Monday, September 30, 2013

Kevin von Finger Wetlands Dedicated at Keystone

The Kevin von Finger Wetlands were dedicated at Keystone Heritage Park this past Saturday. There have been a number of tributes to Kevin von Finger recently including the dedication of this year's 2013 Celebration of Our Mountains to his memory.

Here are some pictures of the event courtesy of Valerie Provencio:

Emcee Bernie Sargent does live broadcast on the El Paso History Radio Show

Ribbon cutting by Keystone Board member, Lori Lowman-Hutson, County Commissioner Patrick Abeln, and John Balliew, EPWU CEO

Bird Blind

TxDOT Assault on Popular Bike Share Program Just Won't End

Back room politics is the modus operandi when it comes to TxDOT - especially if they feel that they may not get their way.

Dr. No and Courtney Niland put an item (Item 11A1) on tomorrow's agenda which would, if passed, scuttle Bike Share in favor of a TxDOT proposal for the money. However, elpasonaturally has learned that Niland will ask for a two week postponement of the item. In the meantime, Mayor Leeser will ask the Transportation Policy Board of the MPO this coming Friday for an up or down vote on Bike Share. (They have already approved it.)

It is obvious that TxDOT does not want to spend the CMAQ money for a bike share program. Some believe that, without TxDOT's cooperation, El Paso will simply lose out on federal money. When it comes to TxDOT, resistance seems futile. Elpasonaturally has also learned that City Council Representative Courtney Niland has said that nobody can go up against TxDOT. "They are the most powerful agency in Texas," she is quoted to have said. Never mind representative democracy where the people elect their policy makers. In the case of TxDOT, elpasonaturally believes that there is one Dictator - Ted Houghton. He has cronies and he hobnobs with others who care not one bit about democracy. (An agency that is so powerful that the people and/or their representatives cannot go up against it should be abolished.)

The big question is why does TxDOT want to scuttle bike share in favor of giving federal money back to the federal government by way of a program that would employ more Border Patrol people in order to speed up bridge times? Who is behind this attempt to divert (steal) funds from one federal program to another? 

To begin be sure to read Cindy Ramirez's excellent story in the Times this morning about this latest assault on Bike Share as well as the fact sheet from VeloPaso below that well explains the situation and the debate: 

TxDOT wants the money transferred to a program (the P3 Pilot Program) to reduce border crossing wait times. They argue that the bike share program does not meet their emissions reduction threshold. However, TxDOT cannot impose such a threshold. Talk about a cooked up deal. What is TxDOT's interest? 

The P3 Pilot Program which funds the Border Patrol has not been nominated and may not even be eligible for CMAQ funds because the Feds do not fund salaries beyond that of statewide bicycle coordinators. An FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) official said that they would have to make an extraordinary case for CMAQ to apply. 

Prior to the last MPO meeting, the P3 Program had not been discussed publicly. However Open Records Requests show that it was discussed at a breakfast meeting behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny (how Houghton and his cronies like it). In an August 12, 2013 email from Bob Bielek to a number of officials, he writes: "Why are we complicating this? The discussion prior to the MPO meeting with the Mayor [Leeser of El Paso], Representative Pickett and Mike Medina (Director of EPMPO) was based on deprogramming the bike share program so that those funds could be used in the pilot program to decrease congestion at the bridges. The city would look for funds elsewhere."

By the way, if the goal is to reduce border crossing wait times, then I suggest that there is a means of doing so rather than throwing more federal money at it: transfer half of the border patrol personnel who are currently marching up and down the bridges with sniffing dogs to gate posts so more car lanes can be opened up. I'm a conservative guy who hates to see government waste. I'm also a conservative guy who believes that we the people make decisions and not little dictators and their cronies behind closed doors. The CMAQ money belongs to Bike Share and nothing else. TxDOT should either release the money or be compelled to release the money. If they do not, they should be dismissed and jail time ought to be a consideration. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Critical Water Conservation Guidelines May at Best Be Optional in El Paso

One of the benefits of re-doing the NW Master Plan was the employment of rainwater capture and retention strategies using Green Infrastructure/Low Impact Development tools. The next step was to re-do the El Paso Drainage Design manual so that the same GI/LID tools could be used all over the City. The idea is to recapture rainwater so that it permeates back into the aquifers of the Hueco Bolson and the Mesilla Bolson thereby recharging our groundwater. Another benefit of rainwater and landscape management includes keeping landscapes watered without having to use much extra water if any. The addition of trees especially helps to cool the City and its homes which, once again, means using less water for evaporative cooling.

