El Paso was “drought-proof.” Climate change is pushing its limits.

While farmers rely on the Rio Grande for irrigation, much of the water that El Paso’s residents drink actually comes from aquifers deep below ground. These critical water sources are also in jeopardy. 

In 1979, the Texas Water Development Board projected that El Paso would run out of groundwater by 2031. At that time, each resident was using, on average, over 200 gallons of water per day. Most of that water was being pulled from the city’s two aquifers—the Hueco Bolson to the east and the Mesilla Bolson to the west.

For the next two decades, the water utility launched a campaign encouraging residents to use less water by, among other things, replacing their lawns with native plants. Today, average water use is down to 134 gallons per person per day. That’s still higher than the US national average of 82 gallons but lower than usage in some other places in the country with similarly dry climates, like Arizona (145 gallons) and Utah (169 gallons).

The aquifers are in better shape as a result—somewhat. “The water level is dropping, but it’s not dropping like a rock,” says Scott Reinert, the resources manager of El Paso Water. Still, more water is coming out of the aquifer than going back in. 

El Paso Water pumps between 40,000 and 50,000 acre-feet of water from the Hueco Bolson every year and replaces about 5,000 acre-feet annually. (An acre-foot is an unwieldy unit of measurement used by water utilities—it’s enough water to cover an acre of land, or just over half a soccer field, with a foot of water.) There’s also some natural recharge from other groundwater and the river, but it’s likely not enough to keep up with pumping. 

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