Notes from El Paso: Water & Economic Development in the Desert

Last week I heard an entirely different story about the Texas-Mexico border at the Global Border Summit hosted by the Borderplex Alliance in El Paso. This was not about immigration or national security. Rather, the themes of international trade and economic development were ascendant, signaling major opportunities for the far west Texas region. 

This is a good Texas-Mexico border story. Its success, however, hinges on finding water in the desert.

Interestingly, this story starts with geopolitical instability abroad. China’s economic crisis, turbulence in the Middle East and the war in Ukraine have prompted many industries to bring their operations closer to or within the United States. This phenomenon, known as “nearshoring,” offers the dividends of jobs, capital investment and economic growth for El Paso and its sister city Juarez across the Rio Grande in Mexico. 

But there are several key ingredients for making nearshoring work. Dallas Federal Reserve Senior Vice President and Texas 2036 board member, Roberto Coronado listed these ingredients in his remarks at the Summit. They include available and affordable electricity, a qualified workforce and the availability of water.

Unsurprisingly, water is a big deal in El Paso. The city’s crown of dark brown mountains testify to its residence in the southwestern desert. Droughts are frequent, and the availability of water from the Rio Grande and the Elephant Butte reservoir may be challenged at times.

These natural challenges, combined with the need for reliable water supplies to support the region’s economy, have spurred both remarkable innovation and water supply portfolio diversification by El Paso Water. I had the opportunity to discuss these strategies as part of a panel discussion at the Summit with John Balliew, President and CEO of El Paso Water; Gilbert Trejo, Vice President of Engineering for EP Water; and Joseph Riccillo, Vice President and El Paso Regional Director for Sundt Construction.

On the innovation side, El Paso is home to the world’s largest inland desalination facility – the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant – capable of desalinating 27.5 million gallons of brackish groundwater per day. The utility also operates a groundwater recharge project that stores treated wastewater within a local aquifer and recently broke ground on a similar project.

Beyond desalination and aquifer recharge, El Paso Water has expanded its water supply portfolio through the purchase of groundwater rights and the implementation of an aggressive water conservation program. According to the utility’s recent water conservation plan, per capita water use has declined to 128 gallons per day.

This water supply portfolio diversification with a strong eye to drought resilience has supported the city’s growth and development. In fact, a summit about El Paso’s role in nearshoring and international trade would have been pointless if the region’s current and future water supplies were in doubt. Water infrastructure and economic development go hand in hand. 

Still, water challenges, like the mounted cowboys in Marty Robbins’ eponymous ballad, lie ahead. These include the need for developing a qualified water workforce and continued investment in water infrastructure. In the meantime, there are good lessons to be learned from the story in El Paso.