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Sanjay Gupta assesses climate change impact

CNN's Sanjay Gupta investigates the impact climate change has had along the Rio Grande.

Posted: Dec 1, 2018 11:03 AM
Updated: Dec 1, 2018 11:22 AM

The people of El Paso, Texas are resilient. Living in the middle of the harsh Chihuahuan Desert, the city has no other choice. On average, 15 days every year spike over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The city gets little relief with an annual rainfall of just about 9 inches. It's one of the hottest cities in the country.

One of its prime sources of water is the Rio Grande. Typically the river can supply as much as half of the city's water needs. But climate change is making that increasingly difficult and is pushing the city to look for new sources of water. Now, El Paso is on track to become the first large city in the United States to treat its sewage water and send it directly back into their taps.

Increasing temperatures will make the already dry region even more vulnerable to drought, according to the federal government's most recent national climate assessment. Already challenged with balancing the demands of about 700,000 thirsty El Pasoans along with agriculture and industry needs, El Paso must also face the fact that climate change is literally drying up one of its major sources of water.

Analyzing tree ring records, scientists have been able to reconstruct the climate history of the region as far back as the late 1500s and have found that as temperatures have risen, the amount of snow melting and feeding the Rio Grande has dropped.

"We're getting less runoff now than we would have gotten as recently as the '80s or '90s," said J. Phillip King, a professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico. King has tracked the river's water levels for the past 27 years as an adviser to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. The district manages the water distribution of some 90,000 acres of farmland along the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and Texas.

King told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta that there is simply less snowmelt coming from Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado to feed the river. Since 1958, the amount of early April snowmelt going into the Rio Grande has dropped by 25% due to less snowpack and evaporation.

What's happening in the Rio Grande is not unique. It's a phenomenon happening throughout the Western US.

King called the Rio Grande a harbinger of what's to come. "You know we've already gotten critically low here and, you can think of the Colorado as a few years away from a similar fate," he said.

Drought isn't anything new for the 1,800-mile long river. The Rio Grande has survived severe and sustained droughts previously, King said. But an increase in temperature is pushing both a warmer and dryer climate. And that means not only potentially less snowfall, but also a greater chance for water to evaporate.

The federal government projects that temperatures could rise an additional 8 degrees Fahrenheit in the region by the year 2100.

The dwindling reserves are apparent at Elephant Butte Reservoir, just outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The reservoir there sits right on the Rio Grande and forms the largest recreational lake in the state. It holds water for farmers from north of El Paso up to Colorado. It has a capacity of about 2 million acre feet, said King. Currently it's hovering around 3% to 4% of its full capacity. Buildings that were built as offices during the dam's construction in the early part of the 20th century were previously submerged in the 1980s. Now, they serve as lookout points to a nearly empty basin.

Finding alternatives

For those that rely on the river, like the city of El Paso, they must look for alternative water sources out of necessity.

It is something that El Paso is used to. When Ed Acrhuleta first took the helm of the El Paso Water utility in 1989, he knew that drought was an issue. To make a long term plan, he needed a long term outlook. An assessment by the Texas Water Development Board determined that the city could expect to run out of water by 2020 if they continued to rely on pumping groundwater out of their aquifers.

"I thought, we've got to reverse this mining of the aquifer. We've got to stabilize that aquifer. And we have to diversify our resources," he told CNN's Gupta.

Expanding their water portfolio was Archuleta's mission. Instead of relying solely on pumped groundwater, Archuleta expanded El Paso's water portfolio.

Farmers in the Western United States typically organized a system of rights or allotments to use water off of the river, including the Rio Grande. The rights were attached to property, so the El Paso utility began leasing water rights from farmers. The utility also bought farmland that carried those rights.

David Gutzler, a climatology professor at the University of New Mexico, likened an expanded water portfolio to a financial one. "If you can mix and match, then you use one or the other," said Gutzler. And it's the flexibility that ultimately makes cities more resilient, he said.

But in a move that was more visionary than just looking for water, Archuleta made water.

He lobbied the federal government for funds to create the world's largest inland desalination plant. The Kay Bailey Hutchinson Desalination Plant is named after the Texas senator who helped Archuleta lobby in DC for the plant.

According to El Paso Water's hydrologists, under the 10 million acre feet of fresh water in the Hueco Bolson aquifer they rely on, there is an additional 30 million acre feet of brackish water that can be treated and used as drinking water.

It's estimated that the entire state of Texas has nearly 3 billion acre feet of salty groundwater to use. That's more than 20,000 times the amount of water El Paso used this year.

Producing water

Today the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Plant can produce up to 27 million gallons of water daily. The plant scales its production up and down based on how much water is available in the river and it's aquifers. Next year, El Paso expects desalination to provide 7% to 9% of its water.

"This plant was built for growth. It was built for drought protection. It basically gives El Paso an insurance policy against drought," said Archuleta.

He also preached a gospel of conservation. He established community outreach programs with a mascot known as Willie the Water Drop and created a museum about water for area children to visit and learn where their water came from.

The city paid residents to turn their grassy yards into rockscapes. The local El Paso paper published the names of high water users.

When Archuleta retired in 2013, water consumption had dropped by about 35% per person. El Paso uses less total water now than it did 24 years ago, despite having 170,000 more people to serve.

