SANTA TERESA – Beneath the growing industrial development, under the homes sprouting at the urban edge of West Texas, below the often-dry Rio Grande, sits an immense hydrogeologic bowl that water experts say contains more water than the region may ever need – a seductive claim in the desert.
Now read the fine print: Only the top skim across much of the resource known as the Mesilla Bolson is fresh water, and experts say that the “good” water could be gone in a decade or so.
The rest is brackish, according to John Hawley, an independent hydrogeologist who has been studying the region since the 1960s, “an incredible amount of old water that dates back to the Ice Age that is optimum for desalination.”
The demands on this interconnected system of surface water and groundwater in the Mesilla Bolson are growing year by year from the three jurisdictions atop it: New Mexico, Texas and Mexico.
Regional water experts say the freshwater cap could turn increasingly salty within 10 to 15 years and, at a minimum, that amount of time would be needed to plan and build a desalination plant that could turn the brackish resource into potable water.
But Santa Teresa business leaders say those estimates may be based on inaccurate, inflated growth projections and that there is enough fresh water to fuel plans for slow-but-steady growth over the next two decades. A desalination plant – which could cost tens of millions of dollars – will only be financially feasible when there are enough customers to pay for it, they say.
“It looks like to me that the problem is a 10-year to 12-year problem, not a 30-year problem because it’s an aquifer that is being utilized both by Texas and by Mexico,” said Mike Hightower, a Sandia National Laboratories civil engineer who studies water as a national-security and environmental-sustainability issue. “Without the agreements in place to manage that, you’re going to end up with somebody inappropriately withdrawing all the fresh water. These current wells that may not be projected to become brackish for 30 years down the road could become brackish in half the time.”
The urgency, experts say, could be exacerbated by a Special Master’s recommendation that the U.S. Supreme Court side with Texas and the U.S. in their claim that groundwater pumping in southern New Mexico is depleting the Rio Grande of water that belongs to Texas. If the court accepts the recommendation, the case will proceed.
“Water is of supreme concern to everybody because we live in a desert,” said Jerry Pacheco, president of the Santa Teresa-based Border Industrial Association. “Given the projections we have created for the next 20 years, if the growth projections are correct, we have enough water rights to be able to service that. As to what the Supreme Court case does to everybody, it’s really up in the air.”
The Camino Real Regional Utility Authority, which delivers water to municipal and industrial customers in Santa Teresa and Sunland Park, is “primarily focused on day-to-day operations,” said Executive Director Brent Westmoreland, who added that with regard to desalination, “There will be a time when CRUUA will be faced with that issue.”
Elephant Butte Irrigation District groundwater resource manager Erek Fuchs summed up local irrigators’ concerns about growth in Santa Teresa and Sunland Park.
“When they drill new wells, and as additional industry, residential and related actvity occurs down there,” he said, “then the groundwater pumping to service that demand is going to affect the river.”
Agricultural interests – the chile and onion fields of Hatch and sprawling pecan orchards of the Mesilla Valley – are the largest users of river water, drawing 100 percent of the total Rio Grande water consumed in southern New Mexico, according to Phil King, a professor of civil engineering at New Mexico State University.
EBID favors a desalination plant in southern Doña Ana County but doesn’t want to take the lead, Fuchs said. But is there enough water for all the new development?
“Not without impairing somebody else,” he said.
The competing interests for surface water and groundwater don’t just pit New Mexico against Texas and Mexico; it’s farmers versus industrial and municipal expansion, with the export hub of Santa Teresa at the heart of it.
Water delivery system
Where the wide Rio Grande bends over the state line, the river is essentially a highway: a conduit for delivering water from New Mexico to Texas, and eventually Mexico.
The water only runs in this riverbed for an appointed number of days each summer – down to 75 days from flows that lasted eight months before 2003 – during which time water is diverted by southern New Mexico farmers and what remains moves southeast.
The Rio Grande Project reservoir at Elephant Butte is at less than 10 percent capacity; the Bureau of Reclamation controls the release of water.
A 2016 Bureau of Reclamation report, “Managing Water in the West,” affirmed that “the growing imbalance between supply and demand is expected to lead to a greater reliance on nonrenewable groundwater resources. Increased reliance on groundwater resources will lead to greater losses from the river into the groundwater system.”
