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El Paso Water finishes replacement of broken sewer main

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Four months, 1.1 billion gallons of sewage and one replacement pipeline later, El Paso Water officials said Wednesday they will work on ending diversions of untreated wastewater into the Rio Grande in coming weeks.

“As we use the pipelines, less and less raw wastewater will be discharged into the river. So over the coming weeks, we’ll see a reduction in discharge into the river,” said Gilbert Trejo, the chief technical officer for the utility.

In August, two steel pipelines broke from internal corrosion, requiring the utility to divert the raw sewage from the toilets, drains and showers of 17,500 Westside homes into the Rio Grande.

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Since then, installation of a replacement fiberglass line started in March 2020 sped up dramatically, cutting the construction time by three months. El Paso Water will slowly feed the sewage to the T.K. Hickerson Wastewater treatment plant, ensuring the remaining 3.5 miles of pipelines are functional.

Trejo said there is some corrosion concern beyond the replacement pipeline, as the remaining 3.5 miles to the treatment facility are made of steel.

“We are concerned about the remaining parts of the pipeline,” Trejo said. “This mile and a half we replaced was the area that was most corroded in the evaluation and investigations that we did.”

El Paso Water Chief Technical Officer Gilbert Trejo addresses reporters Wednesday afternoon. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Trejo said the hope is the less-corroded pipes will be protected by the redundancy of the whole system, since each pipe is able to handle all of the wastewater in case of a break in the other.

“There is contingency in the fact that we have a corrosion-resistant pipeline feeding two pipelines that we can move the flow into one and the other,” Trejo said. “The worst-case scenario would be like what happened in August, if both were to break, and there’s nowhere else for the wastewater to go.”

Contractors will start immediately on the replacement of the next mile of the Frontera Force pipelines, Trejo said. The Public Service Board, which oversees the utility, approved $27 million for the project earlier this month. The final two-mile stretch, which Trejo said he expects to be the most expensive, is still in the design phase.

In the new year, there will be a new smell lingering about the area, as Trejo said residents should expect the odors to become stronger as the utility cleans the system out. 

“We’ve got a pipeline system that hasn’t been used, it’s partially filled with raw wastewater. And when we start using the new pipeline, we’re gonna push this old wastewater sitting in these pipes (to the treatment plant),” Trejo said.

He said the increased odors will last a couple of days, starting possibly as early as Friday, into next week.

Earlier this month, federal officials asked the utility to provide answers within 20 days about El Paso Water’s procedures, testing and internal response to the spill.

Jennah Durant, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency Region 6 office in Dallas, said the utility provided initial information to the agency’s request.

“EPA also gave El Paso Water a 30-day extension to provide more detailed information,” Durant said in an email.

It’s unclear how the federal inquiry would impact the ongoing investigation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Mallard ducks dabbled in the Rio Grande on Wednesday, in an area where El Paso Water has diverted a daily average 10 million gallons of sewage for four months due to broken mains. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Trejo said the preliminary environmental impacts to the river showed no wildlife harm, and only some minor harm to plant life in direct contact with the sewage.

The flows, which include freshwater from groundwater, irrigation runoff and treated wastewater, made it to Fort Quitman, Texas, several months ago. Trejo said the utility has not received complaints regarding smell or water quality past the El Paso County line.

Trejo said he would give a further update to the clean-up plan at the January Public Service Board meeting.

Cover photo: Contractors install the final fitting Wednesday for the fiberglass replacement pipeline for a crucial West El Paso sewage main. (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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