How much water does  New Mexico actually have?

Scott Christenson, left, and Sara Chudnoff of the Bureau of Geology with Nick Hayes, right, provide training from Wellntel on how to set up equipment for a private domestic well in Monticello, New Mexico.

When it comes to revising water laws in New Mexico, nothing realistic can be done until we know how much — and where — the groundwater is. That’s the basis of a new study being embarked upon by a team of scientists in the Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech.

Their goal is to monitor as many wells in the state, both public and private, as possible.

This is decidedly a tall order, but hydrogeologists Stacey Timmons and Sara Chudnoff believe an accurate assessment of the state’s groundwater can be achieved, given time.

“The Healy Foundation in Taos County has agreed to help fund the project,” said Timmons, who is the Bureau’s Aquifer Mapping Program Manager.

The Healy Foundation is a grantmaker that primarily funds land and water projects.

“We are looking for collaborations with rural wells,” Timmons said. “We’d like to find wells that are single sources for communities that need more information on their hydrology.”

In regions with very limited data, they are seeking any well collaboration – mutual domestic, private domestics or open/unused wells.

“Our first priority would be for those public wells that are single sources for communities that need more information on their hydrology,” Timmons said. “We don’t want to see other single well communities go through a water crisis we saw in Magdalena in 2013, and there are several in New Mexico.”

The four month old project, the Collaborative Groundwater Monitoring Network, is a response to the needs of a state where there’s not a whole lot of water monitoring, especially in the rural parts. “Which is most all of the state,” Chudnoff said.

There are already hundreds of wells in New Mexico being monitored by the United States Geological Survey, and “are monitored once a year, but most only every five years.”

“This leaves a lot in between that is unknown,” Timmons said. “Seasonal changes happen or something happening more quickly in a particular region, it may not be perceived if it’s only measured every five years.”

It relates back to that Magdalena outage in 2013 where, without having any information – frequent measurements on the water level – when basically its one single water well was down and wasn’t able to produce water for the community.

“That was a big impetus why we want to make sure that the public supply wells in rural communities – especially the ones that are single source, where one well supplies a large group of people,” she Timmons said. “If they’re not paying attention to the quantity of water they have in that well they may suffer a water outage.”

In so many areas in the state, water levels have not been monitored.

“We’re really trying to reach out to public supply wells that are single source out in the rural communities so that we can help bring awareness to the quantity of water in those areas,” Timmons said. “Just filling in data gaps where there are broad places in the state that have no real understanding of what their resource is.”

And on top of that, she said, the findings will help add information on the quantity of water over each entire region.

“As we start getting a year or two of data collection under our belts we will start to see areas of greater concern, where we may want to pursue some other hydrogeology studies,” Timmons said.

“We’ve been going out for the last four months almost weekly reaching out to various communities, one by one,” Chudnoff said. “As far away as Chama, Willard and Jal. But we’ve been having a lot of success here in the Socorro region. There’s a great deal of understanding and interest here as to why this is important.”

Timmons said the goal is to make the data public “because if that data are public it makes for better interpretations makes models work more effectively.”

She gives as an example the models for the San Agustin aquifer, which may be based on incomplete information.

“The models that have been created by people wanting to pump the water out are not filled with really good data,” Timmons said. “So having more publicly available data helps better inform the models that come out of this region.”

Once more accurate information is available on groundwater and aquifers, then New Mexico water laws can be looked at.

“Public supply wells operators are required to report water quality regularly but there isn’t a requirement in most regions to do any sort of water level reporting,” Timmons said. “So it’s an important consideration for New Mexicans in a desert.”

With monitoring, single well communities may be able to avoid surprises like Magdalena’s water outage. “With the monitoring they can see real-time changes that are happening,” Chudnoff said.

In addition to installing new instrumentation on individual wells, the team locates monitoring systems already in place, “such as other entities as with a Home Owners Association or soil conservation district that could share their data with the network,” Chudnoff said. “It would help populate the statewide database.”

Timmons said there are a some people who are afraid to share information and the location of their privately owned well.

“But private wells are trackable through their well records at the engineer’s office,” Timmons said. “So the concern about having their data be public or their location be public’s already (in the public record). We hope to see if they’re willing to work with us.”

Another concern is groundwater near the Rio Grande.

“The river adds water to the groundwater supply, but then the wells are taking it back out,” Chudnoff said. “(This results in) the groundwater not getting as recharged as much. Without monitoring you don’t know.”

She likened it to taking money out of your checking account without putting money back in.

According to Timmons and Chudnoff, the Collaborative Groundwater Monitoring Network, funded by Healy Foundation and the Aquifer Mapping Program, will soon provide a web or mobile-accessible data entry portal for public water systems to upload water level measurements that they perform and real-time graphics showing the trend in water level change.

In addition, the Aquifer Mapping Program, in cooperation with New Mexico Rural Water Association and the Environmental Department will conduct training which will provide outreach to water operators and others who measure water levels.

To be a part of the Collaborative Groundwater Monitoring Network, a well owner or operator can submit accurate water level measurements to the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources database to become publicly available data.

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