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Groundwater key to Southwest water policy

Water flows down Bear Canyon Arroyo as part of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s aquifer storage and recovery project. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Western water conversations often revolve around rivers and streams. But water beneath the surface is just as important in shaping water policy and preparing for the future.

Hydrologists and water planners from the western U.S. gathered at a National Groundwater Association Conference in Albuquerque this week to talk water, energy and policy in a changing climate.

Climatologists predict increased drought, minimal snowpack and longer, hotter growing seasons will all affect the water in New Mexico’s rivers and aquifers.

“We’re seeing sustained losses in groundwater and aquifers around the world,” said Laura Condon, an assistant professor in the Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Arizona. “If we’re going to get the data right about how much water we have in storage, we need to think deeper. Groundwater needs to be included in the equation.”

Several New Mexico regions rely exclusively on groundwater. The state’s 2018 water plan says, “The communities of Clovis and Portales and surrounding areas have fewer than five years of remaining (water) supply.”

Faced with unpredictable water supply forecasts, agencies are working to create reliable water policy.

Reducing groundwater pumping in Albuquerque has increased aquifer levels in the city by 30 to 40 feet in the past decade. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority uses natural recharge of the Bear Canyon Arroyo and a new direct injection well to send surplus surface water into the aquifer.

This lets the utility “bank extra water for a not-so-rainy day,” said Chris Wolf, a geochemist at Daniel B. Stephens and Associates who assisted with the water authority injection well.

Other Western states are also paying more attention to how rivers, streams and aquifers interact.

Larry French, groundwater resources director at the Texas Water Development Board, said the Texas system in which the state manages surface water – but groundwater is private property – creates complex water policy issues. French said Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton, Texas, shows how aquifer depletion can affect rivers and springs. The town thrived with the springs as a recreation area in the early 20th century.

“But when they turned the pumps on for large irrigated agriculture operations southwest of town, the springs dried up,” French said. “Now there is an initiative asking if Comanche Springs can flow again. They’re looking at working with farmers to reduce pumping and examining potential economic boon of the springs flowing again.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

 

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