The Big Thirst

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 16 No. 4, "Flowers in the Desert Die." Find more from that issue here.

For its six-part series on water issues, the El Paso Herald-Post conducted research and interviews in Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua, Mexico. “The Big Thirst” appeared April 18-23, 1988. 

Investigative Reporting: Division Two (Sunday circulation from 30,000 to 100,000)

Second Prize: Paul J. Nyden of the Charleston Gazette for his almost daily revelations of the chicanery and pitifully weak regulation of the coal industry in West Virginia. Third Prize: Jamie Lucke and Ted Bryant of the Birmingham Post-Herald for tackling the Alabama tax structure and examining its inequities and areas for reform. Other Finalists: Mark Neikirk, Debra Ann Vance, T.C. Brown, Connie Remlinger, and William Weathers of the Kentucky Post for documenting rampant cronyism, vote buying, and educational mismanagement among county school boards. Billy Cox for his gripping stories in Florida Today on the “atomic veterans” who were at Ground Zero during various nuclear bomb tests — and who now suffer health problems alone, without government admission of culpability. 

El Paso — A devastating man-made drought awaits El Paso’s entry into the 21st century. Unless more water is found, the drought will occur with the depletion of the city’s main source of fresh water by 2032 — or sooner. 

The fear of a waterless future already embroils El Paso and New Mexico in a desperate, decade-old water war, and there’s no retreat or victory in sight for either side. In addition, a hidden battle for water under the arid Southwestern desert — documented and encouraged by the U.S. State Department — rages between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico. Both cities are pumping their main water supplies out of the same underground source. 

The deep Hueco Bolson, situated between the Franklin and Hueco mountains, was hailed as a 200-year water supply 30 years ago. But it may not last another 30 years at the present rate of furious pumping by El Paso and Juarez, some experts say. “Right now, it’s a battle of turbine pumps,” says Albert Utton, a law professor at the University of New Mexico and editor of the Natural Resources Journal. 

In Juarez, children die of dehydration each summer. It is a tragedy that is accepted as routine in areas where minimal needs for sanitary drinking water and sanitary sewer systems surge far ahead of the ability of the Mexican government to meet the needs. “Up until 1986, diseases due to dehydration and sanitation problems were the number one cause of pediatric and adult deaths,” says Dr. Emmanuel Apodaca, a physician with the Pan American Health Organization. 

In El Paso, water consumption is about 190 gallons a person daily. That’s four times more than the per-person amount for Juarez, and despite looming dramatic conservation efforts in El Paso, the gap is expected to widen. 

However, disease and the deterioration of El Paso’s quality of life are not deflected by international or municipal boundaries, say state and local health officials, who point out that epidemics result from polluted drinking water sources and supplies. The threat to health clearly exists among the swelling number of poor people who live just beyond the El Paso city limits. 

Water Board Deep in Land

The Public Service Board oversees El Paso’s consumption of about 33 billion gallons of water a year. It also owns vast land holdings — 35,189 acres — worth an estimated market value of more than $60 million. 

Almost all the land was bought during the 1950s to protect the city’s future water supply, but after four decades the board is vulnerable to one recurring criticism: it has molded its municipal water management and distribution policies to fit its role as El Paso County’ s biggest land speculator. For 36 years, the five-member board has been dominated by contractors, developers, or other people with significant real-estate interests. 

♦ The five-member board has never had fewer than two individuals with significant interests in real-estate development. 

♦ Since 1982, four members have had backgrounds that involve real-estate holdings and development or clients with sizable real-estate developments. 

♦ At least 14 of all 21 appointed members have been connected with real estate and development. The representation of developers during the aggregate 144 years of board membership amounts to 104 years. 

♦ Of the 11 mayors who have been on the board, former Mayor Fred Hervey and incumbent Mayor Jonathan Rogers — both with established real-estate and development-connected careers — have accounted for 12 years. 

Few criticisms meet with hotter rebuttals by present and some past board members than these: that the board perpetuates itself mainly for the benefit of real estate developers, and that the board is motivated by development. 

In his sixth year on the board, attorney Ellis Mayfield denies board favoritism toward development interests. “It’s just generally not so,” he says. “The developers are the ones that make the primary demands on us for service — that’s true. But how could it be otherwise? . . . 

“When they set up a new subdivision and it’s in the city, we have to provide the service to them. So, it’s logical that they [critics] will say that we are controlled by the developers. And, I guess, in effect we are. We go where the business is. We have to go where the business is, and the developers are the business,” Mayfield says. 

