El Paso Water is expecting a drought across the region again next spring as record-setting heat and the lowest amount of rainfall in almost 90 years have combined to put stress on the city’s water supply.

And late-summer flooding is unlikely to help the situation much, an El Paso Water official said. 

The utility’s board last month adopted a drought resolution for next spring for the third consecutive year. Staff asked the board to adopt the measure, which will allow the utility to speed up drought-relief projects, including well drilling and procurements of materials such as membranes that separate contaminants from water at water treatment plants. 

The drought resolution comes after the water level at Elephant Butte earlier this summer reached the highest point in three years, which allowed for the release of water in the Rio Grande for irrigation weeks earlier than last year. Higher levels at the reservoir were the result of heavy snowpack in the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. 

Elephant Butte was 22% full Monday, compared with this time last when the reservoir was less than 4% of its capacity. Despite the higher water level this year, El Paso Water is expecting the lake to deplete again by the end of irrigation season this fall. A lower level at the lake translates to less water that the water utility can draw from the Rio Grande, which provides as much as half of the city’s water each year. 

“We’re going to drain (Elephant Butte) again this year. And so we are going to need a huge snowpack again to have a full river supply next year,” said Scott Reinert, water resources manager for El Paso Water. 

Snowpack refers to the accumulation of snow in the mountains within the Rio Grande watershed. But enough snow has to accumulate in specific places – near Alamosa, Colorado, and Taos, New Mexico, for example – and melt in the right way in order to flow into the river and make it over 300 miles south into Elephant Butte. 

If the right conditions don’t come together, Reinert said, there’s less water in the river and El Paso Water has to rely more on groundwater pumped from the Hueco-Bolson aquifer. 

“What the (drought) resolution means is that we’re going to be in a tight situation. A full river supply is 60,000 acre-feet of water, and when we only get 20,000acre-feet, we’ve lost 40,000 acre-feet of river supply in a year,” he said.

An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons of water. 

“We have to make that up with pumping more groundwater. This resolution allows us to do more projects to make up for that deficit,” he said. 

The near-record low amount of rainfall across the Borderland this year hasn’t helped the situation. 

A vendor sells water and snacks from the trunk of a car near construction zones in Far East El Paso on July 31. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

As of Monday, El Paso had seen 1.13 inches of rainfall so far this year – the second-lowest amount of precipitation here through the first week of August in any year on record. The only other time the city saw less rainfall through this time of year was in 1934

The Borderland on average receives 2.3 inches of rainfall in June and July each year, yet the area saw just 0.33 inches of rain in the past two months. That was the lowest amount of rainfall over that two-month period since 1980. 

Reinert called this summer “a significant monsoon drought.”

“That’s what I think we’re in right now,” he said. “This year, comparing it to other years … we’re going to see more water usage. And it’s because we didn’t get the rainfall.”

On a hot summer day, El Paso may require something like 160 million gallons of water per day. When the monsoon rains come in, the water utility’s demand can fall lower to 140 million gallons per day, Reinert said. 

When the city receives normal rainfall, “people are not using their air conditioning as much, their evaporative coolers, they’re not watering their grass, and so it lowers our peak (demand),” he said. 

But the record-setting heat this summer – along with the lack of rain – has driven water usage up some as El Pasoans run evaporative coolers and water their lawns and yard plants more often to compensate for the historic 44-day streak of triple-digit temperatures that ended last week. 

While El Paso may use around 120,000 acre-feet of water in a typical year, Reinert said this year water consumption could jump up to 125,000 acre-feet. 

Meanwhile, the water utility recently began offering sandbags for residents to help protect against flooding from monsoon storms that the utility’s CEO said are likely to come later than normal this year. The city usually experiences monsoon storms beginning around July 4. 

“We are urging El Pasoans to be prepared for late-summer flooding,” CEO John Balliew said to the utility’s Public Service Board last month.  

The magnitude of flooding that the city might experience is not clear yet, however. 

Different long-range forecasts all suggest El Paso will receive below-average rainfall in August, according to the National Weather Service. The Borderland on average sees 1.67 inches of precipitation in August, usually the rainiest month of the year. 

And a seasonal forecast from the NWS predicts lower-than-normal rainfall here through October. But the El Niño weather pattern is expected to bring a wetter winter to El Paso later this year.

Regardless, even if the city does experience flooding, it won’t help El Paso Water bolster water supplies very much. That’s because the utility’s systems are designed to capture controlled releases of water from the river and not floodwater. 

“It’s all about how much water is in the reservoir, Elephant Butte,” Reinert said. “So you could have kind of a weird situation where we don’t have river (water) supply in a drought, but yet it’s flooding.”

Longer term, El Paso Water is developing the Advanced Water Purification Facility to put wastewater through a series of treatments and add it to the utility’s potable water supply. The facility will begin operating in 2025. The utility also operates a desalination facility to purify brackish groundwater, and by 2040 has plans to import water from Dell City east of El Paso.  

The utility has strong “drought-relief” projects planned to maintain a water supply for decades without over-pumping the aquifer, Reinert said. Still, it’s increasingly becoming a guessing-game to estimate how much water will flow from the mountains hundreds of miles to the north and eventually arrive in El Paso.

Visitors spend a day on the water at Elephant Butte Lake State Park in New Mexico. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

For years in the 1980s and 1990s, the Elephant Butte reservoir was full much of the time and the irrigation season lasted for months longer than in recent years, when low water levels limited releases into the Rio Grande. 

“With this drought that we’re experiencing, it makes you ask ‘How much are we going to get next year?’ Is (river water) 10% of our annual supply, like in 2013? Or is it 30%, which is fairly good? Is it ever going to get back up to 50%?” Reinert said. “And it’s all about how much river water we get each year. But it seems like an annual question we ask.”

Diego Mendoza-Moyers is a reporter covering energy and the environment. An El Paso native, he has previously covered business for the San Antonio Express-News and Albany Times Union, and reported for the...