Santa Teresa businesses depend on fresh water from the Mesilla Bolson. So do the fast-expanding neighborhoods of Sunland Park and El Paso’s west side. So do industrial and municipal users in the booming factory town of Ciudad Juárez across the border in Mexico. And so does New Mexico’s $182.5 million pecan industry and other irrigators during the long months when the river is dry.
Every drop that CRRUA slurps out of the Bolson to service Santa Teresa and Sunland Park must be paid back to the river in “offsets,” some of which come from treated wastewater being put back in the Rio Grande – a practice that King says is a “Ponzi scheme” that will be unsustainable in the long run.
“You can pump out 15,000 acre feet but you are putting 7,500 acre feet (of treated wastewater) back in the river, so you can pump another 7,500 acre feet and so on,” King said. “It’s a shell game.”
Santa Teresa and Sunland Park are essentially engaged in “a water-mining operation that is masking the effect of drought,” King said. “Before they run out of water, (the wells) will salt up.”
El Paso relies on desalination
Nearby El Paso boasts the nation’s largest inland desalination plant, with capacity to treat more than 27 million gallons per day. Ed Archuleta, the former chief executive of El Paso Water Utilities, spearheaded the city’s desalination effort.
“At one time we were pumping a lot of water from the Hueco Bolson” east of the city, about 80,000 acre feet per year in the 1980s, he said in a 2009 presentation at NMSU that was published in the Journal of Transboundary Water Resources. “It was our principal source of water in El Paso.”
With conservation efforts and the desalination plant, groundwater pumping dropped to below 30,000 acre feet per year and the bolson, which was dropping at the rate of a foot or two per year, stabilized, he said.
Hightower estimates the capital costs of building a desalination plant could run $3 to $4 gallon, meaning a 20 million gallon-a-day facility could cost between $60 million and $80 million. But operating costs would run closer to $3 to $4 per thousand gallons – “not much different than what a lot of people are beginning to pay for new sources of water,” he said. “It’s consistent with what municipalities in the Southwest are paying for new, supplemental sources of water.”
King notes that technological advances are bringing the costs down.
Hightower envisions for a smaller-scale approach that would see two or three facilities desalinating 5 million or 10 million gallons a day in lieu of a single huge plant. Alternatively, he said, there are modular technologies that are commercially available and offer even smaller scale.
EBID Manager Gary Esslinger recommends a similar approach: drilling a test well and placing a skid-mounted mini-desalination plant of the kind tested at a Bureau of Reclamation facility in Alamogordo.
“All they need to do is verify that it’s there,” he said of the brackish water. “Just see if it’s doable. If growth comes, then they have something to go on. It would let the Rio Grande heal. We have all these straws in the valley. But if we have a brackish supply, and we can reduce the pumping, then it sustains it for awhile.”
Taking the lead
But who could or should spearhead such an effort?
Water managers and experts point to the Border Industrial Association, the trade group that represents more than 100 industry members in Santa Teresa; or the CRRUA water utility. They also say it is unlikely that any desalination effort could be accomplished without vision and backing from the Legislature or Governor’s Office.
Pacheco agrees that the industrial base may one day consider taking on such a project but reiterates the slow pace of growth. The need just isn’t there yet, he said.
“We are growing the industrial base by a net 200 to 500 jobs per year,” he said. “Are more people than that moving over here into the valley? I would assume yes. But we’re not in the business of going to recruit water-intensive users.”
Most of the companies locating in Santa Teresa are components manufacturers, as well as warehousing and logistics services providers tied to the maquila industry in Ciudad Juárez and the new Union Pacific intermodal rail hub.
Chris Lyons, the major landowner in Santa Teresa who is developing the new Westpark industrial park and has plans for future residential development, said, “We want to be the model for water conservation in whatever we do out here.”
“I think Santa Teresa is going to grow, but I think it’s going to grow within reason and logic” – maybe 50,000 people in 30 or 40 years, Pacheco said.
Hightower offers a caveat.
“You better think about it 10 years before you want to start it,” he said, “and you want to start it 10 years before you really need it. If you need it all of a sudden, then it’s too late.”