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Meeting Water Needs at Rio Bosque: Strategies Involving EPWU

Meeting Water Needs at Rio Bosque: Strategies Involving EPWU

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Published by jimhtolbert434
White paper published by John Sproul on October 25, 2011
White paper published by John Sproul on October 25, 2011

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Published by: jimhtolbert434 on Oct 19, 2012
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Meeting Water Needs at Rio Bosque Wetlands Park:Strategies Involving El Paso Water Utilities
John SproulCenter for Environmental Resource ManagementUniversity of Texas at El Paso25 October 2011In 1997, site-preparation work took place at El Paso’s Rio Bosque Park for an ambitious project to createwetland habitat. The spark that initiated this project was a 1993 commitment from the U.S. Section of theInternational Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) to mitigate habitat losses associated with theAmerican Canal Extension by creating 30 acres of shallow-water emergent wetland. The USIBWC andthe U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had identified Rio Bosque as the preferred site for this mitigationproject.That original mitigation commitment stimulated a proposal in 1995 from the office of the Texas RioGrande Compact Commissioner and Ducks Unlimited for a larger wetland project at Rio Bosque. Itwould involve the entire 372-acre park and create some 234 acres of wetland habitat. The work carriedout in 1997 was intended to implement this larger project.Today, although up to 100 acres are flooded at Rio Bosque in late fall and early winter, the park supports just 1 acre of wetland habitat. During most of the year, including throughout the growing season, the parkis almost completely dry. The conditions needed for development of wetland habitat are not present.This paper is divided into two sections. Section 1 summarizes the history of the wetlands project at RioBosque Park, which is helpful for understanding the gap between the original goals for the project andcurrent conditions. Section 2 focuses on water at Rio Bosque. It discusses:
water availability since the start of the project,
projects underway to bring additional water to the park,
volumes of water needed to achieve management goals at Rio Bosque, and
five potential strategies for securing water during the critical growing season.Other strategies exist as well, but the common feature of the five strategies discussed here is that ElPaso Water Utilities would be an essential participant in each.
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Section 1. Park History
 
