waiting on permission from Mexican officials to dig in an area which includes the Mexican side of the riverbed.
“We do have a request into Mexico to let us work on their side within the riverbed, so that we could finish the diversion away from the river and into a canal that feeds into Bustamante,” Trejo said.
Lori Kuczmanski, a spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission that oversees water treaties that affect the Rio Grande, said the binational agency is aware of the plans, and is sending them to their engineers for review.
The water will be pumped up from the Riverside canal and into the plant, where it will be treated first by microbes that eat the waste in the water, then by a chlorination process.
The Bustamante plant can treat up to 39 million gallons per day, and sees an average of 30 million gallons each day. And the amount of water treated at a time varies greatly, Trejo said.
“There are times of day where Bustamante is only treating 12 million gallons in a day, that means a five- to-six-hour period where we have much more capacity,” Trejo said.
Trejo said that treated effluent will water “non-edible crops” downstream. The West Side users of reclaimed water will have to use a substitute for the time being.
One of the broken pipes was partially repaired, meaning some of that water can now be treated at the John T. Hickerson Water Reclamation Facility on the West Side. However, the utility will still send potable water to clients such as schools, the city and Coronado Country Club instead of the treated wastewater usually used in landscape irrigation.
Trejo said he was unsure of the additional cost for diversion, pumping, chemical use and running the facility to treat the West Side wastewater.
Cover photo: El Paso Water employee Art Hernandez walks along the Riverside Canal, which El Paso Water plans to use to divert the raw sewage flowing down the Rio Grande from the West Side, 20 miles upstream, to treat at Roberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)