U.S. Water News Online
ALAMOGORDO, N.M. -- Southern New Mexico is dipping its toe
in the issue of water desalination, while El Paso, Texas, is ready
for the plunge. They don't feel they have much choice.
``We have to go to large-scale desalination and spend the money
required because we don't have other options,'' said John
Burkstaller, chief technical officer for El Paso Water Utilities.
Burkstaller said El Paso is ``in such dire water resource straits
that we are arriving at the need for this kind of project sooner than
other Southwestern cities.''
Alamogordo is fighting to keep drinkable water flowing. Right now,
85 percent of its water comes from spring runoff from the Sacramento
Mountains. But some of its water sources exceed allowable levels of
dissolved solids, water consultant Edward Livingston said.
Well-pumping volumes are down 60 percent, said Livingston, who
represents Livingston and Associates Consulting Engineers.
He plans to draft a feasibility study by yearend on a desalination
plant. Preliminary cost estimates are $15 million to $20 million, he
said. Such a plant could treat 8 million gallons of water per day, he
City Commissioner Don Cooper said: ``We should have done this
Engineers say they may recover 85 percent of the brackish water
that would go into the desalination plant. Right now, some Alamogordo
water sources have shown 1,000 parts per million of dissolved solids,
Meanwhile, the El Paso County Water Authority began operating a 4
million-gallon-a-day desalination plant in Horizon City, just east of
El Paso Water Authority office manager Phyllis Waters said the
city has a lot of development and ``where there are wells with more
water, the water is brackish.''
El Paso is trying to acquire irrigation water from New Mexico
farmers as well.
Since 1996, El Paso Water Utilities' Public Service Board has
acquired 817 acres in the Mesilla Valley of southern New Mexico. Most
of it encompasses 770 acres purchased in the past 12 months.
Now the Public Service Board is asking for delivery of the
irrigation water tied to the land, amounting to about 2,400
acre-feet, or 780 million gallons of water.
Compared to the total amount of water the city of El Paso uses
annually -- about 125,000 acre-feet -- the amount is small. However,
it's the first time El Paso has sought to acquire Rio Grande surface
water from New Mexico.
And that could trigger a legal battle that could, for instance,
include Texas challenging New Mexico's ability to regulate interstate
transfers of water.
The Elephant Butte Irrigation District and state Engineer Tom
Turney contend Turney's approval is necessary before El Paso can
remove water from New Mexico.
``Any transfers of water outside the state without the benefit of
an approved permit application from my office will be considered
illegal,'' Turney wrote El Paso Water Utilities in September.
Turney's decision would have to hinge in part on whether he
considered such a transfer in the best interest of New Mexico.
New Mexico cannot prohibit water from being taken out of state,
but ``there are very tough criteria they would have to meet to take
water out of state,'' Turney said.
Texas would have to show New Mexico does not need the water, that
El Paso does not have an adequate supply within Texas and that El
Pasoans have taken substantial conservation measures.
Ted Houghton, El Paso Public Service Board member, said he
believes his city would be blocked from obtaining its water based on
the ``public welfare'' standard, which he said could produce a broad
``I just hope it doesn't get to where it's going, a huge
state-to-state legal battle,'' he said. ``It's not like the city of
El Paso is going to go up there and dry up the Mesilla Valley.''
El Paso's Public Service Board bought two Dona Ana County farms of
376 and 394 acres for $8 million over the last year. Ed Archuleta,
general manager of El Paso Water Utilities, said that under a 1944
contract with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, El Paso has the
right to purchase up to 2,000 acres and the water rights that go with
The contract, Archuleta said, predates New Mexico laws that give
the state engineer authority to regulate interstate transfers of
water. But EBID officials say the 1944 contract has since been
declared null and void, and a permit from the state engineer is
El Paso already gets roughly one-third of its water from the Rio
Grande using contracts with Texas farmers and El Paso Water
Improvement District to convert irrigation water to municipal and
Hydrology suggests El Paso's portion of the Hueco Bolson, the
underground aquifer that supplies the city and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
with most of its drinking water, will run out of fresh water in 25 to
``We didn't do this because we were out to take New Mexico water.
We are just trying to implement a contract signed in 1944,''
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