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Water Shortage Tests El Paso's Conservation Efforts

El Paso began preparing for shortages two decades ago. Now, it's seen as a leader in confronting a crisis that many expect to spread beyond Texas.

Mark Paulda
For more than 100 years, residents and officials in El Paso, Texas, have wrestled with how to conserve the region’s limited water supply. In 1905, the Rio Grande Project was authorized, ensuring that all unappropriated water from the Rio Grande be stored for irrigation purposes in New Mexico and Texas. In 1916, the Elephant Butte Dam and Reservoir, capable of holding more than 2 million acre-feet of water, was built north of Truth or Consequences, N.M. Its water supply trickled down to farms and cities in the western arm of Texas, including El Paso.

Despite those efforts, other factors -- particularly droughts that deplete the region’s water sources -- have left El Paso in constant fear that it could run out of water. This year, the runoff from the Rio Grande into the Elephant Butte Reservoir is expected to be almost 80 percent below the historical average, according to estimates from the Bureau of Reclamation. The city itself went 119 days without rain last spring. Most of the region along the Rio Grande from New Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico is experiencing an “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, the most serious classifications, according to the University of Nebraska’s Drought Monitor.

But El Paso is ready for this. Twenty years ago, the city -- through its public water utility company -- began work on strategies for keeping its water pipes full. In so doing, El Paso has established itself as a leader by confronting a water crisis that many expect to spread beyond El Paso and Texas. Back in 2003, a survey by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that state water managers in 36 states expected local, regional or statewide water shortages by 2013.

“We’ve talked about energy,” says Juan Ontiveros, the executive director of Utilities and Energy Management at the University of Texas at Austin. “There was all this concern that we were going to run out of fuel. But the real issue is, we’re going to run out of water before that.”

Given the effectiveness of its program, El Paso has become a prime example for other communities struggling with water problems. Visitors from as far away as Pakistan and as local as San Antonio have come to the city to see how a combination of unearthing new water sources and putting in place a culture of conservation have kept the city from drying out. “We’ve become very conscious of how much water we use,” says Mayor John Cook, “and how much water we waste.”

Throughout most of its life, El Paso has depended on the Hueco Bolson and Mesilla Bolson aquifers and the Rio Grande River for its water. But those sources have been drying up. By the early 1990s, the underground Hueco Bolson aquifer, a primary source of water for the city for more than 100 years, was losing up to three feet annually. Over the last century, it has fallen nearly 200 feet. In 1991, the El Paso City Council passed an ordinance that laid ground rules from which the city’s other conservation efforts have followed: mandatory year-round restrictions on certain water usages and a prohibition on wasting water.

Ed Archuleta, an engineer who moved to the city 22 years ago to take the helm of the El Paso Water Utilities (EPWU), has overseen the implementation of a fundamental reshaping of the city’s approach to water use. He speaks matter-of-factly about how proud he is of the progress El Paso has made without hinting that the city has become a beacon for other communities and those committed to conservation.

Archuleta’s plan for saving the city’s water supply has been two-tiered: First has been finding new sources of water as traditional supplies run low during droughts. Second has been persuading nearly 650,000 residents to become invested in conservation.

The foundation of the first tier is the world’s largest inland desalination plant -- a joint project by the city and the U.S. Department of Defense. DOD chipped in because Fort Bliss, located northeast of the city, is home to more than 18,000 American troops and their families. Built four years ago with a price tag of $87 million, the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, along with more than 30 desalinated wells, produces more than 27.5 million gallons of fresh water daily. Taking previously unusable water from the Hueco Bolson, a quantity six times greater than the aquifer’s naturally usable water, the plant strips the water of the salt and other pollutants to make it acceptable for use.

Archuleta has been tapping another new source as well: reclaimed water. Recycling water is now a major effort in El Paso. In 2010, residents sopped up 2.1 billion gallons of reclaimed water, a little more than 5 percent of the 37.4 billion of total water used. The water utility office has set a goal of increasing the amount of wastewater that is recycled to 15 percent in the next 10 years, primarily by the extension of reclaimed water lines to schools, parks and Fort Bliss.