So here is the final draft of the new Drainage Design Manual:

Once released, the avaricious barracudas in the development community began to swarm and bite. Led by River Oaks and Richard Williams the objection was raised that the DDM cannot be applied because El Paso has a variety of soils that require different drainage techniques. 

Carlos Gallinar, Planning Deputy Director, told me that the LID standards for drainage were not calibrated for various areas of El Paso. What is required, he said, is a "concrete set of directivies" that developers, builders and engineers can use rather than arbitrary standards. He stated that the problem is that there is no more money for doing the kind of soil analysis required for such directives. The project would cost in the neighborhood of $100,000 and City Council is being very conservative.

When I pointed out to him that the USDA had published a comprehensive soil survey of El Paso County in 1971, he retorted that, although he had not seen the study, it was probably out of date as soils may have changed. Of course, such extreme changes would require catastrophic geological events. There have been no earthquakes, landslides, a radical shift in the flow of the Rio Grande, mountain building or dramatic rifting of the Rio Grande River Valley since 1971. The caliche beneath my yard typical in central El Paso on the mountain slopes was there when my parents built this house and is there whenever I want to plant a new shrub or tree. East El Paso has sand down to 10,000 feet (that Rio Grande River Rift again) and the Valleys have silts and clays. 

Soil testing is a required part of any building project any way. Also, percolation tests are easy. Dig a hole, fill it with water, see how much water has permeated the ground in an hour or so.

Hydrologist John Walton told me that he liked what he saw in the DDM. Landscape experts tell me that drainage requirements could easily be based on percolation rates. 

So why the stall? Why did City Development push the City Plan Commission to recommend to City Council that, without a study, the DDM would have to be optional? 

We all know that, since the last City Council election, developers are in the driver's seat with City Council. Elpasonaturally has learned that considerable pressure is on the City Manager to go along. The pressure moves down the chain of command and, presto magico, the leadership of Planning and Development, which was far more progressive a year ago, has become lap doggish - yes people with excuses such as the one Carlos Gallinar was giving me. (Chain of command pressure may also explain why Gallinar now refuses to return calls by me and is only responsive when I track him down.) Elpasonaturally has also learned that the morale in the rank and file of Planning has turned toward the morose.

If the City Council can't find $100,000 to do a study that will lead to solid GI/LID standards and save us water for generations, then I suggest that the Stormwater Utility do it. Let's see what River Oaks and their buddies say after that study is done.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Image courtesy of Benny Pol

475 adults and 218 children. That's the gate for this past Saturday's 2013 Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta as recorded by Park Superintendent, Cesar Mendez. That exceeded 450 from the year before. Indeed, in spite of the massive construction to widen Transmountain Road and the current lack of signage to the park, the turnout this past weekend was greater than expected. In previous years the numbers have dwindled. But not this year.

Credit goes to Diane Perez, Rick LoBello and Carlos Rodriguez. Many thanks to all the CDEC (Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition) board and members and all those who participated in this year's event with booths, vending, entertainment and speaking. 

Be sure to check out, bookmark and keep visiting the CDEC web site.

Indian Fried Bread Tacos were a hit!
Image courtesy of Doug Agee

Park Superintendent and Daddy, Cesar Mendez
Master Naturalist Prez Bill Hoover in background
Image courtesy of Doug Agee

Aztec Troupe poses before performance.
Image courtesy of Benny Pol

The hay rides are always popular with the kids.
Image courtesy of Doug Agee

Two young dancers
Image courtesy of Doug Agee

Monday, September 23, 2013

State Park Entrance Still Top Issue

Houdini, the Harris Hawk, was a big hit at the Fiesta
(Photo courtesy of Benny Pol)

In spite of the construction on Transmountain Road, this past Saturday's Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta was well-attended. The unofficial guestimate of attendance is now 500. The buzz at the Fiesta though was the park entrance. Many had a hard time finding their way into the park. Some who came from the east side missed the turn and then, in spite of no real left turns allowed at this time, made a left turn anyway into the park after turning around and heading back east. 

The question on everyone's mind was "What will be done with the entrance?"

Elpasonaturally has learned today from TxDOT Engineer, Bob Bielek, that, before November 1, the public can expect another meeting concerning the entrance and the alternatives that TxDOT believes now to be viable. Bielek said that TxDOT has heard loud and clear that the public wants a safe animal corridor under the highway and safe passage for hikers and bicyclists. To do an animal corridor would probably be less than $300,000 - chump change for a project as expensive and extensive as the west side segment of Transmountain.

So, look for a public meeting soon and look for some real discussion on safe alternatives that include making entrance to the largest urban park in the United State quite attractive.

Bielek affirmed that the project and entrance considerations are on-schedule.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Open Request Records on UTEP Project Come Up Short

On September 4, 2013, I emailed the following open records request to John Balliew, CEO of the EPWU:


I would like to examine the following documents:

1. All emails, letters or any form of correspondence, memos, notes, etc. since Sept. 1, 2012 between anyone from the EPWU or any member of the PSB (past or present) with/between/among each other or with faculty or administrators at UTEP regarding the Reclaimed Water Project and/or the Water Initiatives Project.
2. A copy of any research contract between the PSB/EPWU and UTEP with regard to the Reclaimed Water Project and/or the Water Initiatives Project.

After examining the documents I may ask for copies.


Yesterday I received and reviewed the documents and asked for copies of all the pages presented to me. Here are my observations:

I received copies of responses from CEO John Balliew, CFO Marcela Navarrete, Economist David Torres and the following Public Service Board members: David Nemir, Henry Gallardo, Mayor Oscar Leeser, Terri Garcia, Richard Bonart and Katherine Brennand.

I received NOTHING from PSB Chairman, Richard Shoephoerster, who is also the Dean of Engineering at UTEP.  I saw two emails from Dr. Shoephoerster - one to John Balliew (8/29/13) and another to Bob Andron with a copy to Mr. Balliew (8/13/13). Both emails were part of the CEO's response to my ORR. But NOTHING from Richard Shoephoerster himself even though he was obligated to turn over the same email just mentioned. How curious! The lack of anything from Dr. Shoephoerster reminds one of the 18 minute gap in Nixon's Watergate tapes. Is Rose Mary Woods not deceased? Is she now, in fact, the Administrative Assistant to UTEP's Dean of Engineering?

Former CEO and now head of the UTEP Water Initiatives program at UTEP, Ed Archuleta, is referred to in emails. But again NOTHING from Ed Archuleta even though he remained on the EPWU payroll for a greater part of this year.

The Timeline:

Pre-October 2012: The Plan for the Water Project at UTEP is presented to the EPWU. How this was presented and by whom and to whom is still a mystery.

October 2012: Project brought to EPWU budget meetings according to an email from John Balliew to me on 8/29/13.

October 11, 2012: Slide show at a public Strategic Planning meeting mentions UTEP reclaimed water. See EPWU Day One Strategic Planning Slide Show #22/64. 

November 19, 2012: according to an email to me from Balliew, UTEP project presented at CIP Budget meeting.

Finally, Economist Torres probably best explained the institutional reason for the UTEP project in an email to CEO Balliew with a copy to Marcela Navarrete:

"I think the real value of this project is not in the financials it is in the intangible opportunity this project has. UTEP is celebrating their 100 year anniversary and this is a great way for EPWU to be showcased as a partner in the community providing an innovative supply of water that other communities don't have. There is no monetary measure of this, however it is something that will bring positive news for EPWU as UTEP will be promoting their 100 anniversary and the information will reach alumni and individuals all over the world."

Let us forget for the moment the grandiosity. It is doubtful that this project will ever have the kind of marketing value Mr. Torres claims. When AT&T branded the Dallas Cowboy Stadium with their name, you can bet that AT&T had a very good idea about the marketing/PR/advertising value of naming the stadium after themselves. 

Although this project is presumably dead (but one never knows with such powers behind it), the proposed location on campus would be far from the beaten path and hidden by traffic routes and parking garages.

Click to enlarge. Waldo would be easier to find.

Where's Waldo?

