ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — How much water does New Mexico have? How much is in rivers, reservoirs or underground aquifers? What water is safe to drink, and what should be used for agriculture or industry?
A nascent state initiative aims to answer those questions with data.
The Water Data Act, which became law in 2019, requires five state agencies – the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, Interstate Stream Commission, Office of the State Engineer, Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department – to standardize data on water levels, quality and use.
The law was inspired by a need to manage the state’s scarce water more carefully, according to Stacy Timmons, associate director for Hydrogeology Programs at the Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources. Timmons leads the implementation of the Water Data Act.
“Residents have raised concerns that their water management is not what they would like it to be,” she said. “Water data is not always clear or easily found, especially when it comes to information on domestic wells or water quality.”
Databases already available at www.newmexicowaterdata.org, the website created for the initiative, include reports and maps of public water systems, reservoirs and aquifers. Data will eventually be interoperable, meaning a website user could simultaneously learn about the quantity and quality of water in a region.
For Timmons, managing water without data is comparable to driving a car without a fuel gauge.
“When you don’t know how much gas is in your car, you don’t know when to stop,” she said. “Similarly, when you don’t know how much water you have, you don’t know when to start managing those water supplies differently. Data supports our choices. When we all have the same data in hand, we can build a consensus about how to prioritize our water use.”
Agencies are taking inventory of existing water information. Much of the state’s water data is older or in paper form, so there are challenges in digitizing those measurements and determining if they are still useful.
Data gaps quickly became apparent once the agencies dove into the time-consuming cataloging process.
At a workshop in Socorro in October, 80 participants searched online data to craft hypothetical plans for New Mexico water issues, like municipal water conservation, agricultural water use and clean drinking water.
Many participants reported a lack of online data about water in rural areas. More data is also needed to pinpoint how much water New Mexicans are using and how much groundwater there is in the state.
That knowledge could help communities prepare for extreme strains on water, such as floods, fires and droughts.
“We want to create water systems that bend and flex during those times,” Timmons said. “If there is drought, we can see where are there other water resources and how best to share among these (uses) that all need water.”
New Mexico was the second state after California to pass legislation requiring interagency water data sharing.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.