El Paso was “drought-proof.” Local weather change is pushing its limits.

About 20 miles outdoors El Paso, Texas, on a heat afternoon simply earlier than the autumn harvest, Ramon Tirres Jr. turns his truck between two fields coated in nothing however filth. Each must be lush with cotton by now, however these 70 acres—a fraction of the almost 1,000 that Tirres left unplanted this 12 months—are naked. All advised, about two-thirds of his cotton fields lie empty. 

Tirres has been farming right here for 47 years. His pecan timber love the warmth, and the soil within the valley the place he farms is fertile. However with out water, every part falls aside. And the previous few years have been particularly dry.

Many of the water that Tirres and his neighbors use on their crops arrives by way of the Rio Grande, a river that snakes from the mountains in southern Colorado by means of New Mexico and alongside the Texas-Mexico border. However in years like this one, when there’s not a lot snow and rain, water is briefly provide. Tirres can pump groundwater to make up a few of the distinction, nevertheless it’s costly, and never all fields have pumps. 

pecan tree
A pecan tree on Ramon Tirres’s farm. The restricted quantity of water allotted to the farm needed to be diverted so as to maintain a pecan orchard alive in the course of the drought, stopping Tirres from planting a big portion of his fields.
JUSTIN HAMEL

Farmers like Tirres have been amongst these hit hardest by water shortages affecting the area. Their predicament might not appear stunning given the place they’re: El Paso juts into the Chihuahuan Desert from the western tip of Texas. Whereas annual rainfall throughout the US averages about 30 inches, El Paso will get underneath 9.

However El Paso has lengthy been a mannequin for water conservation. The town of 700,000 folks has discovered a approach to exist, and even thrive, within the desert. Different cities have for years regarded to El Paso for options as inhabitants development and local weather change stress water assets worldwide. 

El Paso has achieved all the best issues—it’s launched applications to influence residents to make use of much less water and deployed technological techniques, together with desalination and wastewater recycling, so as to add to its water assets. The town has invested lots of of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} in these variations and earned a world status for its planning. A former president of the water utility as soon as famously declared El Paso “drought-proof.” 

Now, although, even El Paso’s cautious plans are being challenged by newly intense droughts. As local weather change accelerates and cities in every single place scramble to adapt, it’s clear that technological options can enhance high quality of life in water-stressed locations and stop folks from being displaced. Nonetheless, each new measure comes at a price, and all of them threat leaving folks out. Because the stress ratchets up, El Paso, and locations prefer it, drive us to ask simply how far adaptation can go. 


Like a hoop in a bath, a stripe within the rock marks the historical past of water within the Elephant Butte Reservoir, a man-made lake created by the Elephant Butte Dam and tucked into the mountains about two hours’ drive north of El Paso. Snowmelt from mountains in Colorado flows right here earlier than being launched down the river. Parts are then distributed by the US Bureau of Reclamation to completely different teams, known as irrigation districts, in New Mexico and Texas. Ultimately, some makes its approach to fields like Tirres’s.

In the present day the water degree is much under the stripe; uncovered rocks and the dam rise lots of of ft on each facet. In October, the reservoir held solely about 5% of its capability. 

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Elephant Butte has offered the river basin to the south with a largely regular provide of water for over 100 years. However “you possibly can have a very lengthy stretch of actually dangerous years, like we’re having proper now,” says Ben Kalminson, the facility plant supervisor at Elephant Butte. When that occurs, the reservoir empties out.

Between January 2020 and August 2021, the southwest US endured a historic drought. Solely about 17 inches of rain fell throughout the area; the 20-year common is 24 inches. Based on local weather fashions, there’s a few 2% likelihood of getting as little rain in any given 12 months as the quantity that fell in 2020. In different phrases, the 2020 drought was a one-in-50-years occasion, says Isla Simpson, a local weather researcher on the Nationwide Heart for Atmospheric Analysis.

She says there’s no proof that local weather change precipitated the dearth of rainfall. Dry spells occur each every now and then. Add warmth into the combo, nonetheless, and each the drought’s magnitude and the function of local weather change change into extra apparent. 

elephant butte satellite view
elephant butte satellite view

Between June 1994 and July 2013, drought severely affected water ranges within the Elephant Butte Reservoir, the outcomes of that are seen in these before-and-after satellite tv for pc photos.

