4 Investigates: The future of water in New Mexico | KOB 4

4 Investigates: The future of water in New Mexico

Jorge Torres
August 07, 2019 09:21 AM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — El agua es vida.

Water is life.

It's a saying older than New Mexico itself, but its meaning is more important now than ever before. Just because New Mexico saw a monstrous winter and a typical monsoon this year, water shortages are still expected in the future.

Admittedly, this has been a good year in New Mexico. Snowpack that melted into our Rio Grande was the largest amount since 1997.

Elephant Butte Lake, the largest reservoir in New Mexico and a place that many look to when it comes to gauging where we are in a drought, is the highest it's been in almost a decade. However, even with all the runoff, Elephant Butte Lake is not even 1/3 full.

New Mexico State Climatologist Dr. David Dubois says a warming trend in the Southwest is strongly affecting snowpack, snowmelt timing, and more rain instead of snow during the winter months. That means less water in the long run.

"If we see a decrease in that for farmers that grow chiles or cotton, and pecans down here in Las Cruces, then we have to come up with alternative sources of water," Dr. Dubois stated.

That's where New Mexico faces a daunting problem. Major cities like Albuquerque get drinking water largely from the Rio Grande and the Colorado River Basin.

Initially, the city took its drinking water from the city's aquifer, but that was depleting faster than it was replenishing.

Since the 1990s, conservation efforts have been among the best in the country, but water managers are still looking at other alternatives.

John Stomp is the architect of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority's 100-year plan called Water 2120, which looks at warming trends and population growth. 

"We kind of looked at things that we never really did and we went out 100 years to make sure that when we're planning we're actually doing planning," Stomp said.

With New Mexico's climate trending warmer, Stomp says the time to think about future water management is now.

“The 100-year plan looks at the potential for losing some resources from climate change, so if we lost 20-30% of our San Juan-Chama water, say, in the next 80 years, we're really looking at re-using all the existing resources we have,” he stated.

Not far away, one city has already taken action. El Paso.

El Paso Water operates the largest inland desalination plant in the world. It is here where up to 27 million gallons of the area's salty groundwater is filtered every day and a new supply of fresh water is made.       

John Balliew, El Paso Water’s CEO and president, says it’s part the water supply portfolio.

"We have the Rio Grande, we have two different aquifers for groundwater, we have reclaimed water, and we have brackish water,” Balliew says.

El Paso is also using another, yet less popular method. It involves water that was once flushed down the toilet.

The Fred Hervey Water Reclamation Plant was one of the first in the nation to take sewer water and turn it into safe drinking water.  The treated water here gets sent to the local aquifer before it is treated again for El Paso residents to drink.  

El Paso Water admits it's an idea even El Pasoans are still trying to swallow.

Devin Chavez, the assistant superintendent of the plant, says that people don't know all the steps that go into the filtration of purification of the water.

“They're not on board with it yet, because they're not really educated yet as far as what goes into it," he says.

Don't be surprised if El Paso's approach to water management eventually makes it here. With water shortages a major concern, New Mexico communities and leaders continue to explore options to preserve our water.

Rio Rancho and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority have been treating sewer water for years and putting it into the Rio Grande after numerous filtrations, but as far as drinking that water, we'll be waiting at least a decade before anything like that is in the works.


Jorge Torres

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