Update, May 17, 4 p.m.:
Erasmo Yarrito, Jr., who serves as the "water-master" for the Rio Grande, meaning that he oversees the river from south of El Paso down to the Gulf, said that water levels in two key reservoirs, Falcon Lake and Lake Amistad, were normal for this time of year. "We're sitting very well with our municipal use," he said.
The Rio Grande near El Paso has run dry — a situation that hasn't occurred in almost 10 years — removing a key source of water for the city.
"There is currently no water in the river," wrote Ed Archuleta, the president and chief executive of El Paso Water Utilities, in his monthly newsletter. He has said the Rio Grande is experiencing a long-term drought that has already lasted well over a decade in the El Paso area.
Last year the Rio Grande provided 39 percent of El Paso's water, with most of the balance coming from groundwater. To make up for the shortfall, the utility is pumping more groundwater and has also cranked up its five-year-old desalination plant. Normally, just one of the plant's five units runs because of the high operating costs (specifically the high energy needs), but now, for the first time, all five units are operating, said Christina Montoya, a utility spokeswoman.
The utility has also asked customers to voluntarily restrict watering to twice a week (it has year-round restrictions limiting watering to three times a week), and it is also getting some water from a long-standing program that recycles wastewater.
Two upstream reservoirs in New Mexico are just 16 percent full, because of the lack of snowfall in the mountains, and the gates leading out of them closed May 4, according to Archuleta. More water will be released late this month or early June, but "we don't know for how long they'll remain open, he said.
The last time the utility experienced a similar situation was 2003, Montoya said.
The Rio Grande's plight near El Paso does not affect its flow far downstream, where cities like Laredo depend on it. South of El Paso, the river runs through a stretch a few hundred miles long called the "Forgotten Reach," during which it is generally dry until it reaches Presidio — just before Big Bend National Park.
Near Presidio, it gets an infusion of water from a major tributary, the Rio Concho. Further downstream, the Pecos and the Devil's rivers also flow into the Rio Grande.
Tricia Cortez, executive director of the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center in Laredo, said that in her area the supply does not appear to be a significant issue. (The Rio Grande watermaster's office could not be reached for comment Thursday.)
The real issue near Laredo, Cortez said, was water quality. "We do have very serious problems with bacteria levels in our area, and also heavy metals," she said. Raw sewage from Nuevo Laredo flows into the river, and she cited preliminary results from a new study by the Texas Clean Rivers Program that showed E. coli levels roughly 20 times in excess of federal standards.
"This is an outrage," she wrote in a recent op-ed.