Since scorching air holds extra moisture than chilly air, extra water will evaporate if the temperature is larger. One approach to measure this impact is thru vapor stress deficit, or VPD, which is the distinction between how a lot water vapor the air may maintain and the way a lot is definitely there. A excessive VPD means the air is hungry for moisture, and a drought’s results are more likely to be worse: water evaporates extra shortly from rivers, lakes, soil, and even vegetation. 

There’s solely a few 0.4% likelihood in any given 12 months of the VPD ranges that struck the Southwest in 2020, based on local weather fashions, making it a few one-in-200-years occasion. And it merely wouldn’t have occurred when it did with out local weather change, Simpson says. Excessive VPDs will change into extra frequent as temperatures rise—the degrees seen in 2020 will change into a one-in-10-years occasion within the Southwest by 2030. “We’re actually on the level now the place we are able to begin to see these climate-change alerts in the true world,” Simpson says. 


Whereas farmers depend on the Rio Grande for irrigation, a lot of the water that El Paso’s residents drink truly comes from aquifers deep under floor. These essential water sources are additionally in jeopardy. 

In 1979, the Texas Water Growth Board projected that El Paso would run out of groundwater by 2031. At the moment, every resident was utilizing, on common, over 200 gallons of water per day. Most of that water was being pulled from town’s two aquifers—the Hueco Bolson to the east and the Mesilla Bolson to the west.

For the following twenty years, the water utility launched a marketing campaign encouraging residents to make use of much less water by, amongst different issues, changing their lawns with native vegetation. In the present day, common water use is all the way down to 134 gallons per particular person per day. That’s nonetheless larger than the US nationwide common of 82 gallons however decrease than utilization in another locations within the nation with equally dry climates, like Arizona (145 gallons) and Utah (169 gallons).

The aquifers are in higher form because of this—considerably. “The water degree is dropping, nevertheless it’s not dropping like a rock,” says Scott Reinert, the assets supervisor of El Paso Water. Nonetheless, extra water is popping out of the aquifer than going again in. 

El Paso Water pumps between 40,000 and 50,000 acre-feet of water from the Hueco Bolson yearly and replaces about 5,000 acre-feet yearly. (An acre-foot is an unwieldy unit of measurement utilized by water utilities—it’s sufficient water to cowl an acre of land, or simply over half a soccer discipline, with a foot of water.) There’s additionally some pure recharge from different groundwater and the river, nevertheless it’s doubtless not sufficient to maintain up with pumping. 

“We’re actually on the level now the place we are able to begin to see these climate-change alerts in the true world.”

El Paso Water plans to maintain pumping from the aquifers for a minimum of the following 50 years. However some researchers suppose the Hueco Bolson could possibly be exhausted sooner, particularly as a result of El Paso isn’t the one metropolis relying on it.

The town of Juarez, Mexico, hugs the Rio Grande simply to the south of El Paso. Juarez presently makes use of about half as a lot water per capita as El Paso. However as a result of its inhabitants is rising and town is sort of totally depending on the Hueco Bolson, it additionally has a big impression on the aquifer ranges.

With each cities pumping and rising, some wells may begin to run dry in about 40 years, says Alex Mayer, a civil engineer on the College of Texas at El Paso. However there could be bother even earlier than then, as a result of all of the pumping is altering the water high quality underground. 


Tirres hops out of his truck and walks over to what seems to be like a utility pole. He opens the door to a metallic field and flips a swap. A pump roars to life, and brown-tinged water begins spewing from a pipe into the concrete canals that line the property.

Wells like this one complement what Tirres will get from the river. They’re scattered by means of his fields and pull water from as much as lots of of ft underground. This water is dearer than what Tirres can get from the river, however throughout a drought, it saves each his crops and his livelihood.

Tirres geese again into his truck and pulls out the decrease half of a plastic water bottle he had usual right into a sampling cup, together with a tool that appears a little bit like an EpiPen. After letting the nicely run for a few minutes, he fills the cup and dunks one finish of the gadget into the water pattern.

Wells scattered all through Ramon Tirres’s fields complement what he will get from the river. The water is dearer, however throughout a drought, it saves each his crops and his livelihood.

