2021 was a tumultuous year for El Paso’s climate and environment
Despite a winter storm and a historic monsoon season in El Paso, 2021 is on track to be the ninth-warmest in records that date back to 1887.
Climate change shows a warming of the region’s average yearly temperature — meaning more hot days and hotter nights — with the last quarter century trending noticeably hotter.
Four of El Paso’s five warmest years on record have come since 2016, according to National Weather Service records. Eighteen of the 20 warmest years on record have come since 1993.INSERT CHART:
The dramatic warming from climate change increases the strength of storms by packing more moisture into warmer air. But it also changes the weather at the atmospheric level by decreasing sea ice, which can lead to cold air blanketing across the United States.
The winter storm that devastated Texans in February, causing hundreds of deaths and billions in damages, is linked to atmospheric changes destabilizing the polar vortex, and climate change means that kind of cold snap may hit more frequently.
The brunt of the storm missed El Paso, but it was the coldest time of year with lows of 14 degrees and highs in the 30s and 40s. El Pasoans will see higher gas bills to reimburse utilities for their costs incurred during Winter Storm Uri.
Meteorologist Jason Grzywacz for the National Weather Service office in El Paso said after the dusting of snow in February, El Paso dried out, not seeing significant rain until the tail end of June.
“In that four-month period, we had less than half an inch of rain,” Grzywacz said.
El Paso wasn’t the only one drying out. The snowpack of the mountains in southeastern Colorado and Northern New Mexico, was only 40% of normal at the peak in April. And hotter, sunbaked soils seep up the snowmelt before it can even reach the riverbed. That all means less water in the river for the people and wildlife downstream.
Before the irrigation season, Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico was only at 11% capacity, holding water for Mexico, and farmers in Southern New Mexico and Far West Texas. Farmers saw only fractions of the “usual allotment” of irrigation water, as the river wasn’t running until June, months later than previous years.
Heat and rain
June brought the heat. There were 17 days above 100 degrees, including a nine-day streak where daily highs were in the triple digits, putting children and other vulnerable people at risk.
The hottest day was June 20, peaking at 109 degrees. The need for air conditioning and hot conditions stressed the El Paso power grid, causing blackouts in Las Cruces and El Paso. But Ciudad Juárez faced more extreme blackouts and losses of water due to the conditions, which spoiled food and ruined equipment for people in Anapra.
June’s end brought the monsoons and the flooding. In June, parts of El Paso received upwards of six inches, more than-two thirds the average annual amount in a span of days. More rain came with the monsoon season in July and August, and flood waters remained stagnant for weeks, posing public health risks.
El Paso remains on the frontlines for climate change, and the experts are concerned about the regional impacts to human health. Building infrastructure to secure future water and prevent flooding from stronger storms is already costing El Pasoans.
There’s already concern for next year’s river levels, but the experts say that changing our water management, working collaboratively across borders and ending reliance on fossil fuels can mean a different climate future, not just for the Southwest, but globally.
Climate change concerns
Since 1880, global average temperatures rose by 1 degree Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit). Without drastic cuts to fossil fuels in the next few years, climate scientists predict the Earth could see a rise in global temperature of 1.5 Celsius by the mid-2030s.
In El Paso, annual temperatures have averaged 66.3 degrees Fahrenheit, or 19.1 degrees Celsius, from 2000 to 2021. That’s 3 degrees Fahrenheit and 1.7 degrees Celsius warmer than the same period a century earlier.
In August, climate scientists urged global governments to limit greenhouse gasses by reducing carbon dioxide emissions to net zero, and “strong rapid and sustained reduction” for methane, which is produced in natural gas extraction.
El Paso Electric continues to rely on fossil fuels for the bulk of its energy production. The company reached a settlement in August that will allow it to build an additional natural gas plant in Northeast El Paso, over the objections of environmental groups.
Currently, El Paso Electric generates 66% of its power from natural gas, 29% from nuclear power, and 5% from solar and wind. The company has promised to increase solar to 16% by 2023, and reduce emissions by retiring older gas plants built before stricter federal standards. The company is exploring hydrogen power at Newman 6, touted as a green solution for the future. Hydrogen production currently is extracted by using natural gas, emitting vast amounts of carbon dioxide.
Almost three-fourths of the world’s emissions are from the energy sector, according to The Center for Climate and Energy solutions, a Virginia-based independent nonprofit working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Other environmental concerns
Another regional concern is air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency gave El Paso County a failing grade for its air quality impacting neighboring Doña Ana County, which could impact future development and emissions.
In August, a different public health problem burst forth after two sewage mains broke on El Paso’s Westside, backing up into people’s homes. El Paso Water determined the only course of action was diverting the wastewater from 17,500 people’s drains, showers and toilets into the bed of the Rio Grande.
The utility has worked to treat the sewage by pumping it out of the river downstream, but questions remain about the impacts to wildlife and ratepayers. Construction on a replacement pipe finished Wednesday, and diversions to the Rio Grande are supposed to end in January. Federal officials sent a letter in early December asking the utility to provide more information about the spill.
Cover photo: Contamination in the air obscures views over the tri-state region on Dec. 14. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)