Here is my new ORR complete with preface:

Yesterday I received documents related to my request, I reviewed them at the EPWU administrative building and was given copies of all pages. I believe that the documents that I received are not the total number of documents that actually exist. It is curious that all members of the PSB responded with the exception of Dr. Shoephoerster, Chairman of the PSB. In fact, I see no email from Becky Lopez to him requesting any documents related to my 9/4/13 request. There are two emails from the PSB Chair which were part of CEO Balliew's response. If nothing else, I would have expected to get the same copies of those emails from Dr. Shoephoerster but I do not. Mr. Archuleta is referenced in email suggesting his involvement in the project. I believe that he continued on the EPWU payroll until this past July. Surely during the last months of his tenure, he should have had documents related to my request or someone at EPWU would have documents from Mr. Archuleta relevant to this request.  The UTEP Reclaimed Project was mentioned in a slide show to the PSB at a Strategic Planning meeting in October of 2012. Am I to believe that the project just popped up at that meeting without any prior discussion without a paper trail of that discussion? 

I respectfully submit this new ORR:

  1. Copy of communication between Becky Lopez (or another person at EPWU) to Dr. Richard Shoephoerster requesting a response to my 9/4/13 ORR and copy of Dr. Shoephoerster's response.
  2. In an email from David Torres to John Balliew on 8/23/13 at 9:59 AM a file is attached: UTEP reuse project.xlsx. Please furnish a written copy of that file.
  3. All documents for the presentation of the project, including any budget numbers, at the 2012 Strategic Planning meeting and CIP budget presentations or any budget presentation to the PSB.
  4. With the exception of the documents that I have already received, copies of all communications, emails, letters, memos, notes between and among EPWU and UTEP persons regarding the UTEP Reclaimed Water project and/or the Water Initiatives Project from January 1, 2012 to the present. (This includes EPWU to EPWU communications and EPWU to UTEP communications.)
  5. All communications between Ed Archuleta and anyone regarding the UTEP Reclaimed Water Project and/or the Water Initiatives Project during his tenure at EPWU beginning on January 1, 2012.
  6. If Mr. Archuleta's tenure at EPWU was shorter than 7/13, then payroll records showing his last day of tenure with EPWU.
  7. All communications from or to the Chairman of the PSB, Dr. Richard Shoephoerster, regarding the UTEP Reclaimed Water project and/or the Water Initiatives Project from January 1, 2012 to the present. 
Thank you.

We shall see.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

El Paso Zoo Launches Mobile Application to Help Save Orangutans

Click icon in bottom right to enlarge.

For more information:

The El Paso Zoo

Take Action

More about palm oil and orangutans

The above press release on the El Paso Zoo site

MPO Unanimously Rejects TxDOT Proposal

Pay attention everyone.

If you or your organization have ever been told "No" by TxDOT...

If your community and all your stakeholders have ever supported one thing and TxDOT has rejected your proposal...

If you have ever been part of a public meeting to give TxDOT input and then heard them tell you how things really are going to be...

Pay attention. 

This story is all about local control versus a very powerful agency which does not have to answer to you the people.  That agency, of course, is TxDOT which is only answerable to the Texas Transportation Commission which is only answerable to Gov. Rick Perry. (More on this relationship in an upcoming post. For now, just look at the recent contributions of Texas Transportation Commission Chairman, Ted Houghton, to Rick Perry.)

At last Friday's meeting of the Transportation Policy Board for the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), TxDOT asked that the El Paso Bike Share program be deprogrammed and that federal money (Congestion Mitigation Air Quality - CMAQ - funds) be used differently.) See Items 7 and 8 on the agenda. Never mind that CMAQ funds had been given for the express purpose of the El Paso Bike Share program. Never mind the fact that the City of El Paso, the County of El Paso and UTEP had already pledged to the program. Never mind the fact that all of El Paso's elected representatives in State and Federal government stand for the Bike Share Program. Never mind any of this. One very powerful state agency with no accountability to the people and with no regard to the will of the people, will do whatever they want and take money for whatever project they deem to be worthwhile.

So, here's what happened at the Transportation Policy Board for the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization last Friday. Each and every member of that Board voted against the proposal to deprogram bike share (only El Paso TxDOT engineer, Bob Bielek, voted in favor). That was Item number 7. The Board deleted Item number 8 - where TxDOT wanted to take money they would steal from bike share. The message was loud and clear: We the People having local control of our government, vote to accept CMAQ funds for bike share and, dearest TxDOT, you had better deliver.

Senator Rodriguez: "Local decision making IS the issue. The Federal Highway Administration has approved funds. We, the local community, decide - not a state agency."

Mayor Leeser: "City Council and the community support bike share."

