Photo courtesy EPWater
The start of 2022 marked a major milestone in El Paso Water’s response to the Frontera Force Mains Wastewater Emergency.
Just days into the new year, crews began pumping wastewater into the newly replaced Frontera pipeline to the John T. Hickerson Water Reclamation Facility, which had been partially operating since August.
In mid-August, the two Frontera parallel mains broke in several places, forcing EPWater to make a difficult decision to divert wastewater to the Rio Grande. The diversion meant virtually no wastewater was delivered to the Hickerson plant for treatment.
“To have a wastewater plant not operating to its capacity is a rare occasion for EPWater,” said Gilbert Trejo, Interim Chief Operating Officer. “The utility has experienced many firsts after the Frontera wastewater line breaks.”
The Frontera Force Main pipelines, located near Sunland Park Drive and Doniphan Drive, carry wastewater from more than 110,000 Westside residents to the Hickerson Facility. On average, the lines carry about 10 million gallons of wastewater every day.
“In the 30 or so years that I have been here, we’ve never experienced a complete shutdown of the plant,” said Fred Murillo, Hickerson Superintendent.
When the Hickerson plant stopped taking in wastewater, it opened opportunities to improve the facility. “As soon as we went offline, we started preparing so we’d be ready to start up as soon as it was needed,” Murillo said.
Instead of treating wastewater, employees focused on making repairs and upgrades to parts of the plant that needed maintenance. Murillo called it a “blessing in disguise.”
Microbes, also known as “bugs,” live in large aeration basins where wastewater is pushed through in the treatment process. The microbes eat the organic waste material.
For the last several months, wastewater from other EPWater plants was hauled to Hickerson so the microbes had enough food to survive.
“We had to make sure the bugs were kept alive,” Murillo said.
Before the start-up of the plant, operation managers made calculated decisions to gradually pump low volumes of wastewater through the Frontera pipelines and into the Hickerson plant.
“As we test the wastewater lines, we want to ensure the microbes at the plant acclimate to treating more wastewater,” Trejo said. “We don’t want to shock the system with a full load of wastewater.”
As wastewater was sent to Hickerson, less wastewater was diverted to the river – an estimated 4 million gallons per day.
In the coming days, more wastewater will be pushed into Hickerson until it is treating 17.5 million gallons daily and discharging cleaned water back into the Rio Grande, as it did before the wastewater emergency.
“Our employees are ready to operate this plant to its full potential once again,” Murillo said.
With Hickerson up and running, EPWater is one step closer to completely stopping the discharge of wastewater into the Rio Grande, but there is still more work to be done.