By Darrell J. Pehr
NMSU taps long history of water research excellence in addressing new challenges
When the first snowflake of the season falls to the ground in the mountains of southern Colorado, there is no hint of the enormous impact it can have on the thirsty forests, communities and agricultural lands that lie downstream in New Mexico.The snowflake simply waits, perhaps on a bed of pine needles, until it is joined by billions of its fellow snowflakes that together may form the first snowdrift at the top of the mountain.
It is the start of an important annual process that can spell the difference between open campgrounds or wildfire warnings, abundant municipal water supplies or closely controlled watering days, and successful crops or costly failures.
Plentiful snow or not, New Mexico does not rely completely on abundant water in rivers due to the melting of high-mountain snowpack. Some water also is received via precipitation that falls here through the year, primarily from occasional summer monsoonal thunderstorms. Other water has been held for years, decades or longer in vast underground aquifers awaiting technological advances before they can be economically tapped.
The puzzle of water is one researchers at New Mexico State University are constantly piecing together. Where does water come from? What affects the quantity of water? What impacts its quality? How can water be used most efficiently? Answers to water-related questions often lead to more questions. And, the research covers the entire history of the university and flows across its colleges.
Sam Fernald, interim director of the statewide Water Resources Research Institute, housed at NMSU, said about 80 faculty members are currently conducting water research projects at the university.
“The Institute’s primary objective is to maintain a balanced program of research that addresses water problems critical to New Mexico, the Southwest and the nation,” Fernald said.
Projects are wide-ranging.
In the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, for example, water research has long had a home. Current research topics range from the use of saline water for turfgrass irrigation and the economics of water conservation to the selection of plants for xeric landscapes and the land application of treated wastewater from an industrial park.
One of the most important areas impacted by scarce water is the Rio Grande Basin of New Mexico. Its status as one of the most productive agricultural areas in the United States also means that irrigating those agricultural lands consumes most of the region’s water. At the same time, the population of the region is increasing, as well as the impact that population will have on sharply limited water supplies.
To help address this challenge, Agricultural Experiment Station researchers and Cooperative Extension Service specialists and county agents from the college and the Texas A&M University System Agriculture Program founded the Rio Grande Basin Initiative in 2001. They worked with local irrigation districts and other agencies, agricultural producers and homeowners to address water issues in the Rio Grande Basin. Funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Rio Grande Basin Initiative has focused on efficient irrigation and conservation and continues to do so as the program concludes.
The goal of the initiative is to meet present and future water demands through conservation measures that not only expand the efficient use of available water resources, but also create new water supplies.
Water research has a significant presence among the Core Research Strengths identified by the university. Listed under the topic of “Sustainability,” key water research and outreach programs are conducted by researchers in four colleges at the Las Cruces campus and the Agricultural Science Centers, strategically headquartered across New Mexico.
A key research initiative in the College of Engineering is the National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Center. The multi-university effort was established to reinvent America’s aging and inadequate urban water infrastructure. NMSU is partnering with Stanford University, the Colorado School of Mines and the University of California, Berkeley, in this effort.
Other research efforts focus on water technology research in Afghanistan; monitoring and solving trans-boundary water issues on the U.S-Mexico border; the link between traditional irrigation systems and ecosystem and watershed health; and the effects of climate change on the state’s mountain sources of water.
Water research is so important that NMSU recently established a master of science and doctor of philosophy in Water Science & Management, which was first available to students in the fall of 2012.
The new degrees were set up to help address the serious challenges concerning the supply, development, quality, management and administration of water resources. The way in which these challenges are met will have significant economic, environmental and social impacts for residents of New Mexico. The new degrees will help meet the need to train the next generation of water resource teachers, scientists and managers.
The Water Science & Management degree program was developed at NMSU by a group of water experts and approved by the governor of New Mexico in November 2011. The NMSU departments of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business, Animal and Range Science, Civil Engineering, Geography, and Plant and Environmental Sciences are currently participating in the degree program.
The program is primarily intended to provide graduate education for addressing water issues at the state, national and international levels, and to train the next generation of water professionals.
The degree program offers five fields of study, including agricultural water resources; watershed, riparian and aquatic systems; water quality and treatment; water economics and policy; and water informatics.
From the highest educational opportunities for the nation’s next water managers to the extensive agricultural, engineering and community outreach projects across New Mexico and beyond, NMSU is fortifying its rich tradition and history of accomplishments when it comes to water research with regular advances and achievements.
And, even as the winter storms are building the promise of abundant spring snowmelt for downstream users in New Mexico, researchers at NMSU are bringing a comprehensive approach to addressing the concerns, challenges and solutions of making the most of water in New Mexico.