SANTA TERESA, N.M. -- The Rio Grande is the lifeline for people who live and work along its 1,185 miles. The placid river, however, belies the struggle for survival that will be a losing battle for some. Las Cruces, N.M., El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, are growing, and there isn't enough water to go around.
Population growth in this Southwest area is expected to outpace the available water supply before 2025 despite conservation and reclamation projects. Ciudad Juarez will be the first to be hit with water shortages, said Ed Archuleta, general manager for the El Paso Water Utility. Juarez relies on a groundwater aquifer that El Paso also uses for 40 percent of its water. The Hueco Bolson will dry up in about 30 years. Other sources of water include the Mesilla Bolson, which stretches from Las Cruces to El Paso, and surface water from the Rio Grande.
Water officials in New Mexico and Texas already are scooping up water rights from agricultural land that has been overrun by encroaching development. And efforts are under way in El Paso to treat sewage water and put it back in the Hueco Bolson. El Paso also boasts a water conservation program that Archuleta says is one of the most aggressive in the Southwest.
Archuleta said El Paso will get about 20 percent of its future water from conservation, about 5 percent from reclamation and the rest from groundwater and surface water. But the numbers don't add up.
Archuleta said the expected population of the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez area in 2025 will be 6 million. ``The water would have to be imported to sustain that kind of growth,'' Archuleta said. Even with all the efforts under way, he said, the water supply would be able to support 4 million people -- at most -- and that would be in years with normal rainfall.
``There will be problems with surface water because, when there's drought in Colorado and New Mexico, we're going to be hurting down here,'' Archuleta said. The consequences will be failed farms, a shrinking economy and potential health problems as contaminants concentrate in the shrinking water supply.
``The cost of water is going to go up significantly in the next few years,'' Archuleta said. That factor alone, he said, will send a message about the importance of conservation. But there may be other, more obvious, signs of the impending water shortage. ``If the grass goes dry, the grass goes dry,'' Archuleta said.
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