The next calling for the man whose water plan secured El Paso’s future

Updated: Wednesday, July 17 2013, 01:59 PM MDT
The next calling for the man whose water plan secured El Paso’s future story image

By: John Purvis

He changed the habits of most El Pasoans, helped make life better for many others outside the city, and may have done more to secure our economic future than just about any other El Pasoan.

Ed Archuleta is about to embark on another massive challenge.

Archuleta, who's retiring from the El Paso Water Utilities, may be the most unassuming mover and shaker anyone will ever meet, but some don't know what he's done since he moved to El Paso.

"In 1989, when I came here, I think we were serving maybe 475,000 people or so, something like that. Today, we figure with our in-city population, plus all the areas we serve outside the city, probably close to 750,000 people. But we're using the same amount of water every year," Archuleta said.

The city is growing fast and is prepared to handle even more, but when Archuleta first took the helm of the EPWU 24 years ago, the city's main water supply, the Hueco Bolson, was depleting, there was a legal fight over water in N.M. and famers controlled what flowed through the Rio Grande. Some studies predicted the city's water supply would dry up in 2015.

"El Paso's running out of water, and that was basically known through the Pentagon too. At Fort Bliss, you know? Fort Bliss had that stigma," he said.

Archuleta aimed to end the stigma and secure El Paso's economic future with an adequate water supply, but the city didn't have a plan.

"So, I was able to convince the board fairly early to support a 50-year plan for water," Archuleta said.

The plan began with conservation. El Pasoans have gotten used to only watering at certain times on certain days. It's why residents see more native plants and desert landscaping and their homes have more water-efficient appliances. Archuleta then found a way to tap another water source – the Rio Grande.

"Now, what that did is it said conservation's got to come first. Why not start an aggressive conservation program, work with the farmers, work with the irrigation district, and see if we can build another plant and use more surface water when it's available?" Archuleta said.

Reclaiming and recycling water came next by using it to keep local parks and golf courses green, as well as provide the massive amounts of water the El Paso Electric Power Plants need.

Finally, he convinced the public service board, which governs the water company, to fund the world's largest inland desalination plant to remove salt from the massive amounts of brackish water available in the borderland and make it drinkable.

"Because the strategy was, let's don't put all of our eggs in one basket like we have, just groundwater mining. Let's use everything that's available to us. We call it total water management or integrated water resource management," Archuleta said.

The strategy worked. Water is now replenishing the Hueco Bolson. El Pasoans use a third less water than they did 20 years ago, and Fort Bliss, which came close to closing in the 90s, is now one of the Army's biggest posts.

Archuleta is also proud of the Tech H20 Center the public service board created in east El Paso next to the desalination plant. He believes education is an essential part of smart water management. Thousands visit the site every year from local students to engineers from around the world, in an effort to learn how to preserve an oasis.

"It's a desert. We don't get much rain. We're on the border, We have different ways with how we manage water among three different states, including Chihuahua," Archuleta said.

Archuleta made it a point to reach out to Juarez water managers and help the sister city move from a time when raw sewage flowed through open canals to where there is wastewater treatment and water conservation.

One of the things he's most proud of is getting water to the Colonias.

"When I came here, you used to read numbers, 100,000 people out of water, don't have water in Colonias outside the city. And that seemed to me like a travesty," Archuleta said.

Archuleta helped thousands of families in the county get running water in their homes.

One of his most challenging moments came when the floods hit in the summer of 2006.

"There was no plan. And if you don't have a plan, and a developer comes in, you do it piecemeal, right?" Archuleta said.

The city again called on Archuleta to come up with a plan and lead the city's new stormwater utility by using a new fee to build better flood control infrastructure, maintain the drains and preserve natural water carriers like arroyos.

"I would say, certainly by the year 2020, and probably sooner, we will have mitigated a huge amount of that risk and be in good shape," he said.

Archuleta has already turned over the reins of EPWU and the public service board to his longtime colleague John Balliew and he officially retires July 1.

Archuleta is already working on his next job as a member of the board of managers that now run the El Paso Independent School District, and again, he has a plan.

"But one of the things long term, in my opinion, is to change the culture. And that's going to require different strategies to change the culture. But there's no reason why the school district, down the road, couldn't be the best performing district in the state."

After finding a first-rate superintendent for EPISD, Archuleta believes the board should focus on helping principals and teachers take back control of their schools with less meddling from district headquarters.

"My feeling is to give the resources to the teachers and to the people at the ground level where the rubber meets the road."

Archuleta was not able to attend the swearing-in of the board of managers Tuesday night because he's in Perth, Australia offering his advice to water managers on how to preserve their oasis.

The next calling for the man whose water plan secured El Paso’s future
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