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UTEP-Led Water Sustainability Study Receives National Award

Project leads to ongoing cross-border partnerships on resource management

EL PASO, Texas (Jan. 10, 2023) – A cross-border project led by researchers at The University of Texas at El Paso to formulate solutions to water sustainability challenges has received an award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

utep-led-water-sustainability-study-receives-national-award
A cross-border project led by researchers at The University of Texas at El Paso to formulate solutions to water sustainability challenges has received an award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The project applied computer modeling techniques to create a comprehensive assessment of current and projected irrigation water availability from the region’s main water sources, which are shared by communities in Texas, New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

The UTEP-led project, titled “Sustainable Water Resources for Irrigated Agriculture in the Middle Rio Grande Basin,” applied computer modeling techniques to create a comprehensive assessment of current and projected irrigation water availability from the region’s main water sources, which are shared by communities in Texas, New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

NIFA presents its Partnership Award annually to recognize projects supported by the agency that positively impact agriculture, the environment, communities or people.

“In our corner of the world, water issues impact people who live in three states and two countries,” said Josiah Heyman, Ph.D., UTEP professor of sociology and anthropology and one of the directors of the project. “Because of the binational, multi-state nature of the problem, we knew from the moment we started conceptualizing the project that it would be imperative for us to work with partners across the state line and the international boundary if we wanted to produce information of value and applicability for the region.”

The study involved faculty members and students from the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez and Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua in Mexico, and from New Mexico State University, 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, Ph.D., 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.

Charged with assessing water availability in the present and up to 50 years into the future, the researchers looked at a variety of factors such as snowfall levels in Colorado – which are an indicator of anticipated water levels in the Rio Grande – irrigation water usage, the types of soil found throughout the region, rainfall amounts and levels of demand from local communities.

In the process, the researchers faced, and eventually overcame, critical obstacles such as significant differences in resources among the research teams, misaligned water regulatory schemes and acute asymmetries in the character, amount and quality of existing data on the factors that impact water availability in the different subregions covered by the study.

The researchers found that both surface and groundwater availability is expected to decrease over the next 50 years. Under a scenario of prolonged drought, they estimate that the available water will not be sufficient to maintain the region’s current levels of agricultural production.

As possible solutions to this issue, the researchers recommend the increased use of alternative sources of water such as desalinated groundwater, urban and rural water conservation, improved water management, crop variation, and alternative methods of agricultural irrigation such as drip irrigation. Dialogue about these approaches should extend across borders, and not just within borders, the researchers recommended.

“Long-term solutions for our region’s water sustainability issues will entail many difficult conversations, especially in terms of the costs,” Mayer said. “To make the inevitable sacrifices equitable, the partnerships and professional relationships that were established across state lines and national borders by our NIFA-funded project will be so valuable.”

To learn more about the study’s findings, visit water.cybershare.utep.edu/home .

About The University of Texas at El Paso

The University of Texas at El Paso is America’s leading Hispanic-serving university. Located at the westernmost tip of Texas, where three states and two countries converge along the Rio Grande, 84% of our 24,000 students are Hispanic, and half are the first in their families to go to college. UTEP offers 169 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs at the only open-access, top-tier research university in America.

Last Updated on January 10, 2023 at 12:00 AM | Originally published January 10, 2023

By MC Staff UTEP Marketing and Communications