Climate change drying up Rio Grande, experts say

El Paso has had to learn to not rely so much on this river

Climate change drying up Rio Grande, experts say

EL PASO, TX (CNN) - A major topic of discussion at the upcoming G-20 Summit in Argentina is climate change.

The Rio Grande, along the border between U.S. and Mexico, is drying up largely because climate change.

At a place where the Rio Grande, the mighty river, once flowed, now there is dust and sand instead of water.

The Rio Grande has been described by the New York Times as a “feast or famine” river, with a couple of dry years followed by wet years that help the river recover. But experts say climate change makes dry years are more extreme and the wet years less wet.

On one side of the river is El Paso, TX. Just across the border is Juarez, Mexico. There’s hardly any rain here, not much humidity, just dryness.

“So we were forecasted to run out of water by the year 2020,” said Ed Archuleta, who ran the water utility in El Paso when that dire prediction was made in 1989.

Back then, El Pasoans were using 200 gallons of water per person per day.

Archuleta’s first order of business was to simply preach conservation. Residents were paid to turn green lawns into brown desert landscapes.

It helped quite a bit. Today, El Pasoans have cut their water usage by 35 percent per person.

But still the river was becoming increasing dry, a troubling fact for a city that significantly relied on the river.

“There’s no question that I think that climate changes are affecting the Rio Grande,” Archuleta said.

Another example of climate change’s impact on the region can be found two hours upriver just outside of Truth Or Consequences, NM.

The Elephant Butte Dam was built in 1916. At times, the water has become so high that it would actually spill through the dam. Now it’s about three percent of the total capacity.

"What we are seeing is a systematic increase in temperature, so we’re seeing the snowmelt runoff earlier, in historical and more rapid melt than average. And again, for a given level of snowpack, less runoff actually reaching the river and reaching our reservoir here,” said Phil King, a professor of civil engineering at New Mexico State University.

King said “with very high confidence" that climate change is responsible for the drying.

The reservoir may fill again one day, but when it does, it probably won’t fill as quickly and the water will drain faster than ever before.

That is the thing about climate change. It doesn't happen drip by drip but with cycles that are continually getting worse and worse.

“I realize that we need to have the river water, when it was there, but in times of drought, we needed to have other avenues to be able to meet that,” Archuleta said.

To keep the major American city from going completely dry, despite being nowhere near a coast, they built the world's largest inland desalination plant.

It treats the brackish water underneath El Paso's main aquifers.

“It basically gives El Paso an insurance policy against drought,” Archuleta said.

Another more provocative step is creating a closed loop. It is exactly what it sounds like - treating sewage water and then sending it directly back into drinking water pipes, or toilet to tap.

The process starts by filtering out solids, like rags and wipes, out of raw sewage.

Then there are many levels of filtration and treatment for the bacteria, viruses and everything else.

It’s what is necessary to make El Paso drought-resistant.

Copyright 2018 CNN. All rights reserved. Raycom News Network contributed to this report.