Drinking treated sewage

Today El Paso is ready to take the next step in expanding their water portfolio. They are building a closed loop system that will treat sewage water and turn it directly into drinking water. Among water professionals, it's called "direct potable reuse" or "advanced purification."

"It's the logical next step for us to take," said Gilbert Trejo, the chief technical officer of El Paso Water.

Currently, El Paso, Orange County, California, Scottsdale, Arizona and several other utilities around the country treat sewage water and then pump it back into the aquifer to ultimately drink. Trejo says it can take about 5 years for the water to filter through the ground before being pumped back out and treated to the standards of clean drinking water.

This treated water is also frequently used for irrigation and industrial purposes.

El Paso is currently building a completely closed loop facility, where instead of being pumped back into the aquifer, the treated sewage water will undergo additional filtration and then be sent back into drinking water pipelines.

"We see this water that's clear and it's of good quality," Trejo explained to Gupta. "The next thing for us to do is to take a high quality water we produce at a state-of-the-art facility and then treat it a little bit more with multiple treatment processes so we can drink it."

According to the EPA, the amount of wastewater produced in large cities can represent 50% to 60% of the total water supplied, providing a massive resource for cities like El Paso that are scouring for water.

To make sure the water is clean of any pathogens or microbes, treated sewage water is sent through multiple steps of filtration, including UV and carbon filtration. Studies have found that treated water is, in fact, less likely to have contaminants than untreated river or lake water.

Previous efforts by other municipalities in Texas and California to use "direct potable reuse" haven't always gotten off the ground because of the "ickiness" factor. Community buy-in is key to getting these projects launched, said Justin Mattingly of the Water Research Foundation. "These are public agencies. They belong to the public. So you might as well ingratiate the public as well."

Archuelta's legacy of water conservation and education has primed El Paso for this moment.

"Everybody sees that we're in the desert that we're in an arid climate. Rain is scarce ... so when we tell our customers that we're doing everything possible and using every water resource around us to treat and make it safe for consumption, they take it pretty well."

By 2030, El Paso Water expects that desalination will produce 10% of their water supply and 6% will of come from advanced purification.

Trejo told Gupta that it's not just the future for El Paso, it's the future for many other cities also faced with having to look for water.

"Technology allows us to treat [water] to a very high standard and makes it very safe to drink. Water really is all around us in every city."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 293542

Reported Deaths: 6638
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto19560229
Hinds18674385
Harrison16512276
Rankin12595262
Jackson12451217
Lee9663160
Madison9400195
Jones7891145
Forrest7140136
Lauderdale6784225
Lowndes6008137
Lamar584480
Lafayette5707113
Washington5159128
Bolivar4594120
Oktibbeha439991
Panola426892
Pearl River4116128
Warren4114113
Pontotoc407368
Marshall399492
Monroe3980126
Union392873
Neshoba3767166
Lincoln3464100
Hancock339973
Leflore3358118
Sunflower317185
Tate300874
Pike298393
Scott292567
Alcorn290360
Itawamba288871
Yazoo283862
Tippah275665
Copiah274557
Coahoma272766
Simpson271778
Prentiss268658
Leake251770
Wayne251340
Marion250778
Covington247878
Grenada245876
Adams233277
George230645
Newton224751
Winston220275
Jasper211844
Tishomingo211765
Attala206269
Chickasaw200650
Holmes181670
Clay178149
Stone171429
Tallahatchie169839
Clarke168671
Calhoun156428
Smith151831
Yalobusha142936
Greene126833
Walthall123540
Noxubee122729
Perry121434
Montgomery121237
Lawrence119321
Carroll117623
Amite110832
Webster109929
Jefferson Davis100531
Tunica98623
Claiborne97729
Benton93124
Humphreys91626
Kemper89522
Quitman77014
Franklin75519
Choctaw69516
Wilkinson62226
Jefferson61427
Sharkey48817
Issaquena1676
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 491110

Reported Deaths: 9831
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson706291356
Mobile35894721
Madison32255442
Tuscaloosa23996409
Montgomery22462494
Shelby21820215
Baldwin19670274
Lee14900150
Morgan13599249
Calhoun13175285
Etowah13143319
Marshall11226206
Houston10048259
Elmore9337183
Limestone9335134
Cullman8869179
St. Clair8783220
Lauderdale8581210
DeKalb8429174
Talladega7481163
Walker6504251
Jackson6477102
Autauga620389
Blount6086125
Colbert5978118
Coffee5230102
Dale4621106
Russell401831
Franklin397876
Covington3956106
Chilton384298
Escambia377172
Tallapoosa3572141
Clarke342949
Dallas3397141
Chambers3392108
Pike293071
Lawrence281384
Marion280894
Winston246166
Bibb244260
Geneva238670
Marengo233354
Pickens223954
Barbour209951
Hale208868
Fayette199756
Butler195165
Henry182041
Cherokee176438
Monroe165938
Randolph163140
Washington156634
Crenshaw143554
Clay143354
Macon140943
Cleburne136839
Lamar131732
Lowndes130648
Wilcox120825
Bullock116336
Conecuh106523
Perry105327
Sumter98431
Coosa87823
Greene87032
Choctaw54823
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