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Sewage discharge in Rio Grande wake-up call for water infrastructure needs

Martha Pskowski
El Paso Times

Residents are raising health concerns as untreated wastewater continues to flow into the Rio Grande after two mains broke in August.

And worries about the environmental impact are spreading as the wastewater flows 20 miles downstream, where it is diverted for treatment.

Much of the 20-mile stretch of the river is channeled through concrete and under the watchful eye of the Border Patrol. But the first section, near the Sunland Park racetrack, is accessible on public roads.

Francisco Hernandez has run Carousel Convenience on Anapra Road with his wife for 27 years, just steps from the river.

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Hernandez said the wastewater stench has overwhelmed the store for weeks, leading costumers to complain. "It's not just the smell," he said. "It's the water. We have birds, fish, ducks, a lot of species here."

He points at the milky, green water trickling under the bridge, algae forming where it touches the bank. Pigeons and other birds rest at the water's edge.

Across the road is a permanent sign discouraging recreational activities along the river. But there aren't any signs alerting the public to the wastewater dumping. Hernandez said he has not seen any El Paso Water personnel on this stretch of the river. Hernandez has warned people against fishing from the bridge since the wastewater main broke, telling them to go further upstream.

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The unpleasant smell is the only impact most El Pasoans will notice as El Paso Water crews and contractors work 16-hours a day to install a new wastewater main. But advocates and residents like Hernandez are concerned by the environmental impacts of millions of gallons of sewage being dumped in the river. The situation shows the urgency of investing in wastewater management in El Paso and across Texas.

One step is the infrastructure bill before Congress, which if passed would provide $50 billion over five years for wastewater infrastructure needs around the country. Texas is expected to receive $2.9 billion for water projects, including drinking water, stormwater and wastewater, from the infrastructure bill.

Here in El Paso, there are no easy answers for managing the wastewater that will flow down the Rio Grande, past Hernandez's store, until a replacement main goes online in early December. El Paso Water says it has paid for cleaning services and that home and business owners should alert the utility to any further damage.

Francisco Hernandez, who runs Carousel Convenience on Anapra Road with his wife, talks about the smell of the untreated wastewater that drains into the Rio Grande on Thursday. Hernandez's store is next to the Rio Grande, where wastewater is deposited.

Untreated wastewater poses health and environmental dangers

The Frontera Force wastewater lines, which transport sewage from West El Paso for treatment, suffered breaks on Aug. 13. The damage caused wastewater to bubble up in homes and businesses in the Sunland Park, New Mexico, area near El Paso. El Paso Water diverted the sewage into the Rio Grande.

The cost of repairs is coming out of the utility's current operating budget. El Paso Water contracted with a national construction company that specializes in large diameter pipe installations for the repairs and new pipe installation. The utility also hired contractors to conduct an environmental assessment and investigate the cause of the main breaks. A representative for El Paso Water said the cost of the contractors is unavailable at this time. 

Until the replacement pipe goes online in December, sewage will continue to flow into the river. The untreated wastewater is diverted 20 miles downstream at the American Canal to reach the Roberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant. El Paso Water estimates the wastewater discharge flow at 6.5 million gallons a day.

More:About 6.5 million gallons of wastewater flow into Rio Grande daily as damaged lines are repaired

Yanyan Zhang, assistant professor of civil engineering at New Mexico State University, said that untreated wastewater contains organic compounds, nitrogen and heavy metals.

"Normally, the river has a self-cleaning capacity," she said. "But since the Rio Grande has a limited amount of flow right now, (the wastewater) will affect it significantly."

Pharmaceuticals, pesticides and herbicides also enter the river upstream. High levels of nitrogen can cause algae blooms, which will deplete oxygen in the river.

"This will affect aquatic life in the river," Zhang said. "Heavy metals in the wastewater will be accumulated in the aquatic life."

Zhang said that El Paso's wastewater treatment system is very advanced and the diversion plan to the canals is the best option available in "an unlucky situation."

Pigeons are shown near the untreated wastewater that drains into the Rio Grande in Sunland Park, New Mexico, on Thursday.

John Rumpler, director of Environment America's Clean Water for America campaign, said aging infrastructure is leading to wastewater overflows and spills across the country. "It’s a major environmental health problem," he said.

A 2012 survey by the Environmental Protection Agency found that $271 billion is needed nationwide for capital investment in publicly owned wastewater treatment and collection wastewater facilities to meet the water quality goals of the Clean Water Act. The survey found that Texas needs $11.82 billion in investment. 

"Congress now has a great opportunity to prevent these problems from happening by investing in our wastewater infrastructure," said Rumpler, referring to the infrastructure bill. "It is desperately needed to protect public health and the environment."

The infrastructure bill passed in the Senate in August, but the House has delayed voting on the bill as negotiations continue on separate legislation for social spending. The bill includes $2 billion in grants for communities to upgrade infrastructure to stop sewer overflows and capture contaminated runoff. It also allocates $500 million for tribal wastewater grants and $125 million for colonias. 

"You don’t need to be a public health expert to know that swimming in poopy water is not good for anyone's health," Rumpler said. "Gastroenteritis, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, skin rashes, ear infections. These are the kinds of things people experience when they swim in water with elevated levels of fecal bacteria."

