• December 1, 2020
 Op-Ed: Communities can build disaster resilience together

Safe, reliable water service is essential for public health. El Paso Water lab employees perform more than 370,000 tests each year to ensure the city’s water is safe.

Op-Ed: Communities can build disaster resilience together

I have lived through floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, a volcano and now a pandemic.

Many times, I have been in the “right” place at the “right” time. I have learned that natural disasters threaten the survival of the host region and stretch its resiliency to its limits.

In Puerto Rico, where I grew up, we were susceptible to floods and hurricanes. To prepare for hurricanes, the resilience strategy of my middle-class family was buying a reinforced concrete house, which sat 5 feet above ground.

When an earthquake hit recently, many of those concrete structures on pillars collapsed. The resilience strategy had to be revised.

Taking measures

When we think of building resiliency in El Paso, it is not as clear-cut. We are not subject to natural disasters such as hurricanes.

Yet, El Pasoans learned from floods in 2006 and the record-breaking freeze in 2011 that preparedness pays. A stormwater utility was created, marking major infrastructure improvements for flood control.

The thriving city of Cape Town, South Africa, experienced an unprecedented water scarcity emergency in 2017-2018. Residents were asked to use no more than 13 gallons of water per person per day to avoid Day Zero, when the government would turn off the taps to conserve final supplies.

This is the minimum daily recommendation for domestic water needs by the United Nations.

In comparison, the daily per capita consumption in El Paso is 125 gallons per person per day. Thanks to the 2018 winter rainy season, Cape Town avoided Day Zero. We must continue to be vigilant to ensure this does not happen in El Paso.

The global Coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that reliable water service is essential for public health reasons, such as washing our hands for at least 20 seconds.

A community priority

In the Chihuahuan Desert of El Paso, there is comfort in knowing that EPWater’s critical facilities are staffed and operational during the current health crisis. The utility provides safe drinking water that we all can trust, eliminating the need to purchase bottled water.

EPWater is also preparing for a future when water will be scarce. It is projected that 40 states will have water shortages in the next decade.

I could talk about how EPWater has increased resiliency with a smart, diversified water supply – including desalination and water reuse – started under the leadership and vision of Ed Archuleta and expanded by current President and CEO John Balliew.

Our community must continue to make progressive investments in diversified water supplies, flood-control structures and technological systems, which enable the storage and movement of water around this city in all seasons and circumstances, 24/7.

However, infrastructure investments can be expensive. The Public Service Board has approved a 5% rate increase, effective this month. These decisions are never easy, but my experiences with natural disasters inform my decisions as a PSB member to support resilience. It’s a shared responsibility.

An informed community that knows how to prepare for natural events and mitigate disruptions is a resilient community. We must rely on the human infrastructure in which residents share critical life-saving information. This will not be the last time we experience a crisis of this magnitude.

In El Paso, let’s show we are prepared for the “when,” not the “if.” “When” is now.

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Ivonne Santiago is secretary-treasurer for the Public Service Board, which manages El Paso Water. Santiago is a clinical professor at the College of Engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso.

 

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