It takes a village to clean a river.
But time is running out for the groups cleaning up the remnants of the raw sewage spill in the Rio Grande, El Paso Water Chief Operations Officer Gilbert Trejo told the Public Service Board Wednesday.
“We have a short window between now and June 1, and there’s a lot of agencies involved,” Trejo said.
This year’s irrigation season is delayed due to drought, but in late May, water will be released from upstream storage in the Elephant Butte Reservoir, to irrigate more than 142,000 acres in New Mexico and Texas. When the water arrives in El Paso in early June, it will also provide drinking water for the city.
About three miles of the river require remediation, including the American Dam and American Canal, which transfers river water owed to the Mexican government under treaties.
In order to clean that stretch of the river, El Paso Water accepted help from the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, contractors, the International Boundary and Water Commission and the Comisión Internacional de Limites y Aguas. The IBWC maintains the U.S. part of the river as part of its oversight of international treaties, and coordinates with CILA to clean any of the spill on Mexico’s side of the river.
March marks six months since the catastrophic sewer main break last August, which resulted in the utility dumping more than 1.1 billion gallons of raw sewage into the Rio Grande riverbed over a four month period. Some of the sewage was later diverted into canals for treatment.
Cleanup operations started in January after the sewage pipeline was replaced, and is anticipated to finish sometime in May.
El Paso Water and environmental contractor Arcadis are focusing on clearing the riverbed. Workers dig up six inches of contaminated soil and store it on the banks, where it drains and is disinfected by the sun before disposal, Trejo said.
Ponds where the sewage was first stored on Doniphan Avenue have been cleared and disinfected. El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 also removed dried, caked-on sewage from the walls of the Riverside Canal, going so far as to disinfect the walls, Trejo said.
PSB Boardmember Ivonne Santiago asked whether El Paso Water would take extra precautions when the river runs again in early June, such as collecting additional samples to check for contaminants.
Trejo said the utility will allow the first week’s worth of water to pass before collecting river water for city use; both because it is too salty to drink and out of caution.
“Additional testing (will be) taken so we can see the improvement of water quality,” he told Santiago.
There’s still no word on whether the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency investigating the spill, will issue fines against the utility.
“TCEQ will assess a fine and determine if any (El Paso Water) money will make its way to Austin in terms of a fine, or if they’re going to make a decision if that fine stays in El Paso and they say ‘just go ahead and use this money to remediate the impact,’” Trejo said. “That’s a good sign, that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Cover photo: The Rio Grande carries West El Paso’s untreated sewage downriver on Oct. 13, 2021, after the Frontera Force pipelines suffered breaks in August. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)