He shakes his head as he watches the small display screen, the place the numbers are ticking up. The meter, which measures salt content material by detecting how electrical energy strikes by means of the water, reads almost 2,400 components per million, up from the 1,600 he measured two summers in the past.

Pecan timber, particularly, could be harmed by an excessive amount of salt, rising scraggly and producing much less fruit. Tirres has seen a couple of timber on the perimeters of a few of his groves wanting a little bit worse for put on. He’s frightened—if the groundwater will get too salty, he received’t be capable of use it for his crops. 

The Hueco Bolson holds about 10 million acre-feet of recent water and about thrice as a lot brackish, or semi-salty, water. Each time a pump switches on to retrieve recent water, saltier water strikes nearer to town.

Pumping from El Paso has truly reversed the realm’s pure stream of groundwater, which used to maneuver from north to south, following the Rio Grande. Groundwater strikes slowly, on the size of many years, but when farmers and bigger water customers within the metropolis proceed to pump as they’ve been doing, the brackish water may ultimately eclipse what’s left of the recent water, leaving wells everywhere in the space ineffective. 

Earlier than that occurs, El Paso is making an attempt to place a few of that brackish water to make use of.


Utilizing salt water for a lot of something was subsequent to not possible. However reverse osmosis and different filtration strategies developed within the 20th century created new prospects. 

Desalination, pulling salt out of water, accounts for a small however rising fraction of human water use worldwide. International capability tripled between 2005 and 2018, and right this moment almost 300 million folks get a few of their water from desalination vegetation. Most are close to the ocean: about 60% of desalination is finished with seawater, and almost half the world’s desalination capability is within the Center East and North Africa. However in 2007, El Paso opened the world’s largest inland desalination plant to utilize the brackish water within the Hueco Bolson aquifer. 

“We’re an on-demand plant,” says Artwork Ruiz, the ability’s superintendent, as we stroll into the management room, the place screens show flows and pressures and pump speeds. By means of home windows on the far wall, I can see your entire $90 million facility, housed in a constructing not a lot bigger than a highschool gymnasium. Orderly pipes and pumps line one of many partitions beneath an oversize American flag. A uninteresting hum is the one clue that the plant is working. 

desalination plant in El Paso
El Paso has invested
lots of of hundreds of thousands of
{dollars} in technological
techniques, together with
desalination (above) and
wastewater recycling. It additionally runs
applications to influence
folks to make use of much less water.
JUSTIN HAMEL

By on-demand, Ruiz implies that the desalination plant can enhance its output to take the sting off in the course of the highest-demand days, like summer season scorchers, or holidays like Christmas, when everyone seems to be dwelling and turning on the faucets. If the ability have been working full-out, it may produce over 27 million gallons per day of recent water. However more often than not it does a lot much less, accounting for about 5% of town’s annual water wants, which vary from 85 million to 145 million gallons per day.

The system makes use of reverse osmosis: brackish water is compelled by means of a membrane with openings so small even salt can’t make it by means of. It’s an costly course of. Whereas pumping recent water out of the bottom and disinfecting it prices about $250 per acre-foot, desalinating brackish groundwater blows the worth up by almost thrice, to about $700. 

Regardless of the fee, desalinated groundwater has change into a essential a part of town’s water portfolio—and an necessary contingency plan for the long run. The desalination plant is considered one of two main infrastructure tasks El Paso has undertaken to make its water provide extra resilient to drought, and the second is arguably much more formidable. 

Extra water managers are taking a look at wastewater and seeing a worthwhile useful resource—as soon as it’s cleaned up, anyway. New wastewater recycling vegetation are being developed throughout the American West, most notably a possible multibillion-dollar challenge in Southern California deliberate for round 2030. 

El Paso is unlikely to expire of water within the coming many years. Water may maintain getting more durable to tug collectively, and dearer because of this.

El Paso has been treating and recycling a few of its wastewater for many years, utilizing it to water grass in parks and golf programs, or to chill machines at factories and energy vegetation. In the present day, most will get injected again into the aquifers. However Gilbert Trejo, the chief technical officer at El Paso Water, has a fair grander imaginative and prescient.

