The Rio Grande carries West El Paso's untreated sewage downriver on Oct. 13. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Correction: El Paso Water officials misstated the number of gallons of raw sewage released per day. The correct figure is 10 million.

When it comes to the raw sewage flowing into the Rio Grande, utility officials said treatment is not going according to plan.

El Paso Water will only divert a portion of the wastewater in the Rio Grande because damming the whole river would cause flood risks, Gilbert Trejo, El Paso Water’s chief technical officer, told the Public Service Board during a meeting Wednesday.

The utility has diverted 600 million gallons of sewage into the Rio Grande after corrosion caused breaks in two major wastewater pipelines near Sunland Park Drive and Doniphan Drive in mid-August. The wastewater flows, which include storm water and irrigation runoff, reached Fort Quitman last week, 90 miles southeast of El Paso, Trejo said.

To minimize the environmental impact, El Paso Water planned to dam the river in its entirety and pump out 100% of the waste for treatment at the Roberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant in Southeast El Paso. That plan, however, did not consider the river’s role in providing flood control during heavy rains.

“As of right now, we are not able to block the entire flow in the river — it’s not practical from a flood mitigation standpoint and flood hazard standpoint,” Trejo said.

The U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission recommended against damming the river because of the flood risk, said public affairs officer Lori Kuczmanski. The IBWC oversees binational water treaties and concerns between the United States and Mexico.

The initial plan would have also required Mexico’s permission to install a dam extending to that country’s half of the shoreline — a time-consuming and costly process. 

The IWBC will allow El Paso Water to use the federally managed American Canal to divert additional wastewater into the Bustamante treatment plant and Haskell Street Wastewater Treatment Plant over the next few weeks, Trejo said.

El Paso Water is already using the local irrigation district-managed Riverside Canal to divert a portion of the wastewater from the Rio Grande to Bustamante.

The Rio Grande carries West El Paso’s untreated sewage downriver on Oct. 13. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Bustamante has treated upwards of 50 million gallons of the spilled sewage in the last three weeks alone, Trejo estimated — a fraction of the 10 million gallons of raw sewage released daily as a result of the broken mains.

El Paso Water won’t begin pumping sewage from the American Canal into South-Central El Paso’s Haskell treatment plant for another few weeks, Trejo said.

“That’s another 3 million gallons per day we can take out of the river at that spot,” he said.

El Paso Water is additionally working to divert the sewage further upstream to the John T. Hickerson Water Reclamation Facility in West El Paso.

“The challenges there are crossing Doniphan Drive with about a 42-inch pipeline,” Trejo said. “Doing that quickly and then getting the size of pumps to get all the pressure we need to get (the wastewater) to Hickerson makes it challenging.”

Until a replacement for the Frontera Force wastewater lines is completed in December, El Paso Water will continue putting sewage into the Rio Grande.

A replacement fiberglass pipeline, which Trejo said is corrosion-resistant, is 80% installed. The completion has been hampered by shipping delays and groundwater removal at construction sites.

One of the Frontera Force mains is also being repaired for backup use, but had a break last week, Trejo said. That southern line was piping some of the wastewater to the Hickerson treatment plant.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has been monitoring the sewage spill, but has yet to issue a report on the environmental impacts. Such a report will be released after the lines are fixed and the clean-up finished, the state agency previously said.

The first water quality tests performed in the last few weeks showed non-detectable levels of heavy metals, mercury or cyanide, Trejo said.

“We’re trying to show that this wastewater discharge is non-toxic from a chemical standpoint,” he said.

The water is undergoing additional tests for disease-causing microbes. Both TCEQ and El Paso Water urge the public to avoid contact with the river.

Cover photo: The Rio Grande carries West El Paso’s untreated sewage downriver on Oct. 13. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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...