EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – The messy, muddy and smelly aftermath of nearly five months of sewage spillage into the Rio Grande has El Paso Water and several partners rushing to clean up ahead of the upcoming irrigation season.

El Paso Water, along with the El Paso County Water Improvement District and several hired contractors started cleanup efforts late January through early February.

Gilbert Trejo, the Interim Chief Technical Officer with El Paso Water, told KTSM crews removed everything that was discharged by the wastewater into the river.

“Now with the river cleaned up, crews are going to be making their way downstream to continue to clean the river until there’s nothing else to clean,” said Trejo.

As KTSM previously reported, two wastewater pipes in El Paso’s Westside burst in August after severe storms. In December, El Paso Water made the final repairs to the Frontera wastewater line and by January, the John T. Hickerson Water Reclamation Facility was back up and running. This allowed for El Paso Water to stop diverting wastewater into the Rio Grande.

The El Paso County Water Improvement District is assisting El Paso Water in cleanup efforts.

“They operate the irrigation canal system here in El Paso. They are cleaning up the river site canal down in the Lower Valley,” said Trejo. “They are eager to start using and delivering water again to their customers so they’ll be cleaning up their side canal.”

El Paso Water is also working with an engineering consulting firm environmental experts called Arcadis. The International Boundary Water Commission gave the utility the green light to divert the water in August and it now gave clearance for the remediation efforts.

Trejo said crews cleaned out solids that were discharged into the river from the wastewater, along with the “sludge” which is a mix of muddy liquid and solid components.

“The biggest thing that we’ve we’ve encountered are wipes,” said Trejo. “Wipes, rags, are things that are very common to a wastewater collection system, they cause havoc with our pumps at our pumping stations. So while they weren’t causing havoc in our pumps, they were being discharged in the river throughout this time.

Aside from the wipes, the majority of what was going into the river was residential wastewater. Trejo said, fortunately, most of it is biodegradable.

“So all this material is biodegradable, it will it is organic-based, will be disinfected, even just naturally by the sun. It’s just a natural process,” said Trejo.

The utility is also working with the El Paso County Water Improvement District. Jesus Reyes, the general manager, said they are cleaning sludge out of the Riverside Canal, with hopes of finishing by May to June before the irrigation season starts around June 15th.

“This gives us ample time to do the cleanup in our canal and the disinfection of the raw sewage and so on,” Reyes said. “We don’t want any raw sewage or anything that was left after the water was taken out to contaminate any water we bring down in the future.”

Reyes said the Irrigation District had to cut off the water about two weeks early last summer when the wastewater was first going into the river.

“Because then it would have been an impact for our farmers for all those people that that depend on that irrigation water out of the river,” Reyes said.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told KTSM it continues monitoring the progress of the cleanup. A spokesperson with the TCEQ said the commission will also continue to assess any relevant violations associated with this incident.

“(The TCEQ) will conduct follow-up on-site investigations, as appropriate, to determine compliance with applicable state and federal environmental regulations,” a spokesperson told KTSM in a statement.

The TCEQ issued a Notice of Enforcement to El Paso Water Utilities Public Service Board on December 17, 2021 and is currently under development.

A spokesperson said when violations are serious enough to warrant a NOE, the TCEQ is authorized to enforce correction of the violations and to seek penalties to deter future noncompliance. TCEQ is authorized to pursue penalties through two types of enforcement actions:

  • An administrative order that is issued by the commission; or
  • A civil suit, including potential civil penalties, brought by the Office of the Attorney General on behalf of the commission.

El Paso Water updated the Public Service Board in early February on its remediation process and possible violations.

“Offsetting that is all the efforts we did to mitigate the damages,” EP Water President and CEO John Balliew told the Board. “So we’re not seen as a bad actor, this was the first time this happened, I think we’ll see something but hopefully not a big penalty that will come about.”

The United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission told KTSM it was aware of the situation when the pipelines burst and allowed El Paso Water to divert wastewater to the Rio Grande as an emergency response.

The USIBWC has scheduled a public meeting of the Rio Grande Citizens Forum on February 24, 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. via webinar to present El Paso Water remediation efforts.

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