Reduce or re-use? Reclaiming water in the Rio Grande Valley

The Rio Grande Valley’s water plan relies on reducing water usage to withstand this drought, but some have suggested a process called reclamation to treat stormwater and distribute it.

By Carolina Cuellar, Texas Public RadioAugust 26, 2022 9:30 am,

From Texas Public Radio:

On an early August day, the City of Edcouch’s irrigation district — which provides the city’s water — called an emergency meeting. The district’s water source, the Falcon Reservoir, is drying up so the city’s water supply is no longer reliable.

“It was explained to us that we’re at a critical state,” said Ernesto Rosales, Edcouch’s city engineer. “There’s basically no water and we could expect shutdowns from a day up to three days.”

While the Rio Grande Valley’s water plan relies on reducing water usage to withstand this drought, Rosales said, there is a better way to ensure a dependable and safe drinking water supply in the future.

Instead of relying on reservoir water they could be treating stormwater and distributing it to the city through a process called reclamation.

According to the National Weather Service, Last year was one of the Valley’s “warmest and wettest on record,” with some cities receiving more than 24 inches of rain. Because of this, Rosales said, the drought caught them off guard.

“I think we took it for granted the past three years because it’s rained so much in the summer that we assumed that the drought was over,” he said. “That assumption really came back to haunt us because we should have been on conservation mode all along.”

He said they could’ve used that surplus to compensate for this year’s shortage.

“I think that reclamation is a big step in the right direction,” said Rosales.

Rosales explained that they already have a purification plant to treat the water. All they’d need is some infrastructural changes and rights from the Texas Commission of Environment Quality to collect the water.

But Jim Darling, chair of the Rio Grande Water Authority, said it’s not that simple. A reclamation system requires new delivery infrastructure, money and an increase in what residents pay for water.

Additionally, the Rio Grande Valley cycles through periods of significant rainfall and drought so a reclamation system will only be useful when it’s dry.

“Is it worth it to spend that, and then all of a sudden it rains and you got a system that you don’t need anymore?” he said.

He said it’s hard enough convincing people to pay for the switch from its current delivery system — which uses irrigation canals — to pipelines even though the existing system loses 32% of its water during transport.

Additionally, the reservoir loses water through seepage — the longer it’s stored the more it seeps into the ground.

This isn’t the first time the region has considered reclaiming water. During a drought in the 1990s, they did studies to implement a reclamation system but then abandoned the idea when a tropical storm brought water.

“I think that’s what happens. So you know, there’s some feeling that it would just average inflows that there’ll be enough for city water, even now in a drought,” Darling said.

Darling helped make the 2021 Rio Grande Regional Water Plan, and he says for now cutting water usage is the best strategy.

“Most of the mitigation plan in the water plan is for drought management, and that is really curtailing the demand,” said Darling.

Right now the cost of a reclamation system is the biggest obstacle. It’s a huge investment and people may not immediately reap its benefits.

But Martin Castro, the Watershed Science Director at the Rio Grande International Study Center, said in the future, that may not be the case.

Factors like population demand and climate change justify that initial investment.

“That ratio may change to where recycling, and reclaiming freshwater sources is more inexpensive than treating, you know, potable water,” Castro said.

Additionally, a lot of existing water systems are old and need an update. Reclamation infrastructure can slot into those projects.

He also added that water loss due to seepage actually replenishes the groundwater supply and restores the region’s hydrology.

Reclamation isn’t just for rainwater.

The Rio Grande International Study Center introduced a prototype for a facility that recycles sewage and food waste into potable water — and makes it profitable.

“Historically speaking many municipalities will operate traditional wastewater treatment plants usually at a loss mainly due to the cost of electricity of equipment and other factors,” Castro said. “In this model, it can become a sustainable and even a money generating facility.”

After extracting the water, they’ll compost the food and sewage waste and sell the fertilizer. Additionally, byproducts of the process, like methane, can power the plant or be sold as fuel.

In the Valley, a McAllen facility turns sewage water into “purple water” or water for agriculture. With this, they save 35-45% of their water.

Federal funds exist for these kinds of projects. The Bureau of Reclamation granted El Paso Water Utilities Public Service Board $20 million for a facility that purifies wastewater for public use.

This investment came from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law which allotted over $310 million to support 25 water Reclamation projects across the country.

The Texas Water Development Board also funds certain wastewater projects.

Rosales, Edcouch’s city engineer, said this won’t be the last water shortage in the Valley and the region should consider reclamation as a long-term and sustainable solution.

“It’s our most precious resource. And we need to figure out how we’re going to take care of it, how we’re going to conserve it, and how we’re going to have it for the next 100 years,” he said.

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