By Scott Manning
Second in a series
Given the ongoing drought and expected water shortages from the Rio Grande due to climate change, well water is being eyed in Corrales and elsewhere —even though the aquifers here are sustainably replenished only by river flow and snow in the Sandias. The drought has impacted the past two growing seasons for farmers here. Some Corrales farmers rely on available surface water to irrigate their fields. This past winter, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) anticipated further droughts and advised farmers to reduce their farming operations because access to irrigation water for the duration of summer 2021 was not guaranteed.
These water restrictions are difficult for farmers, but there is an alternative: pumping well water from the aquifer below the Corrales Valley. According to Mike Hamman, chief engineer and CEO of the Conservancy District, his office has not encountered many farmers who have applied to pump well water rather than irrigation with surface water. In contrast, more farmers use well water in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.
Hamman suggests that certain obstacles may stand in the way of farmers adopting well water pumping. First, the farmer would need well water rights. In 1956, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer “declared” the Rio Grande Underground Water Basin, and closed the aquifer to new wells for large-scale farming. This policy limited large farm wells but allowed for domestic well drilling.
Some longtime farmers in Corrales who began farming with groundwater before 1956 have groundwater rights which allow for well water pumping. But other farmers would need to obtain groundwater rights before they could begin pumping. Second, a farmer switching to groundwater would likely have to invest in additional water infrastructure and technologies like a drip irrigation system. This infrastructure can be costly to implement compared to the cheap and easy use of surface irrigation water.
Despite these obstacles, some smaller farmers who grow high-value crops like fruits and vegetables or delicate plants have embraced groundwater pumping. One such farmer is Courtenay Koontz, owner of the tree nursery Trees of Corrales. For Koontz, the adoption of a groundwater-fed drip irrigation system was the best choice for his business. Koontz explains that the physical constraints of his farming operation require a drip system: plants in the nursery are planted in containers such that they are elevated above ground. A simple surface water irrigation scheme that floods a field would not work to water these plants. Koontz also needs consistent water delivery and quality to ensure that the plants in the nursery thrive. Drip irrigation delivers clean aquifer water to the trees in a set amount on a routine basis.
In contrast, surface water irrigation leads to irregular watering cycles in which a field is flooded and soaked with water and then dried. Additionally, the quality of surface irrigation water is subject to environmental and human factors beyond the control of the farmer: surface water may contain pesticides, debris, or seeds from upstream plants. Koontz wants to limit this water variability.
Koontz says he prefers to use groundwater over surface water, and he would convert all of his farming operations to groundwater if he had sufficient water rights. Koontz owns groundwater rights, and his business is subject to oversight by the Office of the State Engineer. The State Engineer limits the volume of groundwater Trees of Corrales can use each month; Koontz must submit water records demonstrating his compliance with the agreement. And should the water authorities suspect water overuse, they can directly verify it.
This kind of agreement between farmers and the State Engineer aims to give farmers access to groundwater and ensure responsible use of the aquifer. Water authorities across the state are monitoring water supplies because New Mexico communities and farmers rely on this precious resource. Congresswoman Melanie Stansbury was reported earlier this month warning that “New Mexico is looking at potentially losing almost all of its snowpack in the next 50 years.”
Stansbury said the challenge is how to prepare for that while preserving “cultural practices, agriculture and survival of our communities.”
If the aquifer under Corrales is unlikely to be adequately recharged by Colorado snowmelt in the future due to climate change, there’s another recharge method already under way.
The City of Rio Rancho is treating and reinjecting what has been considered wastewater back into the aquifer. The idea is that some amount of wastewater can be cleaned and recycled back into the aquifer rather than continually depleting it. The City of Rio Rancho is the first municipality in New Mexico to implement this kind of water reuse project. It began in 2001. By 2004, a Water Reuse Plan was published, and the City began to construct the infrastructure required to implement a full water purification and injection system.
In this system, reclamation centers and a water treatment facility filter and purify wastewater. This treated wastewater is stored at the pump station which pumps the treated water to the injection site for further purification and ultimate injection back into the aquifer. The project required around $25 million to implement. The injection project became fully operational in summer 2017. The system currently injects between 250,000 and 650,000 gallons of treated water every day with an average of 400,000 gallons per day.
Annemarie Garcia with the City of Rio Rancho says that the injection project is successful. Purified water is being reinjected into the aquifer, and Rio Rancho residents have been supportive of the initiative. The City anticipates that the Office of the State Engineer will award the City a gallon-for-gallon credit for stored, purified water, meaning that the project will become more cost-effective with time.
But the project does face challenges. First, the injection system is occasionally brought off-line for maintenance and repairs. When offline, the system does not put water back into the aquifer. The City intends to address this problem by constructing a second injection site that is connected to the same water treatment facility. The goal is to create redundancy so that water injection can still occur at one site if the other is taken off-line.
Second, the purified water must be tested for water quality so that the City satisfies state permit standards. Water quality testing is absolutely essential to the project, but testing is expensive. The Village of Corrales has also considered how it will use its water resources. In 2018, the Village formed the Corrales Water Advisory Board (CWAB) to consider how the community should manage its water resources going forward. Don Turton, Brad Sumrall, Maryann Wasiolek, Wendy Fidao Bali and Burton Coxe were board members, and they published the Water Advisory Board Report 2020 with recommendations. In particular, the report recommends that the Village participate in existing water monitoring programs, extend the liquid waste collection line through more of Corrales, and promote water education programs. The full report is available on the Village website.