Untreated wastewater drains into the Rio Grande in Sunland Park, New Mexico, on Thursday.

Proactive repairs and maintenance needed on wastewater systems

El Paso Water identified corrosion on the Frontera Force Main and began repairs in 2020. However, the corrosion accelerated and both pipes suffered irreparable damages in August. 

According to Gilbert Trejo, El Paso Water's chief technical officer, both the soil and the wastewater in pipelines, which creates an acidic gas, can cause corrosion. The damage was not directly linked to August rainstorms.

"These were pipelines that we knew were important," Trejo said. "We knew what would happen if they were to break."

'Perfect storm' behind break 

"I think it was the perfect storm in this case," said Shane Walker, associate professor of civil engineering at UTEP and a specialist in wastewater systems. "It's a shocking thing, because El Paso Water is so proactive."

Walker said that El Paso Water's leakage is below the national recommendations, which shows the utility is committed to proactive maintenance on pipes. Even so, problems can arise in the extensive system.

"Unfortunately, in wastewater collection systems it is implausible to regularly inspect all of the pipes from the inside," Walker said. "There are too many miles of pipelines; it would cost too much money."

Walker said that water services in El Paso remain affordable compared to other cities. "That's in spite of being an environment where it is even more challenging to deliver those services," he said.

Trejo of El Paso Water said the utility is now looking at other high risk pipelines to prevent future breaks. He encouraged anyone impacted by the wastewater discharge to notify the utility. While he said the maintenance schedule is dependent on funding, Trejo said, "We can always do better."

Untreated wastewater drains into the Rio Grande in Sunland Park, New Mexico, on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021.

Cross-border collaboration key to restoring river

The wastewater discharge into the Rio Grande also impacts residents of Juárez. The International Boundary and Water Commission notified its Mexican counterpart, the Comisión de Limites y Aguas (CILA), of the wastewater dumping. Mexican authorities including civil protection, environment (SEMARNAT) and water (CONAGUA) are charged with protecting public health and enforcing environmental law.

Wastewater discharge has long been a challenge along the Rio Grande, as many communities, both in Mexico and colonias in Texas, lack adequate sewage systems. Other border cities, like Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, have collaborated to reduce sewage flow into the river.

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But Néstor Acosta Caro del Castillo, director of the nonprofit Juárez Limpio, said that efforts in the Mexican city are insufficient to educate residents on the risk of exposure to untreated wastewater. Acosta said authorities sometimes warn Juárez residents not to enter the river. "But the alerts are very subtle," Acosta Caro said. "They publish them, but access to the river isn't restricted."

For Acosta Caro, the wastewater dumping is an opportunity to revisit the ecological importance of the Rio Grande and establish binational restauration efforts. "Since the river was channelized, it has lost much of its ecosystem," he said. "In the future, we should think about a restauration project on the Rio Bravo (as the Rio Grande is called in Mexico) to return its environmental capacities."

Treated wastewater flows away from the Roberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant down a canal toward the Rio Bosque Park.

Infrastructure challenges lie ahead

Advocates warn that the wastewater discharge into the Rio Grande is a wake-up call to the dangers of aging infrastructure. 

"In this particular case there was an option to minimize both the health and environmental impacts," said Dan Mueller of the Environmental Defense Fund's Texas Water Program. "That doesn’t mean that in another situation we will have those options. We have to fix things before they fail, not react afterward."

The federal infrastructure bill could make more funds available for the states for these projects. It includes $40 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which is the main way the federal government funds state investments in wastewater infrastructure.

"As a state, we really need to be thinking about how we invest in improving our water and wastewater infrastructure" said Vanessa Puig-Williams, director of the Texas Water Program. "That will ensure these systems are resilient in the face of the climate that’s changing, where we are going to see more extreme weather events like flooding, freezing or drought." 

The Texas Water Development Board operates a loan program that distributes federal dollars for water projects. However, Trejo of El Paso Water pointed out that federal funding for rehabilitation of wastewater systems and aging infrastructure is limited. "Ratepayers carry that burden and it’s a nationwide issue," he said.

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City Council members pressed El Paso Water representatives at a Sep. 27 working session, asking whether the main breaks could have been prevented. El Paso's Public Service Board would have to approve increases to El Paso Water's budget for wastewater maintenance.

In January 2021, the Public Service Board approved increasing water and sewer rates 2%, and the stormwater fee 6.1% for residential customers, with similar increases for commercial customers. 

More:El Paso Water bills increasing again in 2021 after PSB approves new rates

"We've been reporting to the board and to council for several years now that we need additional funding for aging infrastructure," Trejo said.

Trejo said that El Paso Water will be preparing a funding request for wastewater maintenance, which will go into the budget proposal to the Public Service Board next year.

Federal and state funding may provide some relief going forward. But until then, the cost of wastewater maintenance, and the environmental impacts of the wastewater discharge, will continue to fall on El Pasoans. 

Staff writer Martha Pskowski may be reached at mpskowski@elpasotimes.com and @psskow on Twitter.