How El Paso Uses Advanced Tech to Catch and Stop Water Polluters
A mysterious pollutant was swirling beneath the streets in one corner of El Paso.
Our everyday utility monitoring revealed that high levels of heavy metals – mercury, copper, nickel and aluminum – were flowing through local sewers into one of our four wastewater plants. This was a troubling discovery.
Because we live in the Chihuahuan Desert, every drop of water is precious. For our city to grow and prosper, we increasingly must purify and recycle water whenever possible. Industrial pollution in our wastewater threatens our health and increases water treatment costs for the rest of our law-abiding citizens.
At many US water utilities, the discovery of unauthorized discharges into sewer systems can lead to long and expensive investigations and litigation. Who is the polluter? It’s not always an easy question to answer. Fortunately, though, El Paso Water already embraced an advanced technology that allowed us to track the pollution to its source – a jewelry manufacturer just off Interstate 10.
What we use is a kind of CSI for El Paso wastewater, a high-tech monitoring system so precise that it allows us to track big dumps, little leaks – in real time via our laptops and desktops. Our manhole monitors and sensors showed when pollution levels were rising. Our clean-water engineers kept moving upstream in our underground pipes, and then further sampling helped us pinpoint the culprit.
The evidence of pollution was overwhelming. Because the business would not abide by El Paso Water rules and regulations, it was cut off from the privilege of our water and wastewater service. That industrial water pollution has stopped.
El Paso has become a national leader among utilities for using technology to protect valuable water supplies. Our advanced wastewater monitoring system is being deployed at a crucial time.
We continuously strengthen our water resources to prepare for the ongoing river drought. Our lifeblood, the Rio Grande, has been running dry so often that some frustrated farmers have started to call it the Rio Sand. A study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Sandia National Laboratories, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasts that water supplies will worsen: Flows on the Upper Rio Grande headwaters in the Colorado Rockies are expected to decrease 50 percent in the next 70 years.
As a result, El Paso Water is planning for a worst-case scenario: How to accommodate the needs of a vibrant and growing hometown without relying on any supplies from the Rio Grande.
It’s not easy to do more with less. Importing water from other regions, though sometimes necessary, comes at a greater cost. So the big push is on El Paso to make the best and efficient use of the water supplies we already have.
What’s crucial for us is water reuse. Purified water is a sustainable, drought-proof resource. As El Paso’s population increases, we will have more available wastewater to treat and recycle. Within the next seven years, El Paso Water plans to accommodate half of all new water needs for the city at the future Advanced Water Purification Facility, where treated wastewater will be transformed into fresh drinking water. The city could eventually support as many as 40,000 new households just through water reuse at several facilities.
To be useful, though, this new recycled water supply must be safe and clean. Water disposed of into our sewers must be thoroughly purified to drinking water standards before it can ever flow from a home faucet. The dirtier the wastewater, the harder we must work – and the more we must spend – to clean it. That old saying is right: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
For El Paso, engineers at Kando water engineering designed a monitoring system that provides instantaneous pollution monitoring and artificial intelligence analysis of wastewater trends. The technology can detect minute changes in the composition of wastewater flows – including a surge in industrial heavy metals like mercury, copper, and aluminum.
Because everyone flushes, showers, and washes hands, wastewater can tell much about the health trends of a community. Besides tracking pollution, the new wastewater technology can be used to monitor the spread of viral outbreaks like COVID, as well as the use of illegal drugs such as cocaine, opioids, and ecstasy, as well as dumping by methamphetamine labs. It also can detect and flag leaks and clogs in underground pipes.
We also believe the tech creates a big deterrence for other would-be polluters. It’s like having an unblinking cop on the beat with access to vast amounts of instantaneous evidence.
El Paso can’t have the economic growth and prosperity we desire without a safe and efficient water system. Ongoing drought makes every drop of water even more precious.
We all benefit by protecting the water that flows through our homes and businesses. El Paso Water is committed to protect the wastewater that flows beneath our streets, too.
Gilbert Trejo is vice president of Engineering, Operations & Technical Services for El Paso Water.