Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

A major US city will start drinking its own sewage. Others need to follow.

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I would say “Others will follow.” The supply of fresh water is going to drop precipitously in some regions. Zoë Schlanger reports in Quartz:

It’s possible, a few decades from now, humans living in water-scarce places will find it ridiculous that we spent centuries just flushing away our watery sewage. Didn’t we know we could have been drinking it?

The idea of a closed-loop water system, in which we drink, expel, treat, and then drink again, is not new. The technology already exists to treat human wastewater to drinking water standards; water engineers call it by the polite (if euphemistic) name of “direct potable reuse.” But few city water utilities have been daring enough to try it on their customers, given its poor public image.

On the other hand, El Paso, Texas, a land of scarce rainfall—it’s drier than Windhoek, Namibia, the capital of the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa—is charging into potable reuse with near-religious zeal. The border city (population 700,000), which shares a river and groundwater with its sister city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, has been building up to this moment for decades.

El Paso recently proved to state officials it could do it, running a pilot (pdf) of the purification process for most of a year, finishing up in 2016. Now the city is seeking grant funding to shepherd a potable-reuse plant through the remainder of a design process; water-utility officials think they can break ground on the plant “in the next few years,” according to Joshua Moniz, a public affairs coordinator for the El Paso water utility. Within a decade, El Paso hopes its residents will be drinking reclaimed sewage water. In short, El Paso, situated in the middle of the punishingly dry Chihuahuan desert is on the cutting edge of water technology. It really has no choice.

El Paso today is unrecognizable from the city in the 1980s. In 1985, each El Pasoan was using on average 205 gallons of water every day, far above the US average of 112 gallons—a national peak that has been declining ever since. Water was cheap. Lush lawns were all the rage. Half of the city’s water was being used outdoors, feeding St. Augustine grass in a desert. But water levels in the Hueco Bolson, the aquifer that quenched booming El Paso and Juarez, were dropping by 1.5 ft per year. A later report would reveal (paywall) that the water in the Bolson dropped a full 147 ft (45 meters) between 1940 and 1999. At that rate, the aquifer would effectively be pumped dry by 2025 (pdf). The stakes were very clear: If the aquifer went, so would the city.

Ed Archuleta came to El Paso to take a director job at the water utility in 1989. He grew up in northeastern New Mexico, in a small town called Clayton, an arid place where annual rains were only a few inches more than in El Paso. He earned his degree in engineering from New Mexico State University and knew right away he wanted to work in water. By age 47, he was the deputy director of the water utility in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a large, very dry city grappling with chronic scarcity as it rapidly depleted its aquifers.

By the time he arrived in El Paso, Archuleta was used to the hard reality of trying to squeeze water from the desert. But El Paso was a special case. At the time, it was the fifth-fastest growing large city in the country, and it was getting desperate. “We were projected to run out of water,” Archuleta recounts today. The Texas city, which sits at the border with New Mexico, is home to a small slice of a large aquifer called the Mesilla Bolson. A far greater share of the Mesilla sits beneath New Mexico, just across the state line. When Archuleta took the job in 1989, El Paso was still in the midst of a legal dispute with New Mexico, after suing the state over the claim that the city had the right to drill hundreds of wells into the Mesilla from the other side of the state line and pipe the water back to El Paso—a scheme that ultimately failed (pdf).

Fast forward 24 years, to 2013, when Archuleta finally retired: He’d become well-known in the world of water planning for recently pulling the city through the worst single-year drought in Texas (pdf) history—with water to spare. In 2011, the city went 119 days without rain. But while other Texas cities languished, and began imposing emergency water-rationing measures, El Paso was sitting relatively pretty. They did make some temporary water cutbacks, but they were minor. They’d already done the hard work. “We’re basically drought-proof,” Archuleta told the Guardian at the time.

What happened between 1989 and 2013 in El Paso makes for a master class in how to effectively reckon with the reality that when water doesn’t abide by borders, those on both sides must learn to talk to each other. If another city inextricably bound to an international (and/or interstate) water resource hopes to make it through the coming era of freshwater scarcity, they would do well to read the story of El Paso.

Archuleta, now 76, speaks with the steadiness of a person who gets things done because they think it would be ridiculous not to. “How’d we do it? Like I said, we had a plan, and then we implemented the plan,” he said in a video interview in 2014.

That plan, he said, was a 50-year strategy—his mind was on the long game from the start of his tenure at the El Paso utility—and the short-term part of it looked like this: First,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2018 at 1:25 pm

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