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Months in, questions remain on sewage spill

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No one went down to the river to pray.

A planned binational Mass traditionally held on the banks of the Rio Grande was relocated to El Punto in Ciudad Juárez earlier this month after U.S. federal officials told the organizers it was unsafe to hold at the river because of sewage in the water.

“We just felt it wasn’t going to be sanitary for people,” said Fernando Ceniceros, a spokesperson for El Paso Catholic Diocese.

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The cancellation was just one of the consequences after about 10 million gallons of untreated sewage began flowing into the Rio Grande every day since the unprecedented failure of two wastewater pipelines in August. El Paso Water expects to stop dumping the wastewater, which is mainly waste from toilets and drains, into the riverbed before January, after the completion of a replacement pipeline.

The utility is cleaning an average of 12 million gallons a day by pumping sewage to two different treatment plants downstream. But months in, the disaster continues with officials offering little information about what caused the spill or what cleaning it up will look like. And the public will have to wait even longer to hear reports from the state agency evaluating the utility.

What El Paso Water has said

In August, after an intense monsoon season caused flooding across the city, a set of two steel sewage pipelines near a lift station in West El Paso broke at the same time. The stations help pump wastewater to treatment plants.

The 25-year old system was unique, according to wastewater engineers, because each pipe was able to carry the entire sewage load for 17,500 homes to prevent system failures. But the four-foot-wide pipes were buried about 20 feet in the ground.

The Rio Grande just downstream of where El Paso Water diverts an average 10 million gallons a day of wastewater from 17,500 Westside toilets and drains after a series of main breaks in August. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

The soil in West El Paso ranges from moderate to highly corrosive because of the salt content. El Paso Water said the pipes were wrapped in a coating to protect them from the soil and treated inside to prevent damage from the acids and gases in sewage.

When the pipes failed in August, the sewage backed up into Doniphan Road and about 40 nearby homes.

Gilbert Trejo, the chief technical officer at El Paso Water, said to prevent further backups, the water would have to be dumped, and the only body that could handle that much water was the Rio Grande.

But what exactly started the chain reaction remains unknown.

Alan Shubert, the vice president of operations at El Paso Water, recently told the Public Service Board, which oversees the utility, that several sections of the pipeline remain unavailable.

The utility started construction on a fiberglass replacement pipeline in early 2020 after one of the lines broke. The replacement was slated for completion in March 2022. After the August breaks, the utility contracted additional crews to finish the pipeline by December, three months ahead of schedule.

Utility officials said the pipelines showed wear before the August breaks.

“We noticed alarming levels of corrosion in 2017,” Trejo said. “We immediately started engineering to study and understand the extent of the corrosion.”

While preliminary tests show the water doesn’t contain chemical spills, the utility said it’s waiting on additional tests to see the pathogen and bacterial content of the river.

The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, a binational agency that oversees water treaties between the United States and Mexico, modified their work along the river because of the danger sewage poses to human health.

“Our Water Accounting Division has restricted our employees from going into the river to do stream gaging. Our Clean Rivers Program has modified their methods of collecting water samples by using a sampling bucket or sampling poles instead of wading in the water,” Lori Kuczmanski, an agency spokeswoman, said in an email.

What we don’t know

Estela Padilla, 76, lives in Socorro nearly 30 miles downstream from the spill and still has to contend with the stench. The river runs less than a mile from her home, which means that depending on which way the winds blow, the smell permeates her home.

Padilla, who took to walking alongside the river during the pandemic, said it saddens her to see flocks of doves drinking from the river.

“It feels like we’ve become like a dumping area for sewage and it’s heartbreaking that the wildlife are drinking water from there,” Padilla said.

A flock of mallards flies out of the Riverside Canal near the soon-to-be diversion site for the raw sewage flowing 20 miles down the Rio Grande. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

As the smell lingers, so do questions about the spill’s consequences for local wildlife and prevention.

Kevin Floyd, a board member for the El Paso Audubon Society, said the sewage most likely poses more of a risk to human health than to the migratory waterfowl or other birds who live around the river.

“We treat sewage to prevent pathogens that people are spreading,” Floyd said. “The diseases that we have are unlikely to be the same thing that impacts birds.”

But the additional nutrients, such as nitrogen, in the untreated wastewater could mean more food for algae. Some varieties of algae can be toxic, but other threats come from the bacteria that break down algae, which can remove oxygen from the water, Floyd said.

“If the water is either cloudy enough that it’s impacting plant growth, or for whatever reason causing problems to the aquatic plants, that could be an issue. And then if it’s causing problems with any of the invertebrates, that would also have an impact on waterfowls’ food source,” Floyd said.

What we’re waiting on

El Paso Water has not yet made a remediation plan, Shubert said, saying that step will instead start soon after the dumping stops.

“You can’t make a remediation plan in the middle of the spill, you’ve got to get your arms around it first,” Shubert told the Public Service Board at the November meeting.

The Texas Commission on Environment Quality is the state agency that oversees waterways and monitors pollution. The agency declined to answer questions about its observations, but instead issued a written statement saying the investigation into the spill is ongoing.

“A copy of this investigation report, including all sampling results and observations, can be provided upon request once it is complete,” agency spokesperson Gary Rasp said in an email.

Rasp did not say when the agency expects to publish the report. TCEQ said in August that El Paso Water will have to file a report to the agency after the remediation of the river is finished. Only then will TCEQ determine if any of the utility’s response merits citations or fines for any violations.

Daniel Ortiz, chief legal counsel to El Paso Water, said all of the information collected will be released “unless there’s some issue that comes up, where we anticipate litigation.”

Correction: Lori Kuczmanski’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Cover photo: Benito Rucobo, a member of Santa Margarita de Cortona church, collects trash along the Juárez side of the Rio Grande while supervising teen volunteers on Oct. 17. Rucobo and other church members participated in the “Together We Clean the River” event sponsored by the Rotary Club. (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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