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El Paso Water starts new phase of river sewage cleanup

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El Paso Water has started a second phase of a plan to clean up the raw sewage in the Rio Grande flowing from broken sewage mains on the West Side.

The utility aims to remove and treat an average of 3 million gallons of sewage per day by diverting it into the American Canal, which is two miles north of Downtown, and piping it to the Haskell Street Wastewater Plant in South-Central El Paso, according to a press release. An average of 10 million gallons of wastewater from sinks, drains and toilets has flowed into the river daily since August after the corrosion breaks of two steel pipelines.

The American Canal is managed by the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commision, a binational agency which enforces water treaties with Mexico.

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El Paso Water has treated some water about 20 miles downstream from the spill, diverting it into an irrigation-district owned canal and pumping the wastewater into the Roberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant in Southeast El Paso. Previously, the utility planned to treat all of the water by damming and diverting the water to Bustamante, but IBWC opposed the plan because it posed a flood-control risk on both sides of the border.

Gilbert Trejo, El Paso Water’s chief technical officer, said Thursday during a Rio Grande citizens forum that an effort to directly pipe the wastewater to a treatment plant on the West Side is still in the planning phase. It’s unclear when the plan will be in place, he added.

“It has proven to be a little bit more difficult as the logistics and the size of the pumps and the equipment needed,” Trejo said.

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

Trejo said the project to install the fiberglass replacement pipeline is on schedule for completion in December. Earlier this month, he told the Public Service Board, which oversees the utility, that the contractors were missing parts, which were held up in shipping delays.

Instead, fittings and other needed parts will be manufactured at a shop in El Paso, he said Thursday.

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

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is monitoring the sewage spill. Officials will release a  report on the environmental impacts and determine if the utility will face fines after the lines are fixed and the clean-up is finished, the state agency has said.

Trejo spoke for the first time Thursday about the ecological impacts to the river, saying preliminary studies showed a “minimal impact.”

“There doesn’t seem to be an immediate impact on wildlife. No fish kills were observed, no fatalities of any wildlife along the river were observed,” Trejo said, adding there would be additional studies.

When asked, Trejo did not provide a number for the cost of the emergency, saying the utility has not totaled the work or changes to the construction projects.

“We have not put our arms around the total impact that it’s had on us. We’re still in the middle of the disaster, and we’re trying to get on just fixing it,” he said.

Cover photo: The Rio Grande carries West El Paso’s untreated sewage downriver on Oct. 13. El Paso Water has redirected approximately 10 million gallons of wastewater into the river per day since its Frontera Force pipelines suffered breaks in August. (Corrie Boudreaux/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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