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A Dry Odessa Looks Longingly to El Paso for Help

Odessa, running seriously low on water, is looking to the example set in El Paso, a desert city that has poured money into a desalination plant and invested in conservation.

Trinity River, Fort Worth, TX

The city of Odessa, facing a dire drought situation, is looking to an unlikely example for help in finding water: the desert city of El Paso.

Water pressure in Odessa dropped in August, and residents can only water their lawns during the dark of night. Two of the three lakes the city normally relies on for water are almost completely dry. The other is less than 25 percent full and is expected to run out late next year, said Guy Andrews, director of economic development for the Odessa Chamber of Commerce.

But a few hundred miles farther west, El Paso's half-million residents have plenty of water even though they live in the middle of the Chihuahua Desert, thanks to a massive desalination plant and a successful 20-year-old conservation program.

The conservation program was implemented in 1991 after city leaders discovered El Paso was running dangerously low on water, said Martin Bartlett, an El Paso Water Utilities spokesman. Then, the city relied primarily on two aquifers — the Hueco Bolson and the Mesilla Bolson — and the Hueco Bolson’s water levels were dropping at a rate of 1.5 feet to 3 feet a year.

Now, the city also relies on reclaimed water — wastewater that is treated and used for nonresidential purposes, such as cooling power plants. In addition, between 1991 and 2007 the water utility company offered financial incentive programs such as rebates for central refrigerated air systems, which save more water than typical air conditioners, to residents to reduce their water usage. These programs reduced water use by almost 4 billion gallons of water a year, Bartlett said. All of the conservation efforts combined have saved El Paso 231 billion gallons of water since 1991.

“You take conservation, you take water from the aquifers, and you take reclaimed water," said Ed Archuleta, president and CEO of El Paso Water Utilities. "That was all part of our program. And then we started thinking about desalination.”

In 2007, the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant opened and became a main source of water for the city. It treats 27 million gallons of water daily, making it the largest plant in the United States, Archuleta said. 

It’s difficult to imagine a desert city having enough brackish water for a desalination plant, but Archuleta said billions of years ago the Rio Grande deposited salt into the groundwater in the region now occupied by Fort Bliss, an expansive U.S. Army base. Since the groundwater is less concentrated with sodium chloride than ocean water, the plant is half as expensive as one built along the coast.

The plant has received a lot of attention from cities across Texas as they grapple with water shortages. Over the summer, officials from San Antonio and Odessa visited the facility.

Because of its contract with the Colorado River Municipal Water District, the city of Odessa cannot seek other water sources, such as a desalination plant, said Andrea Goodson, a spokeswoman for the city. Instead, city officials are encouraging the Odessa Development Corporation — a separate entity — to consider building a plant similar to the one in El Paso.

In June, the corporation's president, Austin Keith, toured the El Paso plant with seven others from Odessa, including a professor from the University of Texas-Permian Basin. They concluded that a desalination plant for Odessa is "very feasible," Andrews said. "We've got an ocean of brackish water underneath us."

The development corporation has already allocated $1.5 million to the plant, which would take salty water from an underground aquifer called the Capitan Reef. It will be looking for another $40 million to $50 million from private investors to get the plant up and running in two to three years.

As the drought seems likely to drag into the winter because of the return of La Niña, Archuleta said that having multiple water resources is critical. “Desalination is not a silver bullet, just another tool in the toolbox,” he said.

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