While those massive projects have addressed the city’s need for more water sources, Archuleta, Cook and other officials charged with implementing the water initiatives have successfully persuaded hundreds of thousands who call El Paso home to change. “Water is everything in any city, but especially here,” Archuleta says. “You have to educate the customer about the issues, so they understand that without water, you don’t have anything.”

The city started that education with its 1991 water ordinance, which established landscaping schedules, determining when and for how long residents could water their lawns. It also instituted penalties for water-wasting activities: Violations are a misdemeanor with fines from $50 to $500. In the years that followed, EPWU installed a water utility rate system designed to reward frugal use of water. A baseline is set for each customer during the winter months, when the least amount of water is typically used. Then, customers are charged at different rate tiers through the rest of the year, depending on how much their water use for the rest of the year exceeds that baseline.

The utility office has also established an education center to help residents pursue different water-saving approaches, especially when it comes to outdoor landscaping. The Carlos M. Ramirez TecH2O Water Resources Learning Center features 16 exhibit areas, as well as outdoor parks with desert wildlife and flora, and a xeriscape courtyard planted with native grasses and trees that require little water. With the help of the center and incentives from the water utility company, El Paso’s front lawns have undergone a makeover. The water utility office has offered rebates for the replacement of more than 11.2 million square feet of turf at more than 3,000 sites that plant less thirsty varieties such as buffalo grass, a soft gray-green grass, or zoysia grass, which is resistant to droughts and almost indistinguishable from more traditional lawn turf.

The landscaping rebates aren’t the only incentives. Since water is most often used in the home -- flushing the toilet, taking a shower, washing clothes -- El Paso officials have been targeting those usages. The idea is to change how residents take on these every day activities without infringing on their lives.

One incentive has been a Cash for Your Commode program. In the 20 years that the program has been in effect, El Paso residents and businesses have installed nearly 54,000 ultra low-flow toilets. To cut down on the amount of water it takes to wash clothes, the water utility, in collaboration with the El Paso Electric Co., awarded rebates for some 17,000 water-efficient washing machines. As to water used while showering, the utility has given away 185,000 low-water showerheads, one for more than 80 percent of the city’s 227,600 households.

In total, EPWU estimates its incentive programs, which also include waterless urinals among other items, save more than 3.5 billion gallons of water annually. The utility office likes to boast that, although its service population has increased by more than 200,000 since 1990, water usage actually dropped 600 million gallons over the last two decades. That’s a nearly 30 percent reduction in the amount of water used per person.

But El Paso’s continued growth poses its own challenge: As more people move to the city, more water is needed. The city’s population grew by 15.2 percent, or 85,459 people, over the past decade, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. That’s in part because the city has encouraged growth with a Downtown 2015 redevelopment plan that includes incentives and grant programs for businesses to set up shop in the city’s downtown area. Cook, the city’s mayor since 2005, sees no conflict between an aggressive growth plan and El Paso’s water conservation campaign. “The balance is to make sure the water that you do use, you use wisely,” he says, explaining that the city uses recycled water, which is not potable, to water its public parks and golf courses. For new developments, the city is directing new homeowners and businesses to low-maintenance landscaping and water-friendly appliances.

Meanwhile, conservation experts and government officials are turning to El Paso for ideas about how to improve their water use. Anai Padilla, water conservation manager at EPWU, has given tours of the desalination plant to representatives from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia and Croatia, along with officials from cities closer to home, such as Odessa and San Antonio.

With the present drought showing no sign of easing, the city is not resting on its 20-year-old program. EPWU recently purchased 202 acres near the Franklin Mountains for $2.5 million to manage the runoff of stormwater from the mountains when it does rain -- a small but important addition to its water supply. EPWU also owns 100,000 acres of former farmland in the surrounding areas, which could be tapped for water that would then be piped to the city. Archuleta calls that “an insurance policy,” although it would be an expensive proposition if EPWU had to draw on it.

That insurance policy could become a necessity down the road. From a meteorological perspective, the future holds only uncertainty. “With the changing climatic conditions, it’s getting harder and harder to predict what the cycles are going to be,” says Filiberto Cortez, the manager of the El Paso Field Division of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “Before, we were able to say, ‘Well, we’ll have two or three years of bad drought and then we’ll get back into good water conditions.’” Today, however, that certainty has all but evaporated.

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
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