When John Balliew took over from Ed Archuleta as president and CEO of the El Paso Water Utilities in January, he had already been with the utility long enough to retire.
His boyish looks belie his age, 53, and nearly 30 years’ experience at EPWU.
But he doesn’t plan to rest in the shadow of Archuleta, a legendary figure who is putting in full days at the utility as a consultant until June 30 and peppering executives with daily emails.
Archuleta, 70, has been credited with pulling El Paso’s future out of the sand with conservation, new water and by building the world’s biggest inland desalination plant.
Taken together, the steps the utility took during Archuleta’s 24-year tenure made the city’s new water future so secure that the Pentagon spent more than $5 billion turning Fort Bliss into one of the nation’s most important Army bases.
Balliew was the utility’s vice president of operations and technical services before the seven-member Public Service Board picked him from a list of 40 applicants to succeed Archuleta.
During his interview with El Paso Inc. last week, Balliew said the severe river drought probably won’t lead to new restrictions on water use this summer, and he casually mentioned a future project that would revolutionize what El Paso does with the water it uses every day.
This fall, he intends to propose an $80-million water recycling project that could give El Paso a drought-proof water supply and make the community wholly self-sustaining, not depending on the Rio Grande for half its water annually.
It’s called “direct potable reuse” and it is a controversial idea. In recent years, he said, public opposition to recycling water for drinking purposes has changed, and so has the Texas law that once prohibited the direct reuse of water.
“The science has been around for a long time,” Balliew said.
Since 1987, the Fred Hervey Water Treatment Plant in Northeast El Paso has treated water from homes and businesses to drinking quality standards and then injected it back into the city’s main aquifer, the Hueco Bolson. That’s called indirect water reuse.
Public Service Board member Richard Bonart said the project Balliew has in mind would be a huge advance for El Paso Water Utilities, which has been a leader in the state and nation for its innovative conservation measures.
“It is so big,” Bonart said. “I’m excited about it.”
The idea, he said, is not in the utility’s 50-year plan and has only come up in discussions since Balliew took over.
Bonart, who had been at odds with Archuleta and fellow PSB members over information sharing issues, said things have relaxed a lot under Balliew.
“It’s much easier for me now,” he said. ”Maybe it’s just a perception thing, but I get along very well with John.
“He’s very open to new ideas, working through difficulties and problem solving.”
In the interview with El Paso Inc., Balliew talked about some of the changes he’s made since stepping into his new role, about this summer’s water use, the development of PSB land and where the utility is headed.
Q: How’s the new job?
Good, good. I’m enjoying the job. I knew I would. It’s not terribly different from what I was doing before – just a little bit more external contact.
Q: According to the Bureau of Reclamation, there is less water in Elephant Butte Reservoir than there has been since the dam was finished 97 years ago. Will you recommend restrictions on water use in El Paso this summer?
I do not anticipate that we will. We may ask for some kind of voluntary restrictions, but it’s going to be for a short duration. The critical window for us is the last half of May.
But we have done a lot. Between this time last year and now, we have added more wells to the system. We have put in different transmission lines to move water more effectively from our well fields into the central part of town. Over the last 30 years, as we’ve been more dependent on the Rio Grande, the infrastructure has been more geared towards moving the water from the Canal Street and Rogers Treatment plants out into the system. Less so, the water from the well fields in the Northeast and Canutillo back into the system.
So now we’re well able to meet the 163 million gallons with just ground water, which we couldn’t do last year.
Q: What did it cost to do that?
The Partello line that we put in (from Hayes in Northeast to Porter in Central) was probably $4 million, and the Paisano line that’s still under construction at this moment is about a $10 million line. We redrilled 10 wells and each of them is about $1 million each, so that’s another $10 million.
Q: That’s $24 million to prepare for this summer and the future possibility of not getting a lot of river water?
Let’s put it this way: What we’ve done this far prepares us for this summer. The question then remains: What are we going to do? Are we at the end of the drought or do we have another 20 years to go? That’s the real question.
Q: Since we’re not looking at drought restrictions, what will you say to El Pasoans about watering their lawns and gardens this summer?
