Southern New Mexico and West Texas surface water levels are just slightly above hundred-year lows. Meantime legislation that funds regional water conservation research and development is about to expire.
Elephant Butte, the area’s major reservoir is at low levels in the fall, it was less than ten percent full.
The Texas Water Resources Institute based at Texas A&M University has a branch in El Paso. Dr Zhuping Sheng says natural regional challenges to water accessibility are being compounded by diminished water flow in the Rio Grande and the evaporation of surface water with hotter temperatures.
“We are living in the desert, drought is normal. So we are always in a drought but sometimes we have more severe drought. So up stream snow pack is low so there is no water coming down from the mountain range basically” he says.
Sheng says prolonged drought and changing climate are lowering reservoir water supply. At the same time, urban, industrial and agricultural growth are raising demand for water. Demand that is being met by the pumping of groundwater.
“We will eventually deplete it, that is what we may face, but that is why the key is preserve it or we have a more proactive way if we have surplus water where ever it comes we can recharge the aquifer at a greater rate than we can have more storage available for the future” he says.
Sheng says groundwater levels haven’t seen a major increase since the 70’s when regional growth really took hold.
In the southwest El Paso has been a water conservation success story. Per person daily water use dropped from 225 gallons in the 1970’s to just 132 gallons in 2013. That’s a little higher than Tucson, Arizona but lower than Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Las Cruces which has one of region’s higher per person daily use rates-at 166 gallons.
Sheng says a defining factor in El Paso’s success has been subsidies for water efficient faucets and shower heads, landscaping without grass and regionally tailored irrigation plans.
With the way population, industry and agriculture is growing Sheng says El Paso still has a challenge to meet its water needs. Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke says that’s why he is sponsoring a bill to fund regional water conservation initiatives and advance research.
“We are realizing that this is not a drought, that this is the new normal and the periods over the last 50–60 years where you saw an explosion in growth in the desert southwest or a typically wet years and so we need to plan for and have the resources to accept that we are going to stop living with less" he says
The bill would allow existing water efficiency programs to expand across the country. One initiative, 'Water Sense’ claims to have saved 271 billion gallons of US water in 2013 alone.
The bill would also reauthorize funding of existing research programs at universities like NMSU, UTEP and Texas A&M where Sheng conducts his research.
“We just need to have a more creative way to conserve water and to sustain the development,” he says.
Sheng says one example of creative conservation is using grey water, that’s water from bathroom sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines.
Congressman O’Rourke says the renewal of funding would also lower the cost of removing salt from the region’s brackish groundwater. El Paso Utilities says desalination currently costs twice as much as fresh groundwater and 70 percent more than surface water.
“We have the distinction of having the world’s largest inland desalination plant here, we need to build on that technology and build on the fact that El Paso has been known nationally even internationally as a leader in water conservation." he says
O’Rourke says water scarcity is a regional reality that is better dealt with sooner than later.
“We are not going to be able to continue to grow as a community here in El Paso or Las Cruces in Southern New Mexico. It means that whole states like Texas and California that have been adversely impacted by the drought are going to have to radically rethink their economies before that happens" he says.
And the region’s water needs are likely to grow dramatically in the next 35 years. Projections indicate in the next 35 years Dona Ana County's population could increase by 75% and El Paso County is projected to close to double.