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Mountain Snow Equals River Flow

By Audry Olmsted

Al Rango and Max Bleiweiss

NMSU research hydrologist Al Rango, left, and physicist Max Bleiweiss look over a satellite image of mountainous areas.

Mountain Snow Equals River Flow

Researchers use $15 million EPSCoR grant to track impact of climate change on water supplies

Look out at the dry, dusty desert that surrounds you and try to imagine snow-peaked mountainous regions playing a vital role in the preservation of a natural resource that seems to be a rarity in New Mexico – water. Now, imagine that water supply gone, depleted because of changing climate and misuse by people.

“Snow is the big contributor to the sustainable flow in the Rio Grande,” said Al Rango, a research hydrologist with the Jornada Experimental Range. “It’s there every year. When people go outside, they see desert, not snow fields in the high country.”

People do not realize that the water they use comes from the mountainous areas of the state and not from the part of the river that flows in the desert regions of the south.

“When climate changes, the snow fields are dependent on temperature and precipitation, and as the climate warms, we’re going to have big changes in the way that snow is accumulated and then depletes in the springtime to replenish our water supply,” Rango said.

A $15 million grant awarded in part to New Mexico State University is helping researchers track water supply over several years to see how changing climate will affect its availability in the future. Rango is overseeing NMSU’s side of the project.

Rio Grande

A satellite image over the Rio Grande illustrates the difference between desert and agricultural areas.

Besides NMSU, the University of New Mexico and New Mexico Tech are involved in the statewide project, with ancillary efforts by New Mexico Highlands University, and a variety of other entities.

“New Mexico State University, in coordination with the other two universities, is looking at the effects on the water supply, based on what we think is going to happen to the climate in the future,” Rango said.

The money was awarded to the universities through the National Science Foundation and the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) for the proposal titled “Climate Change Impacts on New Mexico’s Mountain Sources of Water.”

The project is broken down into subgroups that consist of climate hydrology, education, cyber infrastructure, diversity, socioeconomics and water quality.

The goal of EPSCoR, Rango said, is to create the infrastructure that will allow the researchers to go out and successfully submit other proposals to keep the scientific effort going. It also is to make New Mexico more competitive for future proposal opportunities.

Planning for the project began in 2007 with actual implementation starting in January 2009.

Scientists are starting to develop hydrologic models that will employ climate-affected future data, along the Rio Grande Basin, that also includes parts in southern Colorado. As the project advances, the hydrologic models will compare current climate conditions to future climate conditions. Some 26 snowmelt basins line the Rio Grande, including in the mountainous northern regions of the state.

Rango said the models NMSU is using require satellite data to map snow cover.

Remote sensing equipment with the Center for Applied Remote Sensing in Agriculture, Meteorology and Environment, located in Gerald Thomas Hall, is being used to help support the researchers’ efforts. Max Bleiweiss, a physicist at NMSU and director of the remote-sensing center, said the equipment measures such things as snow-covered area and vegetation conditions.

The funding from the grant is being used to improve the infrastructure of climate-observing and hydrology networks that measure acequia water use.

Sam Fernald, an associate professor in animal and range sciences with NMSU, said that through the project, they are looking at how climate change might affect snowmelt runoff and how that affects how acequias distribute that runoff.

“Our networks are out of date and need to be upgraded and in addition, they also don’t represent all the areas of the state,” Rango said. One challenge researchers face is to place instrumentation in mountainous regions.

Researchers are not expecting to have extensive periods of data at the end of the five-year timeframe the grant covers, but the new and upgraded gauges and other equipment will be in place and the researchers from the different universities will know how they are performing and can address future issues. More proposals will be written as the project gets under way to help keep the project going after the $15 million grant expires.

The goal, Rango said, is to have all the climate networks in place by the end of five years and to have easy access to the data.

The scientists will be able to use the data they collect through this project to educate the public in New Mexico of water resources now and in the future.

One of the problems facing society now is that New Mexico is one of the fastest growing states in America. As the population grows, the water demand will increase but the water supply will remain constant or slightly decrease.

Rango said the state will have water resources problems if leaders do not incorporate the knowledge of what is going to happen into current planning.

“We have to make adjustments to how we restrict development and how we improve water conservation, and to know really what to do, we have to know what is going to happen to the water supply in 25, 50, 100 years,” Rango said.


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