| El Paso Water solidifies drought resilience with desalination plant expansion
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El Paso Water solidifies drought resilience with desalination plant expansion

El Paso Water is strengthening drought resilience by significantly expanding its Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, the world's largest inland facility of its kind. The desalination plant is part of the Texas utility’s water resources management strategy to ensure a reliable and drought-proof water supply in the arid region.

Expansion construction at El Paso desalination plantThe plant (pictured right), which has been in operation since 2007, taps into the vast supply of brackish groundwater found beneath El Paso. Once treated with reverse osmosis technology, this resource serves as part of the solution to the city's challenge of limited surface water supplies, and it provides around 10% of the roughly 40 billion gallons of water that El Paso consumes annually.

"Brackish water forms through evaporation over long periods of time,” said Scott Reinert, water resources manager at El Paso Water. “As surface water evaporates, salts are left behind. Over millennia, this process can concentrate those salts in the groundwater, making it brackish."

El Paso Water plans to boost the desalination plant's capacity as an ongoing regional drought threatens water availability.

“Our desalination plant is an extension of our groundwater supply,” Reinert said. “This expansion will be instrumental in preparing us for drought situations, especially when we experience less water from the Rio Grande.”

The expansion would increase capacity by 20% and produce up to 33 million gallons of potable water per day.

Challenges with concentrate and costs

A primary challenge associated with desalination is the management of the leftover concentrate, a highly saline byproduct. El Paso Water currently uses deep well injection, a method with minimal environmental impact. The utility is also exploring an innovative resource recovery solution.

“Byproduct recovery transforms a disposal challenge into a resource opportunity,” Reinert explained. “Valuable components like salt, lithium and gypsum could be extracted and sold, offsetting disposal costs.”

While desalination comes with higher costs compared to traditional water sources, El Paso Water emphasizes its long-term benefits in water security when communicating with its customers about rate increases.

“The cost of not having water far outweighs these investments,” Reinert said. “El Paso Water prioritizes transparent communication with customers, educating them about the necessity of these technologies for the community's future water security.”