Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

2021 was a turbulent year for the climate and environment of El Paso

Despite a winter storm and historic monsoon season in El Paso, 2021 is well on its way to becoming the ninth warmest on records dating back to 1887.

Climate change shows a warming in the region’s average annual temperature – meaning more hot days and hotter nights – with the last quarter of a century noticeably hotter.

According to National Weather Service records, it has been four of the five warmest years in El Paso since 2016. Eighteen of the 20 warmest years on record have passed since 1993.

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The dramatic warming from climate change increases the strength of storms by packing more moisture into warmer air. But it also changes the weather at the atmospheric level by reducing sea ice, which can create a blanket of cold air over the United States.

The winter storm that devastated Texans in February, causing hundreds of deaths and billions in damage, is related to atmospheric changes destabilizing the polar vortex, and climate change means this type of cold snap can be more common.

Most of the storm missed El Paso, but it was the coldest time of the year, with lows of 14 degrees and highs in the 1930s and 40s. El Pasoans will see higher gas bills to reimburse utilities for costs incurred during winter storm Uri.

Meteorologist Jason Grzywacz, from the National Weather Service’s El Paso office, said El Paso dried up after the February snowfall and had seen no significant rain until the end of June.

“In those four months we had less than half an inch of rain,” said Grzywacz.

El Paso wasn’t the only one drying up. The snowpack in the mountains of southeast Colorado and northern New Mexico was only 40% of normal at its peak in April. And hotter, sun-burned soils seep away the melted snow before it can reach the river bed. All of this means less water in the river for people and wildlife downstream.

Prior to the irrigation season, New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir was only 11% capacity and held water for Mexico and the farmers in southern New Mexico and Far West Texas. The farmers only saw a fraction of the “usual allocation” of irrigation water, as the river did not flow until June, months later than in previous years.

Heat and rain

June brought the heat. There were 17 days above 100 degrees, including a nine-day streak where the daily highs were in the triple digits, putting children and other vulnerable people at risk.

The hottest day was June 20th with a high of 109 degrees. The need for air conditioning and hot conditions put a strain on El Paso’s power grid and resulted in blackouts in Las Cruces and El Paso. But Ciudad Juarez has faced even more extreme power outages and water losses due to conditions that spoiled food and ruined equipment for the people of Anapra.

The end of June brought the monsoons and floods. In June, parts of El Paso received more than 15 centimeters, more than two-thirds of the average annual amount in days. With the monsoon season in July and August, there was more rain and the floods remained stagnant for weeks, which posed a public health risk.

As rivers shrink from climate change, Texas and New Mexico are embroiled in a year-long legal battle over the waters of the Rio Grande. A trial began in October and will continue in spring 2022.

The region may become more dependent on diminishing groundwater and must raise money to finance expensive alternatives.

El Paso remains at the forefront of climate change and experts are concerned about the regional impact on human health. Building an infrastructure to secure future water and prevent flooding from stronger storms already costs El Pasoans costs.

There are already concerns about river levels for the next year, but experts say changing our water management, working across borders, and ending our dependence on fossil fuels can mean a different climatic future not just for the Southwest but for the world.

Climate change concerns

Since 1880, the global average temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit). Without drastic cuts in fossil fuels over the next few years, climate scientists predict that the earth could see global temperatures rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by the mid-2030s.

In El Paso, the annual temperatures from 2000 to 2021 averaged 19.1 degrees Celsius. That is 3 degrees Fahrenheit and 1.7 degrees Celsius warmer than in the same period a century before.

In August, climate scientists called on global governments to limit greenhouse gases by reducing carbon dioxide emissions to net zero and “reducing methane, which is produced in natural gas production,” quickly and sustainably.

El Paso Electric continues to rely on fossil fuels for most of its power generation. The company reached a settlement in August that would allow it to build an additional natural gas facility in northeast El Paso, against objections from environmental groups.

El Paso Electric currently generates 66% of its electricity from natural gas, 29% from nuclear power and 5% from sun and wind. The company has promised to increase solar power to 16% by 2023 and reduce emissions by decommissioning older gas-fired power plants that were built to stricter federal standards. The company is researching hydrogen energy in Newman 6, which is touted as the green solution for the future. Hydrogen production is currently obtained using natural gas, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide.

Almost three-quarters of global emissions come from the energy sector, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an independent, Virginia-based nonprofit that works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Other environmental concerns

Another regional problem is air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency has given El Paso county a poor rating for its air quality, which affects neighboring Doña Ana county, which could affect future development and emissions.

Another public health problem broke out in August after two sewers broke on the west side of El Paso and reached people’s homes. El Paso Water found that the only option was to divert sewage from the drains, showers and toilets of 17,500 people into the river bed of the Rio Grande.

On October 13, the Rio Grande carries untreated wastewater from West El Paso downstream. El Paso Water has diverted approximately 10 million gallons of wastewater into the river every day since the Frontera Force pipelines were disrupted in August. (Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)

The utility has worked to treat the wastewater by pumping it downstream from the river, but questions remain about the impact on wildlife and toll payers. The construction of a replacement line was completed on Wednesday, and the diversions to the Rio Grande are due to end in January. Federal officials sent a letter in early December asking the utility company to provide more information about the leak.

Cover picture: Contamination in the air blocks the view over the border triangle on December 14 (Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)

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