Representatives Marquez, Gonzalez and Moody were adamant for bike share and against the usurpation by TxDOT.

Can TxDOT still torpedo bike share? You bet they can. They can refuse to spend the money that way (the Federal Highway Administration gives that right to the state agency). They can refuse no matter what the local community wants. 

But they may have a harder time this time. They have no support among elected representatives from El Paso. Word on the streets is that the Federal Highway Administration is now investigating them. I suggest to Senator Rodriguez and all of our elected state representatives that they visit with their fellow legislators in Austin and find out how many stories like this one there are throughout the State regarding TxDOT's disregard of local government and community decision-making.

I suggest to many in El Paso that they pay attention. I know many of them know stories about TxDOT's total disregard of stakeholder and public opinion.

Hey TxDOT Teddy - this is just the first post in a series. Much more to come.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

North Hills after the Rains

During this past week of rain, I measured 4.7" at my house. I participate in the CoCoRaHS program for NOAA.

Bob and Mary Gourdoux shared the two pictures below that Bob took yesterday from the levy at Chuck Heinrich Park in the North Hills sub-division in NE El Paso. (The trail head to the Tin Mines and a number of hike and bike trails begins here.)

Click on images to enlarge.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

PSB Vote Practically Torpedoes UTEP Centennial Park Water Program

On Wednesday, the PSB didn't exactly say "no" to the Centennial Park Water Reclamation project at UTEP.  However, there was enough skepticism on the Board to hobble the program. 

Action Alert: Stop TxDOT from Deprogramming Bike Share in El Paso

TxDOT is now trying to deprogram bike share in El Paso - in effect stealing the federal money designated for the program. Below in red is the opening of a call to action to the public by Velo Paso. READ THE FULL ALERT WHICH HAS A LIST OF OFFICIALS TO CONTACT

Bike Texas has the same alert.

Save our Bike Share!(updated September 8)
Earlier this year, El Paso celebrated the fact that we would be getting a bike share program.  That celebration was short lived, as TxDOT refused to sign the contract with the Regional Mobility Authority to provide the approved funding, claiming they didn’t think the Congestion Mitigation Air Quality funds were appropriate for such a program.  Velo Paso asked you to contact TxDOT to tell them to ‘free the funds.’  Now we need your help again!

TxDOT has asked the Metropolitan Planning Organization to deprogram the Bike Share Program!

Please contact the members of the Transportation Policy Board of the Metropolitan Planning Organization and tell them to save bike share and vote against TxDOT’s request to deprogram the bike share program.

Then join us at the next Transportation Policy Board meeting to speak out against this attack on bike share!


Friday, September 13, 2013 at 9:00 A.M. [Agenda]
El Paso MPO Office, 10767 Gateway Blvd. West, Suite 605, El Paso, Texas 79935 [Map]

In a September 10, 2013 open letter to the El Paso Metropolitan Planning OrganizationTransportation Policy Board, Velo Paso presented the case against TxDOT. In short, TxDOT is denying federal funds that were targeted for a bike share program. TxDOT's actions are arbitrary and dictatorial. Here's the Velo Paso letter:

Here is the supporting material from the United States Department of Transportation:

Ironically, TxDOT's foolishness comes at a time that a NYC study shows that bike lanes have sped up not slowed down traffic. (Read the NY Times story too. Also the Grist summary.)

Besides the importance of creating bike infrastructure in El Paso, two other issues with this whole matter are TxDOT's acting beyond their authority and, in effect, stealing money from the federal government.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rainwater Harvesting Would Make a Better Study for UTEP

An expert hydrologist and engineer gave this analysis of the proposed UTEP reclaimed water project/boondoggle: 

"Because of the large area of buildings, sidewalks, bedrock, run on from the campus arroyo and parking lots relative to the green areas, it is straight forward to meet all of UTEP’s landscape watering needs with stormwater (rainwater harvesting) at a cost that is insignificant relative to the proposed plant. The water would also be of much higher quality (very low TDS). Unless there are some hidden cost savings that haven’t been mentioned this appears to be a product of a) poor economic analysis and b) an outdated concept of the water budget, c) typical El Paso politics. We need to move into the future, not optimize yesterday’s solutions."