The Creation of Rio Bosque Park
In 1973, the U.S. Bureau of Outdoor Recreationtransferred a 276.92-acre parcel of land known asU.S. Parcel #18 to the City of El Paso under theFederal Lands to Parks program. Rio BosquePark was born. In 1977, a second transfer underthe Lands to Parks program added 9.08 acres tothe park. The City of El Paso later added 86 acresof surrounding land to bring Rio Bosque to itspresent size of 372 acres.Initial plans for Rio Bosque envisioned a mix ofdeveloped recreational areas and undevelopednatural areas, but no funds were available todevelop the site. Over the years, the conceptchanged to management of the entire park as anatural area and wildlife refuge.In 1980, El Paso Water Utilities (EPWU) wasconsidering expansion of the Socorro WastewaterTreatment Plant immediately south of Rio Bosque.The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), in itscomments on EPWU’s plans, suggested usingtreated effluent from the expanded plant to supportwetlands at Rio Bosque.Ultimately, the Socorro Plant was not expanded. Itwas taken out of operation and replaced by theRoberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plantimmediately north of Rio Bosque. The idea ofusing treated effluent to maintain wetlands at RioBosque was put on hold, but it was not forgotten.
The American Canal Extension
Built in the mid-to-late 1990s, the American CanalExtension involved reconstruction of 3.2 miles ofexisting canal and construction of 12.1 miles ofnew concrete-lined canal paralleling the RioGrande between downtown El Paso and theheading of the Riverside Canal, immediately northof the Jonathan Rogers Water Treatment Plant.Water carried in the American Canal Extension isdischarged to the Riverside Canal, from which itcan be delivered either to downstream irrigators orto the Jonathan Rogers Plant for treatment formunicipal and industrial use.The original partners in the American CanalExtension project were the U.S. Section of theInternational Boundary and Water Commission(USIBWC) and El Paso County Water Improve-ment District No. 1 (El Paso #1). In July 1996,EPWU also joined the project because of itspotential to make additional water available formunicipal and industrial use.One of the main purposes of the American CanalExtension was to capture water that formerlyseeped from the bed of the Rio Grande as itflowed through El Paso. During much of the year,the entire flow of the river is now diverted into theAmerican Canal Extension. The riverbed belowdowntown El Paso is dry. El Paso #1 estimatedthat, during the 2000 irrigation season, some29,928 acre-feet of water were “salvaged” bydiversion into the concrete-lined canal.As a federally funded water project, the AmericanCanal Extension was subject to the requirementsof the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act. Underthat act, the USFWS evaluated the project anddeveloped mitigation recommendations. TheUSFWS concluded the project would affect 164acres of upland habitat and 12 acres ofherbaceous wetland. It recommended creation of30 acres of wetland habitat to offset negativeimpacts of the project, with Rio Bosque thepreferred site.In its 1993 environmental assessment for theAmerican Canal Extension, the USIBWC adoptedthe USFWS recommendation:
As a mitigation measure, the U.S. Section would replace acreage lost as a result of the proposed RGACE by construction of a shallow water emergent wetland approximately 12.1hectares (30.0 acres) in size either on a site in Rio Bosque Park, currently owned and operated by the City of El Paso Parks and Recreation Department, or on a site yet to be determined but mutually acceptable to both the Service and the U.S. Section. Such mitigation will be an integral part of the RGACE and will be completed concurrently with other project features.
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The Riverside Wildlife Refuge Area
The USIBWC’s commitment to create wetlandhabitat at Rio Bosque stimulated thinking aboutthe possibility of a larger wetland project. InJanuary 1995, the office of the Texas Rio GrandeCompact Commissioner, in conjunction with DucksUnlimited, began circulating a conceptual proposalfor a “Riverside Wildlife Refuge Area.” This areawould include all of Rio Bosque Park and also 250acres of reconfigured sewage oxidation ponds atthe decommissioned Socorro WastewaterTreatment Plant. El Paso #1 and EPWU werecontemplating using these ponds as regulatingreservoirs to capture available water from the RioGrande during periods of higher than normalflows.Under this larger proposal, treated effluent fromthe Bustamante Plant would first be routedthrough Rio Bosque to support wetland habitat,then delivered to the ponds at the Socorro Plantsite, which would also be managed in part tomaximize their value as waterfowl habitat.In the ensuing months, representatives of anumber of agencies and organizations met todiscuss the feasibility of such a project and how toimplement it. The name morphed first to RiversideWetlands Refuge Area, then to Rio BosqueWetland Refuge. A preliminary plan emerged.Ducks Unlimited, in conjunction with the USFWS,began work on engineering designs for the project.Participants in the planning included the RioGrande Compact Commission-Texas, DucksUnlimited, the USIBWC, the USFWS, EPWU, ElPaso #1, the City of El Paso’s Parks andRecreation Department and Planning Department,and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR).Due to uncertainty over when the Socorro Plantponds might be reconfigured as regulatingreservoirs, the preliminary plan focused just on RioBosque. The Socorro Plant site was simply shownas Phase II.The plan involved:
rebuilding an old bend of the Rio Grande thatwound through the park for approximately 2miles;
creating 3 large, shallow basins, totaling 234acres, that could be flooded by diverting waterfrom the old river channel; and
installng water-control structures to carry outsuch diversions.The source of water for the wetlands was to be theRoberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant.Treated effluent from the plant would bedischarged to the Riverside Intercepting Drain, anEl Paso #1 facility that parallels the Rio Grande onthe west side of the plant. At the northwest cornerof Rio Bosque Park, a water-control structurewould be installed in the drain. Here, the waterwould be diverted into the old river channel withinthe park. After the water had flowed through thepark, it would be returned to the drain.The USIBWC was supportive of this project thatwas much larger than its original commitment tocreate 30 acres of wetland habitat. In July 1995, itsubmitted a mitigation assessment to the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers for planned maintenancedredging on the Rio Grande Rectification Project(the channelized portion of the Rio Grandebetween El Paso and near Fort Quitman). In thatdocument, the USIBWC stated:
The USIBWC believes this coordinated effort is of such vital importance to this area that we are prepared to increase our level of participation in the Rio Bosque Park wetland project to mitigate for the permitted excavation of sediment from the Rectification Project.
Who Would Manage the Site?
In 1996, all of the pieces for a wetland project atRio Bosque were falling into place...with oneexception. None of the partners planning theproject were willing to assume the responsibilityfor long-term management of the site.Ultimately, the University of Texas at El Paso(UTEP) was approached. UTEP saw the potentialenvironmental, research, education, recreationand tourism benefits of the wetland project andagreed to serve as manager of the site. In July1996, Mayor Larry Francis affirmed the City’swillingness for UTEP to assume this role. The Cityand UTEP began drafting a 30-year licenseagreement, which the City Council approved onNovember 5, 1996.
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