Thanks to the effects of climate change, the hot and arid climate of El Paso, Texas is only becoming more hot and dry — and that means ensuring an adequate water supply is more important than ever.
One method the city plans to add to its bag of tricks is purifying waste water, which will then be pumped directly back into El Paso’s drinking supply.
One of its prime sources of water is the Rio Grande. Typically the river can supply as much as half of the city's water needs. But climate change is making that increasingly difficult and is pushing the city to look for new sources of water. Now, El Paso is on track to become the first large city in the United States to treat its sewage water and send it directly back into its taps.
Increasing temperatures will make the dry region even more vulnerable to drought, according to the federal government's most recent national climate assessment. Already challenged with balancing the demands of about 700,000 thirsty El Pasoans along with agriculture and industry needs, El Paso must also face the fact that climate change is literally drying up one of its major sources of water.
"We're getting less runoff now than we would have gotten as recently as the '80s or '90s," said J. Phillip King, a professor of civil engineering at New Mexico State University. King has tracked the river's water levels for the past 27 years as an adviser to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. The district manages the water distribution of some 90,000 acres of farmland along the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and Texas.
Along with producing water via its desalination plant, which purifies brackish water that lies below El Paso’s fresh water Hueco Bolson aquifer, the city will soon be producing drinking water by treating sewage water.
Today, El Paso is ready to take the next step in expanding its water portfolio. It is building a closed loop system that will treat sewage water and turn it directly into drinking water. Among water professionals, it's called "direct potable reuse" or "advanced purification."
Efforts by other municipalities in Texas and California to use "direct potable reuse" haven't always gotten off the ground because of the "ickiness" factor. Community buy-in is key to getting these projects launched, said Justin Mattingly of the Water Research Foundation. "These are public agencies. They belong to the public. So you might as well ingratiate the public as well."
Archuelta's legacy of water conservation and education has primed El Paso for this moment.
"Everybody sees that we're in the desert that we're in an arid climate. Rain is scarce ... so when we tell our customers that we're doing everything possible and using every water resource around us to treat and make it safe for consumption, they take it pretty well."