We have done an excellent job on water conservation. We have goals that will need to be met. But water conservation is something we encourage on a year-round basis, every year. We’re always educating people and informing people.
During the drought, we don’t want to change people’s behavior permanently just because we might need a week or two of something different. So our philosophy is if we’re getting close, perhaps what we should do is just ask people to voluntarily not to do outdoor watering or maybe just do one day a week instead of two.
Q: In average daily water use, where is El Paso compared with other arid cities?
We are right down there. We’ve traded places with Tucson a couple of times but we’re right down there with them, which is about the best you can do in the arid West.
Q: Are there any bills before the Legislature that you are particularly interested in?
I think everybody here is interested in House Bill 4 and Senate Bill 4, the funding of the water projects and how that is actually going to work out. That’s going to be potentially big for the state and potentially big for El Paso.
Because it provides a large amount of money. The complaint has been that the state has done a good job with water planning but they have not funded it. So we have the Water Development Board consolidating these regional water plans and the plans are there. But there’s not a lot of stuff moving forward with the plans. So the idea is that there will be $2 billion in funding, which could go a long way.
Q: How could it help us? We’re pretty self-sufficient on ground water and locked in by federal law, compacts and international agreements on surface water. What can the state and this water plan do for El Paso?
Provide money to secure some additional water supplies. Let’s talk about water supply in general. There are many places in the state and in this country that have one water source. In a water-rich climate, nobody gives it any thought until they have a long-term drought like we’re operating in now. Then you face the prospect of that one water source that they have running out and what are they going to do?
We’re actually blessed – for lack of a better word – here because we not only have ground water and surface water, we have two different ground water aquifers and with each we have fresh water and brackish water we can draw on.
And we have the Rio Grande and agricultural drain water. That’s probably the next increment in water supply that we have in the plan, which is to take the tail waters after irrigation, treating water and making it a potable source.
Q: Are you seriously looking at that? Where?
When you have a farm field and water is applied to it and it soaks down to the root level, they can’t let it sit there. So they have a network of ditches that are deeper than the root level of the soil and the water drains into these ditches.
That’s the agricultural return flow. It flows almost 365 days a year. Even this past winter when there had been very little irrigation that fall, there was still water in the drain. There’s always water in the Montoya Drain.
Q: Is it a significant amount of water?
It is significant. What is significant to us is actually a relatively small amount of water. Because of our success in water conservation, we have been reducing our peak use from some 200 million gallons a day in 1994 down to the 163 million last year.
If we have no surface water, we can do this with ground water. But we don’t have a very comfortable margin. Just an additional five or 10 million gallons a day of supply would give us a comfortable margin.
Q: The city creates a lot of water by taking it from wells. A small amount of it gets reused in the purple pipes for watering parks and golf courses. What happens to the rest?
Part of it is reused for agricultural and landscape irrigation. Part of it is treated and injected back into the Hueco Bolson at the Fred Hervey Plant. The other is put back in the irrigation system for the farmers.
Q: How much water are we talking about?
It’s about 60,000 to 70,000 acre-feet.
Q: That is a lot of water. It’s more than the city would take from the river in a full-allotment irrigation year and more than half of what the city uses in a year.
It is a lot.
Q: Given the possibility that the drought on the Rio Grande will continue into next year, what measures will the utility take to address the future lack of surface water that the city has relied on?
We will definitely be looking at additional wells. We used to have complete redundancy in water supply. Back in 1975, if we didn’t have any water coming out of the river, we had wells enough to supply all of the water, so there would be no interruption. But, as we’ve become more dependent on the renewable Rio Grande, that percentage of ground water we can supply has gone down.
What we need to do is build that up. There will be another well-drilling package so we can have some additional ground water usage. We’ll probably move forward with some additional water supply projects, perhaps that drain water project.
Q: Is that all?
No. More than likely what we’ll do is take a serious look at increasing our recovery of that water you were just talking about – the effluent discharged out into the system that’s not contractually obligated to the El Paso irrigation district.
Q: And recycling it?
We’re looking at taking a greater portion of that and either injecting it or perhaps some sort of direct potable reuse. The science has been around for a long time. Ten years ago the public perception was in drastic opposition. But I think in the last five years, there’s been a sea change in public perception.