However, several former mayors who were on the board say the influence of developers is excessive. “I’ve always felt that they [developers] shouldn’t be on the board,’ ’says former Mayor Bert Williams, a board member from 1971 to 1973. “I felt they had an interest, and the question arises as to their partiality.” 

Water Wars 

“Whiskey’s fer drinkin’ — water’s fer fightin’.” So goes an old saying that over-romanticizes the bitter water feuds of the Old West. One feud led to the unsolved murder a hundred years ago of the harmless hermit Francois Jean Rochas, who homesteaded beneath the wild and rocky crags of Dog Canyon, 80 miles north of El Paso. The little Frenchman sparingly watered his cattle and small orchards from a tiny stream that still trickles down the canyon. Rochas’ envious neighbor was the powerful rancher and future New Mexico political giant Oliver Lee. Law officers never solved the Rochas murder; Lee eventually got his water. 

Water wars escalated in the 20th century, and like armed conflicts, they produce not only casualties but also a variety of allies and activists. In this generation’s water war, El Paso is fighting New Mexico. Mexico opposes the United States. U.S. farmers are fighting urban encroachment. Health officials oppose industrialists. Opponents of growth are fighting promoters of growth. Environmentalists fight regulations they consider to be lenient, while developers fight the same regulations as too rigid. 

Former El Paso Mayor Fred Hervey, credited with creating in 1952 the Public Service Board that oversees the water supply, thinks the crisis centers on quality and not quantity. “There’s plenty of different kinds of water underground. It’s enough to last 200 or 300 years. But it depends on how you treat it,” Hervey says. 

If El Paso loses the fight for New Mexico water, the city may be forced to begin expensive desalting of poorer-quality ground water. That would mean the next generation of El Pasoans will pay water bills at least 10 times higher than today’s bills. Losing the fight would also drastically change the way El Pasoans live. 

The Public Service Board already is preparing for that possibility, says board member Marshall St. John. “You’ll see very strict water-conservation regulations and penalties for violating those rules,” he predicts. “You will also see laws that require desert landscaping everywhere in town to cut down on water use. It will be drastic.” 

That is just the beginning. Economists and political scientists say that although the board boasts of providing water to El Pasoans at a “cheap” rate, the rate is a false one. “The next generation will have to pay much higher water bills to make up for the ‘cheap’ rates the board provides today to make the city attractive to growth and development,” says Dr. Helen Ingram, a University of Arizona water politics expert. “It’s a vicious circle: populations are doubling and tripling. There is accommodation for growth and development. Demands for water double and triple, and then it starts all over again.” 

Along with numerous other experts, Ingram testified during recent hearings in New Mexico against the Public Service Board’s applications to drill 287 wells across the state line. The board’s main water expert, Dr. Lee Wilson of Santa Fe, New Mexico, agreed with New Mexico’s experts about the predicted demise of the Hueco Bolson in 2032. Wilson’s research about groundwater pumping by El Paso and Juarez was presented to justify El Paso’s need for New Mexico’s groundwater. 

Wilson says the pumping of the Hueco could be occurring up to 50 times faster than the bolson can be refilled. The Hueco is refilled by nature and with treated sewage water from the board’s state-of-the-art plant in northeast El Paso. “So, it becomes real obvious what is going to happen,” Wilson says. “You’re going to run out of water.” 

Actually, the major target of El Paso’s continuing court duel with New Mexico isn’t the Hueco Bolson but rather the untapped Mesilla Bolson, which runs north-south from New Mexico into Mexico on the west side of the Franklin Mountains. Various U.S. water experts predict Mexico will beat El Paso and New Mexico to heavy pumping of the bolson. 

Law professor Utton and others warn of “disastrous” consequences of two situations: runaway groundwater pumping of the Mesilla and the lack of groundwater treaties between the United States and Mexico. “El Paso’s water needs are accelerating, and Juarez needs more and more, and they need it now,” says Professor Ryan Barilleaux, a former University of Texas-El Paso political scientist. 

“They [Mexico] will soon begin drilling in the Mesilla Bolson. It’s going to suck it out from under New Mexico real fast,” Barilleaux says. “The same thing is going to happen in the Hueco Bolson. So in a few years, El Paso is going to cease to exist if it doesn’t find a way to get some more water. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not like things are going to get better all of a sudden.”