El Paso’s water woes

Put a bucket in your shower and capture some otherwise lost water for your garden!

by Marshall Carter

The El Paso Water Utility is urging us to “water less, reports the El Paso Inc in a cover story this weekend (April 18-24).  That is apparently the first acknowledgment in the English media of the coming water woes and the proposed remedy in El Paso.  Irrigation water will not be available until May 28, and even that will not be a full delivery.

El Diario by contrast has reported that the irrigation situation and the totally dry Rio Grande, nearly to Albuquerque, has resulted in stringent watering restrictions in Las Cruces (just 40 miles up the riverbed) and Albuquerque.  And in Chihuahua state, public meetings are being convened to discuss the drought and what to do.  Farmers are desperate.  The US owes Mexico water under the nearly century-old treaty, but it’s hard to deliver what you don’t have.

Rio Grande near Canutillo.

Sadly, if not surprisingly, there is essentially no discussion of options other than reduced watering in El Chuco.  But let’s reflect on what we may need to consider if the drought is not just a “short-term” problem.

First, the irrigation water is used for some 2000 farms in El Paso County, with some 20,000 acres of pecan groves (most of which are quite young).  Some of the farming is for local-origin crops, such as chiles; but much is dedicated to crops such as cotton and alfalfa.  Both use high levels of water, and cotton is heavily subsidized by taxpayers (giving it an unfair advantage over cotton produced in places that cannot afford such subsidies).  Pecans are of course delicious, and are highly sought after on the international market – but again, the manner of their cultivation here uses substantial amounts of water – and worse, all this water is still delivered in open irrigation ditches (many other societies In arid climates have learned to cover these canals, and even to cover them with solar panels).    As the grip of the drought gets tighter, somewhere down the road there surely must be some conversation…and some creative policy-making…to reduce the water impact of our farms and groves.

Pecan orchard

Second, another factor in water use here is the number of people who need water for their homes and businesses.  This is a mountain desert and will never be able to supply generous quantities of water to ever-expanding development.  The power of the developers has led to a cityscape well over twenty miles wide and there appears to be no interest in any discussion as to when or where the sprawl should stop.  How many people can live in this desert?  (The sprawl has other consequence; for example, as it grows, the ability of the public transportation system to provide frequent and convenient service declines.)

Third, resort to the saline underground water via the desal plant is not a permanent solution.  Eventually all that water will be gone…and that aquifer is shared by Mexico! (The El Paso Times current water news reports that a company is planning to obtain minerals from the brine at the desal plant, and the remaining water will be treated and sold to the city’s water utility.  How much water or how long this process might last remains unknown.)

As we watch the skies for rainclouds, it’s important to consider that this may not be just a bad year! (One friend says the dumbest thing he bought last year was a rain gauge.)  City and County leaders should be joining with environmental groups to have honest discussions about where we are and where we may be going – and what we can do to mitigate the effects of this drought.

Meantime, put a bucket in your shower and capture some otherwise lost water for your garden!

Three Hills area of West El Paso

Water bucket by Michael, Wikimedia Creative Commons
Pecan trees by Angi English, Wikimedia Creative Commons

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