El Agua es la Vida

We all know that water is an integral part of sustaining life. We also know that average annual rainfall is relatively low throughout the Southwest. (Currently, the Albuquerque area is on day 130 with no measurable rainfall.) Ironically, because there is an abundant supply of surface water stored in a series of large reservoirs – paired with an expert system of distribution – much of the public assumes that water scarcity is not an issue. The public also tends to think that water managers and environmentalists are fundamentally at odds. Our visit to the Navajo Dam brought some of these misconceptions to light and put the issues into perspective.

The Navajo Dam is an earthen dam that was constructed on the upper San Juan River during 1957-1962.  It was built as a part of the Colorado River Storage Project, a system of dams and reservoirs across the Southwest that manage the water supply and distribution in the Colorado River Basin. The reservoir behind the dam, Navajo Lake, is 35 miles long and stores 1,708,600 acre feet of water at full capacity. The Navajo Dam provides flood control and water (municipal, domestic, industrial and agricultural) to northern New Mexico and water to the middle Rio Grande Valley (including the City of Albuquerque) through the San Juan-Chama Diversion Project. The City of Albuquerque, with a population of almost 550,000, has annual rights to 48,200 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama Diversion water. Compare that to the 508,000 acre-feet from Navajo Dam that is allocated to NAPI on an annual basis!

An interesting fact to ponder is that most US dam/reservoir systems have been constructed to have an expected lifetime of 100 years, based on average siltation rates. Some may last as long; some may not (a good example of a reservoir that has experienced faster-than-expected siltation rates is Lake Powell). Very little planning has taken place to prepare for that point in the future when the large dams of the Colorado River Storage Project can no longer function at their present capacities. One has to wonder how Southwestern cities and large-scale desert agriculture can be sustained when the current water supply cannot be guaranteed much past the year 2050.

For environmentalists, Navajo Dam has been a mixed blessing. Although the reservoir affects the fluvial and terrestrial ecosystems of the San Juan River up to 35 miles upstream of the dam, the flows are now carefully monitored to ensure that enough water is released downstream – and diverted through the San Juan-Chama tunnels – to keep up the flows of the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque in order to sustain the endangered silvery minnow.

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After a roadside picnic lunch in Farmington, we drove back in the direction of NAPI on our way to the NMSU Agricultural Science Center Experiment Station. The landscape was a strange juxtaposition of things both sacred and profane, traditional and modern. In the foreground the Four Corners Power Plant belched black smoke, slightly obscuring the more distant monolithic Shiprock, which solemnly towered above the gently undulating desert plain.

At the NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station, we were given an in-depth tour by station researchers Drs. Kevin Lombard and Mick O’Neill. Although the Experiment Station was originally established in collaboration with the Navajo Nation (and NAPI) to research which crops grew best in the sandy soils of the Four Corners region, it now serves a much larger community – from small agricultural producers to industrial operators, as well as rural and urban homeowners and growers.

The diversity of research performed at the station, and the progressive nature of much of the work was extremely impressive. Numerous viticulture trials of both wine and table grapes are underway. Linear forests of fast-growing poplar are being cultivated for the fibrous filling in swamp cooler pads. In other sections of the poplar forest, studies on the uptake of heavy metals and pharmaceuticals from humanure (biosolids from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority) are being performed. Offsite, the phytoremediative properties of poplar are being tested in areas contaminated with nitrates (dairies) and free product (natural gas exploration and extraction wells). A number of hops varietals are being cultivated for high yield production in the arid Southwest, for the benefit of numerous regional microbreweries. Researchers are also experimenting with trendy, high value specialty crops like goji berries.  In addition, the Experiment Station maintains an urban xeriscaping demonstration garden and various low-water use turf grass trials. Sometimes, scientific research can seem gratuitous and irrelevant; however, the projects at the NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station are especially relevant to the current (economic and climatic) condition of our region. In all, researchers at the facility strive to expand the economic opportunities available to local growers and value-added producers, as well as develop low water use crops better suited to the area.

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