From toilet to tap: how El Paso is fighting drought

EL PASO, Texas – The parched southwestern United States is no stranger to drought. 

In El Paso, they are treating sewage water that comes from toilets, sinks and washing machines and sending it back into the tap. 

This system has been used for agriculture, El Paso is the first large municipality in the U.S. to send it back into public drinking water. 

The mighty Rio Grande River once flowed but today, dust and sand replaces water.

El Paso is just across the border from Juarez, Mexico. There is hardly any rain here, not much humidity, just dry.

Ed Archuleta former utility employee: “We were forecasted by the Texas Water Development board to run out of water by the year 2020.” 

Ed Archuleta ran the water utility in El Paso when that prediction was made in 1989.

Then El Pasoans were using around 200 gallons of water per person, per day. 

Archuleta’s first order of business was to simply preach conservation.

Residents were paid to turn green lawns into brown desert landscapes, and it helped, quite a bit. 

Today, El Pasoans have cut their water usage by 35% per person. 

For a city that significantly relied on the river it was becoming increasingly dry.

Ed Archuleta former utility employee: “There’s no question that I think that climate changes are affecting the Rio Grande.”

To better understand what climate change looks like, we traveled two hours upriver to the town of Truth and Consequences, New Mexico.

The Elephant Butte Dam, built in 1916, is over 100 years old. At times the water has become so high that it would actually spill through the dam. You can see the water marks on the dam. But the water levels now are at about 3% of the total capacity.

Phil King, Professor of civil engineering, New Mexico State University: “What we are seeing is a systematic increase in temperature, so we’re seeing the snow-melt runoff earlier than historical and a more rapid melt than average. And again for a given level of snow-pack, less runoff actually reaching the river and reaching our reservoir here.” 

A reservoir like this may fill again one day, but when it does it probably won’t fill as quickly, and the water will drain faster than ever before. 

That’s the thing about climate change. it doesn’t happen drip by drip. It is cycles that are continually getting worse and worse.

To keep this major American city from going completely dry, despite being nowhere near a coast, they built the world’s largest desalination plant.

It treats the brackish water underneath El Paso’s main aquifers. 

Ed Archuleta former utility employee: “It basically gives El Paso an insurance policy against drought.”

A more provocative step is creating a closed loop. Treating sewage water and sending it directly back into drinking water pipes, toilet to tap.

It starts by filtering out solids, like rags and wipes out of raw sewage, and there are many levels of filtration and treatment for the bacteria viruses and everything else.

Another step in making El Paso drought resistant.

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