The task for El Paso Water in 2024 is simple: continue upgrading its post-World War II infrastructure while at the same time preventing household water bills from spiking.
“The last thing we want is for water or wastewater treatment to be the limiting factor for the growth of the city,” said Ivonne Santiago, an associate professor at UTEP who chairs the Public Service Board, which governs El Paso Water. “That’s why these infrastructure projects are so indispensable.”
The Public Service Board oversees the utility’s operations and approves water bill rates. The board currently has a vacancy with applications due Nov. 7.
Whoever the utility and City Council select to fill the role early next year will help manage El Paso Water’s $954 million annual budget, which includes a massive capital spending program that’s underway to renovate the city’s aging water infrastructure.
“This is truly an opportunity to make a difference in our community,” Santiago said. “But also it’s a big responsibility, because you have to (explain) why we make our decisions, and justify them to the public.”
The new board member will likely enter the job early next year just as El Paso Water sets its budget and rates for the upcoming fiscal year. Upgrading infrastructure is a major focus for the utility, which in the last two years has more than doubled its spending on infrastructure improvements to replace old water delivery systems.
El Paso Water manages 5,200 miles of underground pipelines throughout the area.
“Much of the underground infrastructure here in El Paso was put in a post-World War II boom,” CEO John Balliew told El Paso Matters. “And so now it’s 70, 80 years old, and needs to be replaced.”
El Paso Water this year boosted its spending to $554 million on water and wastewater infrastructure improvement projects, compared with $242 million in capital spending in 2021 and slightly less the year before. After it raised rates last year, El Paso Water spent $128 million on capital expenses from March through August of this year, an increase from $83 million over the same time last year.
El Paso Water uses that money for a wide range of projects, such as replacing water mains and wastewater pipelines, and building concrete drainage ponds. The utility also spent nearly $20 million from March through August doing work on the 32-year-old Bustamante wastewater treatment plant near Socorro.
El Paso Water is in the middle of a five-year, $730 million megaproject to boost capacity at the Bustamante plant and eventually increase the region’s potable water supply. It’s one of the biggest capital projects El Paso Water has ever undertaken.
“Unlike many cities, we have to keep up with the water supply. Because even though we have two aquifers, they are relatively small aquifers. We have the Rio Grande, a relatively small source of supply. So we have to be very diligent about how we handle the water supply,” Balliew said.
In addition to renovating El Paso’s water system, the next big challenge the incoming PSB member – and the rest of the board – will face is how to manage upgrading infrastructure and bolstering water supplies without overspending and making water bills too costly for El Pasoans.
Household water bills in El Paso average about $110 per month. The average bill is made up of just over $70 for water and wastewater service and about $40 in city-related charges for recycling, trash collection, and stormwater and franchise fees.
“We all know the drill: El Paso needs high-paying jobs to retain the people that want to live here. And if we had that, then we will be able to fund the system,” Balliew said. “But we have to have some sort of a lifeline that we can extend to those who won’t be able to afford the bills. We have to figure that out.”
The Public Service Board overseeing El Paso Water – and its three separate functions as a water, wastewater and stormwater utility – is key to much of how El Paso functions. El Pasoans interested in filling the current vacancy must apply to join the PSB by Nov. 7, and the City Council will interview and vote on candidates early next year.
The PSB has a wide range of duties. Not only does the board set El Paso Water’s rates, approves contracts and oversees construction projects, but the group also approves land sales for El Paso Water – which owns tens of thousands of acres of land in El Paso, New Mexico and east to Dell City, Texas – that fund water and sewage projects.
The PSB even oversees trash collection in some parts of El Paso County that are outside the city limits; last month it approved a $1.7 million contract for curbside trash pick up for over 4,000 customers on the far East and West sides (Those customers receive an extra fee on their water bills to cover the cost).
Leaving the Public Service Board is Kristina Mena, who is the regional dean of the University of Texas Health Science Center at HoustonSchool of Public Health’s El Paso campus. PSB members serve staggered four-year terms, with a limit of two consecutive terms. The board expanded from five to seven members in 2010.
The PSB members each are selected for different specialties, such as finance or environmental health. The current open slot is for someone with a background in education, communications or public administration.
Santiago said PSB members have to understand multiple aspects of the utility, such as technical water issues, contracting, construction, finance and real estate, among other things. For Santiago, an academic who researched water treatment before coming aboard the PSB, joining the utility’s finance committee at first presented “the steepest learning curve.”
“We need someone that understands the diversified portfolio that El Paso has for sustainability. And, with that understanding, to be able to communicate that to the public,” Santiago said. “It’s not just financial issues, but there’s also technical issues that we have challenges with, and new regulations and how we technically implement them.”