Solving Cities

Despite record drought, El Paso is keeping quenched

Despite record drought, El Paso is keeping quenched

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Cities in the Southwest are facing record-setting droughts. But one Texas city is doing just fine.

Drought is certainly no stranger to Southwest states in the U.S.

This spring, however, the Southwest saw a drought season that was drier than dry. Three states -- Texas, New Mexico, and Louisiana -- have had the driest January-June on record. El Paso, Texas went 119 days with no rain.

It's these epic droughts that, scientists say, the Southwestern United States will need to get used to as climate change sets in.

But you won't see Ed Archuleta, the manager of El Paso Water Utilities, sweating over the drought (and not just because it's really dry there), the Guardian reports.

"We're going to be fine this summer," he said. "We're basically drought-proof."

The city will be fine next year too, even if it doesn't rain, and even if the Rio Grande stays low. "We can handle drought next year. Theoretically, even if we have no water in the river, even if there wasn't a single drop of water coming from the river, we could make it through the summer," Archuleta said.

Under Archuleta's lead, El Paso has emerged as a model to other cities in the south-west forced to adapt in a hurry to a world running out of water. The prolonged dry spell and declining snowfalls in the mountains due to climate change are forcing cities in Texas and other areas of the south-west into crisis measures.

Some bold words coming from a water manager who is facing one of the worst droughts on record. So what's keeping the city from shriveling up?

The most obvious way has been to incentivize using less water. Residents were paid to tear out their water-zapping lawns -- which account for about a third of household water use -- and replace them with desert-friendly landscaping, called xeriscaping. The city also offered rebates on energy-efficient air conditioning units, along with more water-efficient toilets and washing machines.

On a larger scale the city has invested in treatment plants to recycle wastewater. It now recycles about 12 percent of its wastewater. It has also built the world's largest inland desalination plant to treat salty water from the aquifer where the city gets much of its water.

These measures have helped the city reduce its per capita water use from 167 gallons a day to 111 gallons a day. If you're keeping track, that's well below the U.S. average of nearly 500 gallons a day.

But if you don't look carefully you might not even notice a change.

It does not immediately look as if El Paso is doing without. The mansions that cling to the hills west of town still have swimming pools and lushly manicured shrubs – but no lawns. For years, residents have only been allowed to water their gardens only on alternate days, and only in the early morning or evening hours in the summer.

By now, such measures are a way of life.

Photo: cordeauphotos/Flickr

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure