Friday, December 26, 2014

Why Is the Rio Grande Pipeline Stalled?

El Paso wetlands park has no water!  The pipeline to pass water from the Bustamante Waste Water Treatment Plant (BWWTP) to the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park is on hold.  Most of the project is done, but there is a gap where the pipeline crosses an abandoned drain owned by El Paso County Water Improvement District #1 (EPCWID#1).   To complete the pipeline as designed, El Paso Water Utilities (EPWU) needs a license from EPCWID#1, to cross their drain. 

In the early 1990s, Rio Bosque Wetlands Park was identified as the preferred site for a wetland project to mitigate for natural habitat loss caused by the American Canal Extension.  The wetland project at the Park was designed to utilize effluent from the adjacent BWWTP.  Currently, the Park only receives water from BWWTP for a few months in the winter.  To realize its potential for critical habitat restoration, ecosystem services, aquifer recharge, and economic benefit from eco-tourism, the Wetlands Park needs water.

Water in the Rio Bosque will recharge our aquifer benefiting farmers and all El Pasoans.  The water from the BWWTP will improve the quality of the water in the aquifer which according to Art Ivey, EPCWID#1 Vice President, is so salty, "We're pouring poison on our [pecan] trees.”  (El Paso Times, 15 December 2014).  There is also the possibility of extending the pipeline to a proposed regulating reservoir immediately south of the Park which will capture “tail” water and make it available to farmers.

Wetlands ecosystem services provide a myriad of benefits to El Pasoans including clean air, clean water, and esthetic, cultural and spiritual values.  Services provided by wetlands include stormwater storage, nutrient removal and climate regulation.  Using extremely conservative estimates by Robert Costanza, Professor of Public Policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the value of the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park ecosystem services would be over $1 million per year.  Using data from the nonprofit independent research group, Headwaters Economics, ElPasoNaturally (30 September 2011) estimates that the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park could bring $18 million in Eco-Tourism dollars to El Paso. 

The Rio Bosque Wetlands Park is a tremendous classroom in the open.  Visiting children learn critical STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills and, if there is water, graduate students utilize the Park for scientific research projects.

In July 2014, EPWU Public Service Board awarded the $1.1 million contract for construction of the pipeline (BWWTP) to the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park.  The project should have been completed by 26 December 2014.  Now, instead of delivering water to the Park, the pipeline is stalled because EPCWID#1 has not issued a license to cross its drain - a drain that is non-functional and has been abandoned for more than 30 years. 

To complete the pipeline, EPWU could bypass the EPCWID#1 land, but that would unnecessarily complicate the pipeline, make it significantly longer, cause additional delays and increase the cost all EPWU ratepayers.

EPWU owns the effluent from the BWWTP, but they have no facilities to hold that water.  Once water enters infrastructure owned by EPCWID#1, as happens today without the pipeline, the water belongs to EPCWID#1.  According to the 2001 Implementing Third-Party Contract, BWWTP delivers 13,333 acre-feet of water to EPCWID#1 each year.  But EPCWID#1 actually receives about 31,000 acre-feet per year, nearly all that BWWTP produces.

Could it be EPCWID#1 wants control of when and how much water enters the pipeline, before they license an easement across their abandoned drain?  EPCWID#1 already controls all the water in the Rio Grande.  Maybe they want to be sure they also control water that belongs to all El Pasoans. 
- Judy Ackerman

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