Direct potable reuse, also known as toilet-to-tap recycling, is the top of wastewater recycling. Wastewater from showers and sink drains and, sure, bogs is collected and handled because it usually could be: after solids are separated out, the water is disinfected with chlorine. Then it goes by means of extra processing, getting filtered and cleaned with chlorine once more and disinfected with UV gentle earlier than being piped again out for use in kitchens, loos, and gardens throughout town.

Art Hernandez

The town already makes use of wastewater on parks and golf programs—after the “natural matter produced by residents” is eliminated, as Artwork Hernandez, deputy superintendent of the RR Bustamante Wastewater Plant, delicately places it.

Most water recycling right this moment passes water by means of a pure supply like a lake or river; few websites on this planet make use of direct potable reuse. A web site in Namibia is the longest-running and largest. El Paso is now designing a plant that might be the biggest such facility within the US. It ought to come on-line in 2025 and is more likely to value about $100 million, Trejo says. 

Trejo hopes the brand new plant will present one other secure water supply and assist take the burden off the aquifers when the river runs low. Residents are largely accepting of the thought—in the event that they object, it’s usually to not the “ick” issue however to the fee. However the plan isn’t infallible. In August, two pipes bringing wastewater to town’s present recycling vegetation broke in western El Paso. 

The strains have been presupposed to be backups for one another—so when each broke, wastewater backed up into bathtubs and yards. With extra breaks showing within the pipes day-after-day, town needed to discover someplace for all of the wastewater to go. In order that they turned to the one place that might maintain the hundreds of thousands of gallons leaking from the pipes every day—the Rio Grande. 


El Paso is unlikely to expire of water altogether within the coming many years. However it is going to maintain getting more durable, and thus dearer, to tug collectively as a lot because it wants. Although technological options like desalination and wastewater recycling might help, the options many individuals want will get extra advanced as situations proceed to worsen. Scaling them up can also introduce new dangers that have a tendency to come back with counting on such extremely engineered techniques—equivalent to when town needed to dump untreated wastewater meant for recycling instantly into the river. 

El Paso’s metropolis officers will maintain making an attempt to plan forward. Actually, El Paso Water is now the proud proprietor of about 66,000 acres of land 90 miles to the east in Dell Metropolis, Texas. The land comes with water rights, and if town’s personal assets ever fall quick, the utility plans to drill wells in Dell Metropolis and pump the water again to El Paso. 

Pumping the water from Dell Metropolis to El Paso and treating it might value $3,000 to $5,000 per acre-foot. That’s a minimum of twice the price of wastewater recycling, and over 10 instances the price of native groundwater or floor water within the Rio Grande.

residential home near farmland

JUSTIN HAMEL

These pricey options will doubtless be mirrored in El Pasoans’ water payments quickly. Trejo says charges already must go up simply to take care of the prevailing techniques. 

For some, the will increase received’t be important—the 2021 fee hike together with water, wastewater, and stormwater charges quantities to $1.37 a month for a median consumer. Waiver applications for low-volume customers ought to assist individuals who can’t pay. About 19% of El Paso residents reside in poverty, in contrast with about 12% nationally. 

That enhance was just the start, Trejo says. There’s been public pushback towards extra will increase, however the company can’t maintain placing them off. “Charges in El Paso are going to get dearer,” he says, “and so they’re going to get costly fast.” 

Throughout the river, El Paso’s sister metropolis Juarez may have related infrastructure fixes and upgrades to cope with the dwindling water provide however has even much less cash to fund them. 

Making these changes might seem to be a small value to pay to maintain water flowing within the desert. However as populations develop, droughts stretch longer, and the planet continues to heat, the duty forward can start to look extra daunting. 

Ramon in his cotton field
Tirres seems to be over an unplanted cotton discipline.
JUSTIN HAMEL

The West expects to see one other 12 months of La Niña climate patterns into 2022, which doubtless alerts a dry winter for the area and one other 12 months with a largely empty reservoir. Individuals who depend on river water, from Tirres and different small farmers to officers within the metropolis of El Paso, in all probability received’t get their anticipated allotment subsequent 12 months both. 

Many El Pasoans will keep put regardless of the water woes. Tirres plans to maintain farming so long as he can—it’s in his blood, he says. Farming within the desert could also be getting more durable, nevertheless it’s by no means been straightforward.

“Farmers have all the time fought this battle, perpetually,” he says. “You modify to it. It’s important to modify to it.” 

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