[Editor's Note: This is part 2 of a multi-part series on the two-day Interim Legislative Water and Natural Resources Committee, which concluded its meetings on Wednesday, Sept. 6, at a little after noon.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
Tuesday afternoon, the first session after lunch had the title: Southwest New Mexico Hydrogeology Update: Statewide Water Assessment and Water Budget.
Stacy Timmons, New Mexico Tech hydrogeologist and aquifer mapping program manager, said the mapping of groundwater began in 2005. "We continue to address groundwater issues. Because we do it at Tech, which is under the higher education allocation of the state budget, we are not regulatory and our results are available publicly."
The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources is an RPSP (research and public service project) under NM Tech.
Timmons said the hydrogeology portion of the NMBGMR budget was $280,000, but the group leveraged it with gifts and grants of $480,000, which was used toward better understanding of the state's water resources through aquifer mapping.
The bureau works together with New Mexico Sate University's Water Resource Research Institute (WRRI) to address the state's critical water issues. The findings are distributed through technical and non-technical publications, available on the internet, she said. "We work together so we don't duplicate efforts."
She said the geology in the state is exciting and complex. She showed a map of the main influences on where water can be found in the southwest. "Major tectonic provinces affect groundwater availability, quality and movement in the region. The Basin and Range, also known as the Gila Group has valleys with basin fill sediments that make decent aquifers. The Mogollon-Datil volcanic bedrock may hold water in open fractures."
The Rio Grant Rift reaches from north to south in the state. Timmons said the Gila Group and Santa Fe are more impacted by the Mogollon-Datil volcanic field. She noted that the Mimbres Basin aquifer, which provides water to parts of Grant and Luna counties, is less than 5,000 feet thick as compared to the Albuquerque Basin in the Rio Grande Rift, where the aquifers are greater than 15,000 feet thick in some parts. In another map, she said the black points are public system wells and the gray points mark private wells that are on record in the Office of the State Engineer.
Although there is less storage in fractured bedrock and volcanic material, the groundwater that exists in the fractures serves as an aquifer recharge zone.
"Some groundwater areas in the Mimbres Basin aquifer have dropped more than 100 feet between 1910 and 1990," Timmons said. "Results are likely low estimates due to well network and sparse data coverage. The aquifer continues to decline west of the Florida Mountains, according to the water monitoring system. Lack of funding prevented monitoring in the winter of 2017."
She said since the 1990s, the decline has been reduced, although on land around several wells, the infrastructure is above the land surface. Google Earth imagery showed fissures in the land, caused by groundwater level declines.
Another map showed that the state has very little to no diffuse aquifer recharge, but does not account for focused recharge through streams and rivers. Recharge to groundwater occurs mostly in mountains with higher precipitation and cooler temperatures. "Over most of the region, about 1-2 percent of annual precipitation provides recharge to aquifers. A 2000 report by Hawley et al, shows the Mimbres may get recharge of up to about 63,000 acre-feet per year."
She said that because of the average temperature rising by about 2 degrees Farenheit, David Guztler of UNM said an Interstate Stream Commission funded study indicated a 5 to 10 percent reduction of upper Gila River runoff, due to less snowmelt and climate change. Also, with increasing aridity and a decrease in surface water availability, an increased demand on groundwater can be expected.
The bureau plans to improve understanding of groundwater resources through improving basic characterization by applying new techniques; maintaining or growing the groundwater monitoring network; evaluating water quality with depth and refining estimates of good quality groundwater in storage.
Sam Fernald, WRRI director, was the next to speak. He said the purposes of the institute, as defined by statute, are to provide research and training in water conservation and management, transfer water information through publications and conferences, provide expertise and technical information to address water problems and to cooperate with local, state and federal water agencies.
Austin Hanson, WRRI modeler, was also on hand.
Fernald said water is inextricably linked to the state's extractive industries, economic development and agriculture. "There is no Coca-Cola bottling facility in New Mexico, because of lack of water."
About four years ago, "we realized we needed a new approach to creating a statewide water budget. The physical supply is not well known. The state has about 2.8 million acre-feet of water usage annually, but we have no good handle on how much water is coming into the state. We knew we needed a comprehensive assessment of New Mexico's water resources. We aim to complement the Office of the State Engineer and other agencies' water programs while providing new information through research."
"We must include science in water data to update information," Fernald said. "Similar to what Utah uses. Oregon uses sciences for water planning and California has a common platform by region."
He said four years ago, Gov. Susana Martinez expressed an interest in the need for water assessment to avoid water shortage crises. Fernald said the unique, multi-scale dynamic model to fill in the gaps of historic water management in New Mexico was developed, working with the ISC and multi-university cooperation and with a leading academic researcher in evapotranspiration, hydrology and modeling. It uses future scenarios. "We are training graduate students and young professionals in applied water management. We receive funding from the state and we have in-house GIS and modeling capabilities. We use the U.S. Geologic Survey for stream flow information, and also work with New Mexico Tech, UNM, Sandia Lab, the OSE and Tetra Tech."
He showed a graphic of the historical period from 1975-2011. "We have 95 million data points, and the model is publicly usable. Austin built the model, showing what the water does, with inputs and outputs. The state has more evapotranspiration into the skies than precipitation coming from the sky. That's why we're using more groundwater at 890,000 acre-feet more of groundwater usage each year than we have aquifer recharge."
He said WRRI also has evapotranspiration models from the East Coast, from which staff is coming up with a model for New Mexico. "It will be an interactive visualization tool to show the impact on the water budget and groundwater storage." The example he showed was of two future groundwater storage change projections comparing high and low water-use efficiency. "It can be run for any county or planning region."
Fernald explained that when the rate of evapotranspiration and recharge stays around zero, the use of water is sustainable. By 2018, he said, the State Water Plan would have the toolbox of models to look at various scenarios.
He gave two website URLs for people to look at. The one for NM WRRI is nmwrri.nmsu.edu. The website for the visualization took is nmwrri.edu/new-mexico-dynamic-statewide-water-budget/ Fernald cautioned that the visualization tool is a beta version.
"We hope we can get funding for this project again," Fernald said. "It's the best model for irrigators in river valleys and for evapotranspiration from non-irrigated areas. Now we have better evapotranspiration estimates. When anyone cuts trees, make sure they know where to be able to get recharge, so they can choose the right trees in the right areas."
He showed an example of Mesilla Basin groundwater storage change since the 1950s. It shows changes of at least six feet of decline in shallow wells.
Using analyzed data from across the state, groundwater storage is decreasing, and closed basins and areas far from rivers and streams have been most affected.
Rep. Harry Garcia asked a question that Fernald answered. "If we don't use water in a particular district, it will flow to Texas and is lost. Farmers try to use the ditches to recharge the aquifer, but I will get back to you with details."
Rep. Bealquin Bill Gomez asked why so few wells showed in the map of the Mesilla Valley. Fernald said the only wells used were larger ones. Timmons said it was a data challenge. "There are far more wells. Only the highest quality data points are represented. For those doing water well measurements over decades, we have to have permission to access that data. Wells that have had long-term ownership have good data."
Sen. Sander Rue said he remembers looking at maps 10 years ago and how incomplete the data was. "Sam, thank you and the collaborative effort for giving us information for planning. I understand the data is fluid, as right now we have no official drought areas in New Mexico. How can we use the information, because the numbers will change?"
Fernald said his purpose is to give impeccable data and "not to make policy recommendations. Let the National Science Foundation make the recommendations. They recommended having community data resource outreach groups. Sit down with someone in Moriarty, for example, to look at how the model works in a particular place. We just deliver the tools to users."
Timmons said they have been on a tour of the state. "We hope we can be the conduit for science to back up the knowledge and figure out the challenges. We haven't been adequately funded for water planning or for water mapping."
Rue noted: "We need this information and we need to look for funding. The worst thing is to get the data in the wrong hands. It's best for you to instruct people how to use the model, because sometimes, we might get purposeful misinterpretations."
Rep. Carl Trujillo said he remembers a question for how to understand water underground. "Was there funding to continue this project?"
Fernald replied that the WRRI got funding, but some of the funding was vetoed by the governor, who was opposed to the source of the funding.
Trujillo commented on the graph that showed that evapotranspiration is greater than precipitation. He asked what the quality of the water was. Whether it was brackish or usable.
Fernald replied that the water varied from fresh water to brackish, including a variety of qualities. "Outflows include compact deliveries, and potentially include groundwater outflows."
Trujillo said he would like to find out where WRRI got its data from the Santa Fe region.
"We can share data," Fernald said. "And how to translate it into a water budget."
Trujillo said as the process gets further along, he would like to know what percentage is brackish and how much isn't.
