A lot’s being written in these times of climate change about the Rio Grande being an unreliable source of water for the city, farmers in El Paso and Doña Ana County and others who depend on the river in New Mexico.
Those concerns have abated a little this summer because after a snowy winter in the mountains of northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado, the runoff made it to Elephant Butte Lake and the river’s running – for now.
When irrigation season ends next month, the gates at the reservoir dam will close, and the river will slow to a trickle.
Then there won’t be much water left behind the dam, and a poor snowfall this winter would get the water worries going again.
But at El Paso Water, they don’t worry; they plan – and not just 20 or 30 years out, but more like 50.
The water utility that John Balliew has run as president and CEO since 2013 started buying big ranches in the 2000s for the water under them. El Paso might need to start piping the water in around 2050, depending on the city’s growth.
The Public Service Board, which runs El Paso Water, has so far acquired 138,330 acres of farm and ranchland in Jeff Davis, Hudspeth and Culbertson counties and New Mexico.
In 2007, the utility built the world’s biggest inland desalination plant.
Then in 2014, the utility embarked on its most ambitious project – a plant to recycle up to 10 million gallons of sewage water a day into drinking water.
The utility expected construction of the Advanced Water Purification Facility to start in 2017.
But that hasn’t happened yet, so El Paso Inc. asked Balliew for an update on where that project stands and for his views on the city’s water future. Here’s what he had to say.
Q: There have been interesting stories in the last six months or so about water prospects in the West, a lot of doom and gloom. Have you seen any reports that shed new light on what the future may hold for us?
I have not, but I’ll give you my opinion. I don’t particularly subscribe to the doom and gloom theories. If you look in the past using tree ring data, you can go back thousands of years, and we know there are going to be periods when there’s no water in the Rio Grande. So what we have to do is be able to supply water if there is no water in the Rio Grande.
All of these things that we’re working on – our aquifer storage and recovery, importation of water, the advanced purification plant and the advanced desalination are drought-proof supplies. We diversify our water supply and pick up these drought-proof sources so that when there is no water in the river, for those years, we can supply the needs of the system.
Q: When was the last time we got no river water at all?
If you go back to 1951-52, you’re going to find a period when there was no water. In Texas, we generally refer to it as the drought of 1952, but it really started about 1947.
Q: What is our current water situation? Are we really getting a full supply of water from Elephant Butte this summer?
Pretty close to a full supply. The only difference is we started getting water later in the season than we anticipated. When we normally talk about a full supply year, we’re talking about a March 15 release from Elephant Butte. This year, we got a June 8 release. So during the time we have water from the Rio Grande, it’s going to be the full amount of water. That’s good news.
Q: What percentage of its water will El Paso get from the river this year?
In a full release year, when we start around March 15, we will probably be around 50%. But since we started late, I’m going to say 40%.
Q: I’ve wanted to ask about the new recycling plant, what you call the Advanced Water Purification Facility. It seems to be taking longer than you thought.
It’s not taking any additional time, but let me explain what did happen. We split up the design. We did the initial predesign and pilot testing. Then we had them design up to 30% and from there, we funded the design for the rest of it. Under normal circumstances, we would fund it from A to Z. But in this particular case, we had two things going on.
One was the fact that during this process, up until you get up to 30% of the design, you’re not certain of how much the whole thing is going to cost. We put out two grant applications for funding.
We’ve kind of been slower than we normally would be on the design. The way these grants work is whatever work you’ve done can’t be covered under the grant. It’s only for work going forward. So in anticipation that we might get some money to do the design, we kind of slowed it down a little. But we’re well underway in the design at this point.
Q: But no grant so far?
Not as yet. But I think we’ve only heard from one of the two grant applications.
Q: A no?
Q: From whom?
The Bureau of Reclamation if I’m not mistaken.
Q: And the one that’s pending?
I think it’s also Bureau of Reclamation.
Q: Are you expecting a grant from them?
I’m hopeful. These are highly competitive, and sometimes you’re competing against projects that have some other need, like a drought or something that pulls it to the top in terms of the urgency.
Q: Is there no other agency that’s focused on water issues and conservation?
The two primary federal agencies that have money for water and wastewater are the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers. We work with both. The Corps of Engineers is focusing mostly on stormwater things.
Q: So El Paso is kind of on its own as far as funding this plant, even though it is a groundbreaking project nationally?
You’re absolutely right.
Q: What’s the cost for the design and construction?
About $12 million for design and about $75 million for construction.
Q: How much drinking water will it produce and what percentage of El Paso’s daily usage will that be?
We’re shooting for 10 million gallons a day. On a peak summer day, usage would be like 150 million gallons.
Q: That’s only 7%.
But it’s an important percentage because of where it is. It’s going to right where the Rogers Plant is by Socorro. That whole area in the Mission Valley was designed for summertime demand to be met through the Rogers plant. And if we can’t meet it with the Rogers plant, then that water has to come all the way from Northeast El Paso, down to the Mission Valley.
Just moving that amount of water that far is problematic. So it’s the point where we need to have it to supply our Eastside customers. And we will be able to expand it.