El Paso's Water Crisis

El Pasoans are not supposed to shower today. Or wash dishes, or do the laundry. The city is in the third day of a severe water shortage, which was partly caused by last week's rolling blackouts. Restrictions may be lifted tonight.

 Christopher Rose

El Pasoans were asked not to shower today. Or wash dishes, or do the laundry either. El Paso is in the third day of a severe water shortage, and the mayor, John Cook, declared a state of emergency on Sunday. All residents are supposed to boil drinking water, although Christina Montoya, a spokeswoman for El Paso Water Utilities, told the Tribune early this afternoon that the restrictions were likely to be lifted around 10 p.m. tonight.

The water crisis in El Paso stems partly from last week's electricity shortages. The city experienced three days of rolling blackouts that ended on Friday after extremely cold temperatures knocked out two natural gas-fired power plants operated by the El Paso Electric Company. This caused some power to get cut to pumps bringing water into and out of the city's reservoirs and also disrupted operations at El Paso's desalination plant. At the same time, frozen pipes all over the city began leaking water, exacerbating the problem.

"On balance, people are now crisis-fatigued," said Diana Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso, which has been closed since Wednesday — last week due to the blackouts, and today because of water. "Everybody is just ready to get back to work, including the students, by the way."

El Paso's electricity has been restored citywide since Friday at noon, according to Teresa Souza, a spokeswoman for El Paso Electric Company. But there are "still a lot of repairs that need to be made to power plants," Souza said. "We suffered a lot of damage."  (El Paso is not on the same electric grid as the rest of Texas, which also experienced blackouts, albeit less severe.)

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Montoya of El Paso Water said the utility made "significant progress" in repairs overnight. The desalination plant, she added, "looks like it's back up right now." Essentially, she said, the crisis arose "from many factors, including freezing temperatures that did damage to facilities and some of our pump stations" — plus the blackouts.

Residents and businesses will now begin to tally the damage. State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said he hoped citizens would remain "patient" and that while El Paso appeared to be "doing everything it can under the circumstances" to deal with the crisis, there would certainly be an opportunity to review the responses of the utilities, as well as that of the city. Rodríguez said a water pipe just outside his own home burst due to the freeze, and he had to shut off the water pipes coming into the house when he departed for Austin on Sunday. 

Jean Offutt, a public affairs officer at Fort Bliss, said the army base had experienced "a lot of broken pipes [and] some damaged homes." The base is open and adhering to the water restrictions, she said, and has set up seven water supply points where families without water can come pick them up. The base also endured the rolling blackouts, she said. 

Natalicio of UTEP said that like everyone else, the university had a lot of water leaks, and will certainly incur costs, in terms of personnel, rental equipment and more. "We have insurance, but we have a fairly large deductible," she said.

Asked whether this will harm El Paso's image going forward, she cautioned against "being too hard on ourselves" for lack of preparation for the proverbial 100-year flood — which in this case was temperatures that plunged to about zero for the first time in her memory. "At the same time, there are lessons learned, and we need to learn them," she said.

In addition, Natalicio noted, much of the attention this week on weather-related struggles was focused on another Texas city. That would be Dallas, host of last night's Super Bowl.

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[Editor's note: An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the El Paso Electric Company as the El Paso Electric Cooperative. This has been fixed.]

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