El Paso Water Utilities proves that a step back can be a step forward

El Paso Water Utilities proves that a step back can be a step forward
El Paso Water Utilities started its new public education campaign called "Less Is the New More." (Photo courtesy of El Paso Water Utilities)

Sales were down at the El Paso Water Utilities (EPWU) in the first three quarters of 2012 – and in the eyes of the organization’s leaders that’s great news.

Through the end of September, data shows that water customers in the city that marks the western tip of Texas reduced their demand for water by 635 million gallons compared to the first nine months of 2011 and the leaders are elated.

When the city reached half a billion gallons in water savings a month earlier, John Balliew, EPWU vice president of operations, gave much of the credit to the utility’s ongoing water conservation program, including this year’s new public education campaign: “Less Is the New More.”

Launched in January, the new campaign focused on first gaining consumers’ attention and then driving home the messages that water conservation is important and relatively simple. The campaign overseen by Christina Montoya, EPWU vice president of marketing and communication, relied heavily upon humor and visuals to draw people’s attention to the city’s water challenges.

El Paso is located in the Chihuahua Desert, an arid expanse that straddles the U.S./Mexico border along the Rio Grande and touches at least three states in each country. In an average year, El Paso receives just 9 inches of rain, but drought has left the region’s precipitation short of that mark for several years. That has left the New Mexico reservoirs that El Paso usually taps for half or more of its freshwater nearly empty this fall. The largest impoundment on the Rio Grande, Elephant Butte Reservoir, is down to 5 percent full.

EPWU recently stopped drawing any water from its surface water sources northwest of the city and is currently relying upon its wells tapping the Hueco Bolson and Mesilla Bolson aquifers to the east of El Paso. Although the groundwater resources are sufficient for the city’s needs, Montoya says EPWU focuses on a system designed to make the most of surface water resources while recharging the aquifers.

Tapping the groundwater presents special challenges because the majority of the water is brackish and must be desalinated. The city and the U.S. Army’s sprawling Fort Bliss have partnered in the construction of the world’s largest inland desalination plant. The plant produces 27.5 million gallons of freshwater. In addition to adding to the region’s water portfolio, the pumping of the brackish water helps prevent its flow toward wells pumping freshwater from the Hueco Bolson.

The 635 million gallons saved through the first nine months of 2012 reflects a 2.2 percent drop from the 29.3 billion gallons consumed during the first three quarters of 2011.

Balliew says the savings are key because the drought that limited the snow pack in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado has left the surface water supplies depleted. Montoya says that in the past 16 years, the large Elephant Butte Reservoir in central New Mexico has only been at or above average levels three times.

Balliew says that El Paso water consumers are well educated about the need for conservation and have responded well to the newest education drive.

Not only does the ability to reduce consumption help preserve resources, Balliew says it also puts less stress on the water system, including the groundwater pumps and desalination operation, “Especially during the peak pumping times.”

For more information about the EPWU conservation program, see videos and more at www.LessIsMoreEP.org.


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