TDS by the way stands for Total Dissolved Solids. "A high concentration of TDS is an indicator that harmful contaminants, such as iron, manganese, sulfate, bromide and arsenic, can also be present in the water." [Safe Drinking Water Foundation publication]. Arsenic is an issue in El Paso water and may be more so at UTEP which abuts where ASARCO once belched the element.

The project proposed for UTEP could very well take place at the Bustamante plant and could help the Rio Bosque Wetlands park. The Center for Environmental Resource Management (CERM) at UTEP is tasked with water initiatives and it is the same department that already manages the Rio Bosque, now a part of the EPWU inventory.

Speaking about the Rio Bosque: Is doing something there just talk by the EPWU to calm the savages of the environmental community? PSB member, Dr. Rick Bonart, explained: 

"At the February meeting we talked about the Rio Bosque. A formal motion was made to authorize the President and CEO to design and build a pipeline from Bustamante to Rio Bosque to convey either reclaimed H2O or effluent.

"I asked CEO John Balliew how much and how long to do the project.  The anwser: $440,000 and 6 months.

"At the last PSB meeting call to public a member of the public asked when this would be done and Mr. Balliew said it would be on this month's agenda."

Here's the agenda for this Wednesday. Anyone see anything about the Bosque?

Item 3 is about the so-called UTEP Centennial Project.  This message is making the email rounds:

"This Wednesday the PSB will be deciding to fund a request from UTEP to provide a packaged plant to make reclaimed water on campus for use on the campus. Evidently, UTEP is expecting all the rate payers in El Paso to subsidize this project which is primarily to benefit watering some landscaping at Miner Village, Centennial Plaza,  and for the replacement of grass to the Sun Bowl. This seems like a very elitist and preferential burden for all rate payers. Supposedly it is to be a research project for UTEP, but it will be subsidized not by the University or its system, but by local rate payers. As a research project, this researcher asks, 'What is the hypothesis? What is the need? What are the variables? and What prior research does this come out of.'  Whose idea was this anyway?

"I encourage you to attend the PSB meeting this Wednesday and hear what the justifications are for this? There are too many inconsistencies and lack of community participation for this to slide through."

The regular meeting of the Public Service Board will be held at 8:00 a.m., Wednesday, September 11, 2013, at the Public Service Board Meeting Room, 1154 Hawkins Boulevard, El Paso, Texas. Map

Check out David Crowder's story at the Inc.: Questions about UTEP water plant: PSB member says project is waste of money

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Friday Video: This Land IS Our Land

Few people know that Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Our Land" has more verses to it. Several have been censored out over the years to make it more politically correct. Folk song legend, Pete Seeger, sang the complete version at the 2009 Inauguration of President Obama. You can learn more about this event and the full lyrics of Guthrie's classic from Truthout

The censored verses are:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me; 
Sign was painted, it said private property; 
But on the back side it didn't say nothing; 
That side was made for you and me. 

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, 
By the relief office I seen my people; 
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 
Is this land made for you and me? 

Nobody living can ever stop me, 
As I go walking that freedom highway; 
Nobody living can ever make me turn back 

This land was made for you and me.

"Private property" in the first verse above sometimes reads "No Trespassin'".

It is today's video because, the more I reflect about it, we often butt heads with the Water District and others over land they control. But I'm telling you: This Land IS Our Land - and the water too. Time to act accordingly.

Red Flags, Red Herrings and Inappropriate Lobbying

Preface: On August 22, 2013 the PSB/EPWU held a Strategic Planning meeting. It was done in house (no outside facilitator this time) and it was done well. It was open and, for the most part as far as anyone can tell, honest. Weaknesses as well as strengths were discussed. Challenges and opportunities were laid out. Prior to the actual meeting, CEO John Balliew directed that meetings with key stakeholders be conducted. I was one of those interviewed. 

One slide presentation did raise a red flag . . . or was it a red herring? Whatever, the impassioned defense which followed from PSB Chairman and UTEP Dean of the College of Engineering, Richard Schoephoerster, was out of line. He has or appears to have a conflict of interest. He should have excused himself from discussion and should recuse himself on any future votes if indeed he is, as I suspect, personally involved in a proposed program to be financed by the EPWU to produce reclaimed water on the UTEP campus.

Here is the title slide of the presentation:

Here is the slide that raised the flag:

The project proposed will produce 70 Acre Feet/year of water for UTEP. In the beginning the water was for irrigating Miner Village but that was too little space to justify that much water. So then it was defended to include the new Centennial Plaza (now being constructed). Again, the xeriscaped area will not be enough to justify 70AF. So, an idea was floated to include re-sodding the Sun Bowl with real grass (not astroturf) in order to attract more soccer games. (UTEP Chancellor Arleigh B. Templeton changed the field in 1973 in order to save water.)The idea for natural grass didn't have traction. So, we are left with more reclaimed water that can be justified by the area required for irrigation.

Why? The quid pro quo could be that EPWU with ratepayer funds finances a water reclamation process (such as Ovivio) and, in return gets research. The project coincides with a new engineering program, Water Initiatives, now being led by former EPWU CEO Ed Archuleta.

In an email sent on September 3, 2013, the Consumer or Citizens Advocacy member of the Public Service Board, Dr. Rick Bonart, wrote to me and John Balliew the following:

"The Public Service Board, at the September meeting [Item #3 on 9/11/13 agenda], is being asked to approve what I think is an extremely selfish request from UTEP. It's basically a 6 million dollar toy, disguised as a research project. Needless to say, I'm completely opposed. Let me explain why.

"The request is for a packaged plant to make reclaimed water on campus. To be worthy of funding by the utility, the UTEP reclaimed water project  must create value for the rate payer. Unfortunately, the parameters of this endeavor are so ill-defined, that determining if there is any value in this project is impossible.

"What determined the size, and need, and who requested the project?  The plant will make 70 acre/feet of water enough for 18 acres of turf. I was originally told the water was for landscaping the southwest corner of Miner Village. When, I questioned why the need for so much water for such a small parcel, I was told the water was also for the new Centennial Plaza.  When, I pointed out Centennial Plaza is only 10.6 acres and xeriscaped, I was then told the additional capacity  was to provide water that would enable UTEP to change the Sun Bowl's surface from Astro Turf back to grass.  Now, in Mr. Balliew's latest response, UTEP will not be changing the Sun Bowl's surface. 

"Mr. Balliew admits the project doesn't make economic sense, but  goes on to explains "financial reward isn't the only criteria the utility judges and approves projects." I agree financial concerns are not the only consideration for building a project. However, when the agreement benefits just one party to such an egregious degree, it's unacceptable.  

"In my opinion, the current reclaimed water system is a logistic and financial boondoggle. Reclaimed water is an inferior product, that can only be used by a few customers, on select vegetation. The utility makes reclaimed water for $496/ an acre foot and sells it for $51 an acre foot. EPWU must annually subsidize reclaimed water with $3 Million dollars of rate payer money (a 90% subsidy). Compared to the current reclaimed water cost, the UTEP project is a quantum leap in the wrong direction. Reclaimed water produced at the UTEP plant will cost about $4500 an acre foot, that's a 900%  subsidy.

"While some  will defend the above subsidy saying "look how much water it saves", I want to point out that, while reclaimed water saves 6750 acre feet of water, we concurrently and for years, waste 15,000 to 20,000 acre feet of water by giving it away to EPWD#1.  Reclaimed water is an evolutionary dead end. Mr. Balliew understands these short comings and thankfully is rapidly transitioning the utility to purified water.

"Finally, we have the theory this is a "research project".  At best this project will be a duplication of effort. It will divert valuable resources needed for real research. There is nothing innovative about a package unit designed and built  by others with current technology.

"EWPU was recently awarded $100,000 by the Army Corps of Engineers, seed money for such a research project at Bustamante/Rio Bosque. Using those funds at Bustamante makes perfect sense. Processes developed at that facility could easily be scaled up from prototype to production and distributed to all customers without subsidy. Purified water production at Bustamante has the potential to increase our total municipal water supply by 15 to 20%, and it's drought proof. Reprogramming the UTEP reclaimed water funds to the project at Bustamante will accelerate development . Bustamante is a research project UTEP should be willing to both participate in and contribute to. If we truly want to do research on purified water, the project should be at Bustamante/Rio Bosque, where the whole community will benefit. 

"In it's present form the UTEP project does not create value for the rate payer.

"As a member of The Public Service Board, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the rate payers, not UTEP.  The PSB should not proceed with this poorly conceived project, but focus the utility's efforts and resources on a research facility at Bustamante to  innovative purified water production that will create real value for the rate payers and the whole community."

Rick Bonart

Citizen Advocate PSB

This post is just Part 1.