"There are two aspects," Fernald said. "The quality and if treatment can impact the threshold. In Arizona, they have used the top 3 percent of the aquifer, which is drying up the riparian areas, which is where 90 percent of the birds live."
Timmons said the statewide assessment is one thing and "what we're doing is a compilation of available data. We don't have a sufficient data set to characterize what is brackish and what is fresh. It is a data gap."
Rep. James Strickler said it was a lot of data. "What have you done to incorporate the watershed? Did you factor in forest restoration for recharge? Maybe we could make a recommendation to the Forest Service for watershed restoration."
Fernald said staff was hoping the model could be used for that purpose, "by saying, here are places to start with forest restoration. That is our hope to use the data for that sort of policy issues."
Strickler said he hopes for such help, and that Arizona had made good efforts with forest restoration.
Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino said it was disheartening looking at long-term trends. "It shows the aquifer is being drawn down and not having recharge, "even with rainfall and no drought. Is that accurate?"
Fernald said the Mesilla Valley goes down, then up, then down and up. "Saying out of drought just refers to soil moisture, not the aquifer. We are still in a deficit for water storage. I think it's how we respond to the issue. We have to look at all components of water storage and long-term trends."
Ortiz y Pinos noted that Albuquerque spent a lot of money for the San Juan-Chama Project and loses a lot to evaporation. "The new project is storing it underground."
Fernald said from recharge data, the long-term trend shows some turning around. "We must sit down and walk through the aspects of a water budget. Some shallow groundwater is coming back up."
Timmons said in looking at groundwater resources, it looks depressing in data. "Looking at the Mimbres, for example, particularly the part west of the Florida Mountains, it's decreasing. In Albuquerque, they are making a change, but it's not back to where it was. Certain areas are starting to come back. I highlight the importance of monitoring groundwater resources."
Sen. Jeff Steinborn asked what "we are doing in the state on how using water impacts land use. Do we have enough water for all sectors? My question is what are we doing and what are the recommendations for us for more efficiency?"
Fernald said selected water use efficiency is one of the first points in a water budget, in municipal, as well as agriculture. "How to get more crops per drop. WRRI uses drones and satellites for better use of irrigation. We need to use the right water for the right crops. That's one project—proposing a way to grow more food crops than forage crops and determine the water use. It's an ongoing challenge."
Steinborn asked about funding for monitoring.
Timmons said, as she understood it, the funding from the Office of the State Engineer budget for monitoring was moved to something else.
Steinborn asked about the Grant County Regional Water Plan.
Timmons said some regions of the Mimbres are troublesome. "For sustainable water, yes, I think it's a good idea for a regionalized project."
"What are the benefits for Deming and would regionalization work?" Steinborn asked.
"It could be appropriate," Timmons said. "North of Deming has more sustainability of water in the Mimbres Basin. It would require determining how long a pipeline is needed."
Rep. Nathan Small thanked Timmons for effectively bringing in more assets than state funding allowed. "It gives us confidence that you are leveraging state funding. For more efficiency and effectiveness, we need to know the budget. Is there room for citizen science?"
"We try to get citizen input," Timmons said. "In some ways, with trained citizen scientists, we are training water operators on how to determine the data. We are putting together people who own wells to use an acoustic signal for their own use and to share with us, using community well operators, as well as private well owners. We also use the Museum of Natural History."
Small said he thinks it fits an unbiased approach, a place "we can come together to understand the resource, then it lends itself to policy issues. What would be the consequence of no funding for water assessment data?
"What we're doing this year without funding," Fernald said, "is using other resources, doing other projects. We're still doing good work. We have a plan for a long-term maintenance effort, while looking at an incomplete assessment."
"I want to finish it out," Small said.
Rep. Rodolpho "Rudy" Martinez asked if recharge is based on snowpack and runoff.
"For a short answer, yes," Fernald said. "The recharge map also includes surface water."
"Are there any post projects for recharge for municipalities or counties using treated water?" Martinez asked.
Timmons said the recharge model is looking statewide and not looking at artificial recharge. "It is not being used at this scale."
Martinez asked how many basins are closed.
"The groundwater leaks between the U.S. and Mexico, even though it is from so-called closed basins," Timmons replied. "Most basins are partially open."
The next article or articles will cover the Wednesday session on the Arizona Water Settlements Act Implementation, Budget and issues; New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity Plans; Southwest Region Water Project Alternatives.