Rio Grande and Elephant Butte

 Elephant Butte Reservoir Panorama by Richard Stephen Haynes

El Paso receives nearly half its annual water supply from the Rio Grande. River flows that arrive in El Paso primarily originate from snowmelt runoff in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. However, water delivery to El Paso is complex and regulated. With many communities depending on this source, water for all must be safeguarded.

Rio GrandeSpring runoff into the Rio Grande is eventually stored in Southern New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir before releases are made for irrigation and municipal use in southern New Mexico and the El Paso area.

The Rio Grande Compact – a congressional and tri-state agreement between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas – was signed in 1938 and equitably apportions the waters of the Rio Grande basin.

The Rio Grande Project, administered by the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation, manages dispatch of water from the reservoir to parts of New Mexico, Texas and Mexico in accordance with the Rio Grande Compact and international treaties. EPWater is a customer that receives water through the El Paso County Water Improvement District No.1.

Irrigation and water rights held by the utility determine how much water the utility receives. Water rights – often tied to land ownership—are rights of the user to a specified amount of water. In addition to the utility’s land ownership, EPWater leases additional rights from the Lower Valley Water District in exchange for a wholesale supply of potable water.


Drought impacts river water supply

What happens when there isn’t enough water for everyone to receive a full allocation? This is not uncommon in the arid Southwest.

When water in the reservoir is low, each customer is granted a percentage of their allocation based on the available supply.

With only nine inches of rain per year, some might think El Paso is in a perpetual state of drought. Yet, drought hurts El Paso the most when we don’t receive adequate river flows from the Rio Grande.

Although EPWater has rights to receive water from the Rio Grande, the utility has not received a full allocation in about a decade.

Elephant Butte Reservoir
June 1994 (full)
Elephant Butte Reservoir
July 2013 (severe drought)
 Elephant Butte Reservoir June 1994 - full  Elephant Butte Reservoir July 2013 - severe drought

The images shown above contrast 1994 — a normal, but not high year— with 2013, which was one of the worst drought years. In 2013, river water was only available for less than two months and barely covered the city’s water needs.

To meet future water supply needs, EPWater is working to diversify its water sources to ensure that El Paso has sufficient water even during a severe drought when no river water will be available. To learn more, visit our Water Resources page.

The Texas Water Development Board provides continuous monitoring of Elephant Butte Reservoir water levels. Click here for current information and historical trends.

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