by fast-growing municipalities and private industry, Texas should be able to avoid that fate. But it won’t be easy.
As the driest major city in Texas, El Paso has been coping for decades with water problems that other parts of the state only recently began to contemplate. The city lies in the Chihuahuan Desert and receives only ten inches of rainfall each year. Thanks to the return over the past few years of the 1st Armored Division from Germany to Fort Bliss, the population has increased by tens of thousands, forcing the local power company, El Paso Electric, to expand. As if to compound the challenges, the Rio Grande briefly ran dry in May, temporarily eliminating a source that last year supplied nearly 40 percent of the city’s water.
Yet if any city is prepared for such challenges, it is El Paso, and much of the credit goes to Ed Archuleta, the longtime head of El Paso Water Utilities. When he took the job in 1989, Archuleta was faced with a paradox: though the city relied on a rapidly depleting aquifer, the Hueco Bolson, it was enamored of green lawns and abounded in garment factories where Wrangler and Levi’s blue jeans got washed and washed again. In 1991 El Paso passed an ordinance that was considered draconian at the time but now looks prophetic: it restricted outdoor watering to three days a week and paid residents to tear up their lawns and replace them with xeriscaping. It also hiked rates for heavy water users, handed out rebates for water-saving toilets and washing machines, and even gave away low-flow showerheads for free—something it did again this year. Huge industrial plants that used more than 100,000 gallons of water a day and wanted to move to El Paso had to get special permission from the water utility.
These measures—a virtual all-of-the-above broadside against water shortages—helped slash per capita daily water use by 30 percent over twenty years, from 200 gallons to 139 gallons. Remarkably, despite its growth, the city uses less water overall than it did two decades ago. No heavy, water-hogging industries have moved to town—“We don’t want the smokestacks, so to speak, [which] use a lot of water,” Archuleta said—and the garment factories have left for central Mexico or Asia in search of cheap labor. This was a “good move from our perspective,” Archuleta noted. Lighter water users like hospitals and other health care facilities have taken their place, and today, he estimated, industry uses only about 3 percent of the city’s water, compared with 7 percent two decades ago.
Existing industrial operations have been conserving too. Hector Puente, an official with El Paso Electric, said that a few years ago the company’s largest power plant dramatically cut its water use by going to a “zero liquid discharge” technology, meaning that it cycles water through the plant multiple times, squeezing every last ounce of usability out of it. As another saving measure, the plant uses water that isn’t potable to begin with—it’s cleaned-up wastewater from a treatment facility. “We have always been in the desert, so water has always been scarce,” Puente said, adding that he had been expecting a call for a long time from a reporter who wanted to know how to keep a power plant running during a dry spell.
In addition to conservation, El Paso has also focused on expanding its water supplies. On a recent trip, I visited a noisy, cavernous plant on Fort Bliss land on the eastern edge of town. There, membranes resembling parchment tucked away inside huge machines filter salts and other minerals from brackish groundwater. The Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, built in 2007 at a cost of $91 million, is the largest of its kind in the world (not including seawater desalination plants). Last year it supplied 4 percent of El Paso’s water. The salty refuse gets pumped 22 miles to the base of the Hueco Mountains and disposed of in wells as deep as four thousand feet, in an area where workers have been known to spot the occasional wandering oryx. Normally only one of the plant’s five units is running—because a huge amount of energy is needed to force the water through the membranes, desalination is very expensive—but in May, as the Rio Grande dried up, the water utility cranked up production so that all five units were working. The facility “was planned for growth, it was planned for drought, and it was planned for service interruptions,” Archuleta told me over the din inside the plant. “And we’ve had all three.”
El Paso also has one of the most extensive and advanced operations in the state for putting reclaimed water—the dinner-table term for well-scrubbed sewage—to various non-potable uses, such as watering golf courses. In addition, some of the cleaned-up effluent is pumped into an aquifer, where it gets further cleansed by nature and then comes back after chlorination as drinking water.
Other cities are coming around to El Paso’s way of thinking. In the drought-stricken Permian Basin, Big Spring is constructing a plant, possibly the first in the country, that will process effluent and send it directly back into the drinking system, without pushing it through an aquifer. And desalination is the talk of Texas. San Antonio is building a plant much like El Paso’s, Odessa is thinking about one, and everyone from lakeside residents in Central Texas to uranium miners (who dream of a string of water-intensive nuclear power plants along the coast) is advocating for the technology, which could take advantage of the ocean of saline water—equivalent to some 150 years of Texas water use—that lies beneath the state. Though it’s not widely known, much of the continental United States sits atop such resources. Texas has a lot simply because it’s so vast.
El Paso isn’t perfect: it still experiences the rich-poor divide on water issues that is common in many cities. While xeriscaping is the norm on highway medians and in middle-class neighborhoods, some of