EL PASO, TX – A transboundary project led by researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to formulate solutions to water sustainability challenges received an award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
The project, entitled “Sustainable Water Resources for Irrigated Agriculture in the Middle Rio Grande Basin,” applied computer modeling techniques to create a comprehensive assessment of the current and projected availability of irrigation water from major water sources in the region, which is shared by communities in Texas, New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
NIFA awards its Partnership Award annually to recognize agency-supported projects that positively impact agriculture, the environment, communities or individuals.
“In our corner of the world, water issues affect people living in three states and two countries. Because of the binational and multi-state nature of the problem, we knew from the moment we began conceptualizing the project that it would be imperative for us to work with partners across state lines and the international border if we were to produce information of value and applicability to the region,” stated Josiah Heyman, UTEP professor of sociology and anthropology and one of the project directors.
The study involved faculty and students from Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez (UACJ) and Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua (UACH) in Mexico, and New Mexico State University (NMSU), the University of New Mexico, Texas A&M AgriLife El Paso Extension, Michigan Tech University and Oklahoma State University.
At UTEP, Heyman worked alongside Bill Hargrove, former director of the Center for Environmental Resource Management (CERM), until Hargrove’s retirement in 2020. Alex Mayer, Ph.D., professor of civil engineering and current director of CERM, was also part of the project.
As charged with assessing water availability in the present and up to 50 years into the future, the researchers looked at a variety of factors, including snowpack levels in Colorado – which are an indicator of expected water levels in the Rio Grande – irrigation water use, soil types found throughout the region, precipitation amounts, and demand levels from local communities.
In the process, the researchers faced, and eventually overcame, critical obstacles such as significant resource differences among research teams, misaligned water regulatory schemes, and acute asymmetries in the nature, quantity, and quality of existing data on factors affecting water availability in the various subregions covered by the study.
In addition, the researchers found that water availability, both surface and groundwater, is expected to decrease over the next 50 years. In a scenario of prolonged drought, they estimate that the available water will not be sufficient to maintain current levels of agricultural production in the region.
As possible solutions to this problem, the researchers recommend greater use of alternative water sources, such as desalinated groundwater, water conservation in urban and rural areas, better water management, crop variation, and alternative agricultural irrigation methods, such as drip irrigation. It was also recommended that the dialogue on these approaches should extend beyond borders and not just within them.
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