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El Paso pushes for solutions to groundwater challenges, at a price

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Note: This is the second of a two-part series on groundwater in the El Paso region. Read part one here.

As climate change has altered El Paso’s access to water, the need for increased treatment and transportation of the resource has grown. But those solutions will likely translate to higher costs for utilities and residents alike.

Experts in Texas and beyond think El Paso Water is on the forefront of diversifying the water supply. But warming temperatures and variable precipitation threaten the ability to find cheaper sources of water to treat and use, whether from the Rio Grande or from underground aquifers.

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Cities across the Southwest are expected to use groundwater supplies faster in the next 50 years to compensate for less water on the surface, said Robert Mace, the executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. Groundwater is already pumped faster than it can recharge.

“There’ll be higher temperatures, greater evaporation, less soil moisture, which means less runoff, less water in the reservoirs. If there’s less surface water available, then groundwater is going to be the go-to supply,” Mace said. “That can have consequences on the long-term management of local groundwater resources.”

El Paso Water’s 50-year plan looks to increase desalination efforts, purchase additional rights to river water, put water from the surface and “bank” it underground, and pipe water from about 90 miles away from land the utility owns.

The city’s projected growth means pushing for more fresh water through increasingly expensive avenues in the future, El Paso Water CEO John Balliew said.

According to the utility’s estimates, 1 acre-foot (nearly 326,000 gallons) of river water costs $125 to transport and treat, whereas importing the same amount would cost the utility $3,000.

El Paso Water already owns land and water rights outside of Dell City about 90 miles away. But Balliew said the utility is focused on more local efforts.

“If we can postpone the importation project for another decade, then that saves money for the customer, because of the expense,” Balliew said.

A digital rendering of the planned Advanced Water Purification Facility in El Paso, which would treat not only surface water, but also treat up to a daily 10 million gallons of wastewater to make it safe for drinking. (Illustration courtesy of El Paso Water)

The future cost of water is something that preoccupies Alex Mayer, the director for the Center of Environmental Management at the University of Texas at El Paso. Mayer and colleague Josiah Heyman, an anthropology professor, studied the burden water bills have on El Pasoans of different income levels.

Their paper, which is currently under peer review, found that within 30 years, water could account for 10% of lower-income household expenses as wages rise at a slower rate than the costs of delivering water.

“If water bills are going to double, triple, quadruple, then it will become a really substantial bill for people — if it’s not already,” Mayer said.

Water future

El Paso is spending for its water future now.

At a recent Public Service Board meeting, Balliew presented a $724 million water-sewer budget, an increase of $326 million from 2021. He said the driving factors for increased expenses and rates included construction of infrastructure for the water supplies for the region.

The utility will spend $5.5 million on aquifer storage and recovery this year, as construction started in November on an arroyo on the Northeast side to refill the Hueco Bolson.

El Paso Water is also spending $500 million over the next five years to upgrade the Roberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant, as part of a project to treat wastewater to drinking-water quality. The design of that project is nearly complete, with construction to follow, Balliew said.

Balliew called groundwater the “backbone of our water system,” and that it requires investment. That includes $10 million on improving Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant and $8.3 million on drilling more groundwater wells this year alone.

“We have to expect that the river drought will continue to fluctuate for many years to come,” Balliew said.

The city relies on 27.5 million gallons daily of desalinated water from the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant.

With a shrinking river, inland saltwater from underground aquifers will be an important source of water, said Malynda Cappelle, the facility manager for the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility in Alamogordo.

“That’s relatively drought-proof water, because you’re not relying on it to rain or snow, to get that water,” Cappelle said. “It uses known technology, and it’s reasonably affordable compared to piping water hundreds of miles.”

Salt water is pushed through a thin membrane which sieves the water on a molecular level, wringing out fresh water on one side, and leaving an extremely salty brine on the other.

Cappelle said that brine poses a big challenge for inland water, since it’s difficult to dispose of. Some of her research looks into squeezing more water out of that brine, but that method increases the costs.

Within the lifetimes of many Borderland residents, wells that pumped freshwater may be unusable without desalination, Cappelle said.

“We’re all competing over different, smaller and more dwindling water supplies,” Cappelle said. “As we have to pump from deeper and deeper parts of the aquifer, the wells will get more brackish.”

Bridging the void

Groundwater doesn’t belong to just one city, as hydrology and history shows. 

Rosario Sánchez, who has spent 15 years at Texas A&M’s Texas Water Resources Institute, said that groundwater is the future of the border, and that all the stakeholders should have a say.

Sánchez and Laura Rodriguez, a geologist and graduate research assistant, published a first-of-its-kind study in 2021 that mapped 36 transboundary aquifers from New Mexico to California, completing an earlier map of Texas and Mexico groundwater. Currently, the United States and Mexico jointly recognize only 11 binational aquifers.

A map of binational aquifers from New Mexico to California published in 2021 by Rosario Sánchez and Laura Rodriguez, who are water researchers at the Texas A&M Texas Water Institute. (Illustration courtesy of Texas A&M)

The first step to talking about groundwater is knowing about groundwater, Sánchez said, because the lack of national awareness leads to a lack of funding for research. And that, in turn, leads to a basic lack of widespread knowledge about the issue.

Sánchez said the patchwork of state standards for monitoring and mapping wells created delays in mapping on the U.S. side. But the research was also hampered by a dearth of data from Mexico.

“On the Mexico side, you don’t even have all the wells monitored, you don’t even know how much water is actually being extracted,” Sánchez said. “There is no certainty, not from the data available that we have.”

To address some of the gaps, she and others founded the Permanent Forum of Binational Water, made up of non-governmental organizations, scientists and local officials from each side of the border to share information on policy goals. The effort started in early 2020 as a way to encourage people to share data and ideas for talking about hidden water.

In research published in 2020, Sánchez found that local officials on both sides of the border were hoping for locally tailored solutions over blanket agreements that need approval from both federal governments. Those agreements do not account for different levels of use, water quality or population.

“Along 2,000 miles of border, each aquifer is different, and the issues with them are localized,” Sánchez said.

Sánchez said water is a key humanitarian right, but one that has to be managed sustainably. Groundwater mining and viewing water solely as a resource to be managed fails to understand the complexity of climate systems, she said.

“Water is not a given,” she said. “There’s an environment that depends on it, that provides it. An environment that needs to be sustained for us to have it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Malynda Cappelle’s last name.

Cover photo: Climate change is drying the Rio Grande. Its water accounts for nearly half of El Paso’s water sources now, but is expected to be less reliable in the future. (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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