You’re seeing cities in Texas like Big Spring, which has already completed a plant. You’re seeing Brownwood and San Angelo probably following suit doing reuse – potable reuse.
Q: Not that long ago, going toilet to tap, as it’s been called, was against the law.
We can all talk about it now. The regulations have changed within the last five years. It was not a federal regulation; it was a state regulation. It’s being driven by the drought.
Q: As the new president and CEO of El Paso Water Utilities, are there any changes you’ve made or are planning in the operation of the utility? New initiatives?
We aren’t doing anything drastically different. We have a lot of big capital improvement projects we’re working on. A lot of it goes with these water supply issues because we’re going from a big source of water coming down the Rio Grande that we’re now supplying from ground water, there are some additional tanks that have to be put in and lines. Also there has been some deferred maintenance.
As we went through the economic downturn, the utility went through a downturn of deferred maintenance.
Q: What about flow of information from the utility’s top administration and the Public Service Board regarding contracts and other financial matters? Any changes there?
I think we have made a lot of changes, even before Ed left, to make sure there was a better flow of information to the Public Service Board. We have been doing a better job. Dr. Bonart is now included on the engineering selection advisory committee, so he gets to see at an earlier stage what the projects are and why we are doing them. I’ve also been briefing them up front as things came up.
Q: The plan to contract with a single master developer to develop 4,900 acres in Northeast El Paso fell through in 2009. Do you have any plans for the development of that land now?
No. The reason for that is the pressure for development has changed direction. That’s why we have different master plans. At the time this was developed, development was going north along McCombs. That’s why that piece was master planned.
This growth has stalled. In this area there is vacant land. There has not been one request from us to put any of this (master planned) land up for bid to be sold and developed.
What’s changed is along the corridor between Railroad and Dyer, where you have the Mesquite Hills subdivision and a big apartment complex, the development is proceeding in that direction. That’s the reason we decided to go forward with the 451-acre Painted Dunes Traditional Neighborhood Development project on the south side of Patriot Freeway.
We’ll be actively trying to put it on the market. Once the plan is complete and circulated publicly, we’ll set a schedule for bidding. So we’ll be selling to developers who will sell to home builders.
Q: Will it be zoned for smart growth and Smart Code?
It’s a complete smart growth community. You have the higher density, plenty of open space, connectivity between these walkable spaces.
We feel this is really where the growth is being driven along that corridor.
Q: So, there was the recession and everything stopped. Now things are picking up again?
Yes, but it’s picking up elsewhere. The North Hills development is going pretty fast. In fact we need some additional infrastructure to provide water to the higher reaches of North Hills.
Q: Is that a traditional kind of development out there versus smart growth?
The Mesquite Hills is a traditional development.
Q: Are people voting with their feet or, say, with their mortgages on what kind of development they like since they’re moving to North Hills and now to Mesquite Hills? Is there a preference among homebuyers?
I would say the sample size we’re talking about here is insufficient to make that kind of determination.
Q: Well, that’s always been the question. Given a choice of traditional subdivision development or smart growth, which way will they go?
I don’t think we know.
Q: Is there anything else you want to say?
I think the last thing I’d like to talk about is the water supply because that is really an issue.
If we as a community had a choice, we could ask this: We can work through this drought by cutting back, having these interruptions and having the uncertainty that goes with them. Or with some investment, we could have a drought-proof sustainable future. What would that be worth?
Look at it from an economic standpoint and consider San Antonio. San Antonio has one source of water: Edwards Aquifer.
That source of water is highly affected by the current drought, and any future drought in the state of Texas. San Antonio’s a big vibrant city that attracts a lot of jobs.
Gov. Rick Perry is in California and Chicago trying to recruit companies to relocate business into this state.
If you had a location in the state where you had a vibrant growing community that’s changing, that’s making an investment in the quality of life such as we’re doing here now, would they come?
If we had a drought-proof water supply, how much would that be worth to the city? I think it would be very valuable.
And I think that’s the dialogue we’re going to be starting as a community and talking about.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.