By Kristina Mena

Whether it is extreme weather or a large pipe break within an aging system, communities are susceptible to disruptions within their water and sanitation infrastructure. 

Kristina Mena

Given the globalization of our economy, the complexities of urban planning and the consequences of climate change, we can now expect the unexpected. This has made the decision-making process of prioritizing infrastructure projects – once reliant on historical data – complicated as water utilities carefully allocate money and resources to ensure high quality drinking water and effective wastewater and stormwater management.

Public health safeguards are the cornerstone of any water utility’s operations, and El Paso Water is no exception. No decision from the Public Service Board or utility staff is taken lightly in this area.  

El Paso Water has diversified its water resources, and that’s what distinguishes El Paso’s water portfolio from other cities. It also means that tailored treatment processes need to be implemented. Most communities rely on a drinking water supply from rivers and lakes or groundwater from an aquifer. In El Paso, we rely on both.

Obviously, drinking water sources are not sterile, which is why utilities treat water for consumption. Before water flows through customers’ taps, drinking water is treated with reliable treatment processes – such as chemical clarification and ultraviolet light disinfection systems. El Paso Water employees conduct extensive testing and monitoring throughout treatment to ensure water is safe to drink. 

Human health risk assessments have provided water quality benchmarks with public health in mind to inform these standards, as well as to advise when an event such as the recent Frontera wastewater emergency occurs. Multiple breaks in two large lines forced El Paso Water to divert millions of gallons of wastewater into the Rio Grande to protect public health.

Much of the Frontera wastewater emergency has been well documented. However, few are aware of the analysis and science behind the decisions to keep homes and businesses safe. 

When considering threats to human health from an environmental event, the major driver of health risks is exposure. If there is no exposure, there is no risk. With Frontera, it was important to remove the exposure quickly. Diversion of wastewater to the riverbed and away from neighborhoods reduced exposure.

As a water microbiologist, I have found that wastewater spills traced to an unforeseen circumstance – such as a pipe break – unfortunately happen across the world. Wastewater’s disease-causing properties pose an immediate public risk, so the first course of action is to remove the exposure, followed by remediation. EPWater took robust measures to clean impacted areas to mitigate adverse consequences to the environment and public.    

Moving forward

El Paso Water is anticipating a short river season this year, with only about 16% of the normal season allotment. The riverbed cleanup effort was 100% complete before river water was received from Elephant Butte Reservoir. 

Current water quality sampling revealed that river flows have returned to pre-discharge conditions. Incidentally, river water always requires more treatment and filtration because waterways capture rain runoff traveling across roads, farms and towns, collecting pollutants along the way. 

It is difficult to predict when a break will occur, but we do have the technology – both analytically and in terms of treatment – to predict health risks and identify how to reduce them.

El Paso Water’s essential employees work hard daily to ensure treatment plants and the critical network of underground pipes, pumps and valves deliver reliable, safe water to customers. No one ever anticipates an event the magnitude of the Frontera wastewater emergency, but El Paso Water is prioritizing proactive approaches and investments to protect infrastructure. Our public health depends on it, and customers deserve no less. 

Kristina Mena is chair of the Public Service Board, which governs El Paso Water. She is also dean of the El Paso Campus of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health.