August 9, 2023

Water experts ask legislators for more funding to understand NM aquifers

A slide from a presentation given to the interim Water and Natural Resources Committee.

What does New Mexico know about its groundwater?

The answer to that depends on the basin and more knowledge is needed statewide to prepare for a future with less water security, panelists told an interim legislative committee on Tuesday during a presentation at San Juan College in Farmington.

New Mexico is in the process of mapping the aquifers and learning more about the groundwater in basins statewide. But that is an expensive process and more funding is needed to support the efforts, the panelists said.

“Groundwater monitoring is critical to track the trends in our aquifers,” Stacy Timmons, the associate director of hydrogeology at the Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, said.

She said climate change will lead to increased aridity, warmer temperatures, less surface water and less water entering the aquifers through the groundwater recharge process.

“I think it’s time to think about things more proactively and take this seriously and look at exactly what we have in front of our groundwater resources,” she said.

Timmons said as the bureau approaches the Legislature for funding, it is looking to complete regional aquifer characterization and build monitoring efforts statewide so that water officials can understand what is happening with the underground reservoirs.

In terms of characterization, she said the bureau is proposing going region by region and addressing the aquifers based on priority. That means starting with the critical groundwater basins in New Mexico.

The groundwater monitoring effort would build on the aquifer characterization, she said. 

Timmons said this monitoring effort would fill the gaps that exist.

These combined efforts will cost millions of dollars.

The bureau would need $1.25 million annually to support a staff of eight full-time employees who would build and maintain the statewide aquifer mapping and monitoring program.

Additionally, it would take another $4 million to $10 million annually for about 10 years to install exploratory and monitoring wells.

Patrick McCarthy, the water policy officer for the nonprofit organization Thornburg Foundation, described the current groundwater crisis as one that is “invisible to many, but that threatens to undermine agricultural, rural and urban economies and ecosystems across the state.”

He said 92 percent of community drinking water systems in New Mexico and 54 percent of agricultural water comes from aquifers.

“Groundwater supports some of our state’s rarest and most important wildlife habitats yet…this critical resource is often poorly understood and because it is unseen, it is often undervalued,” he said.

Along the Rio Grande, depleting surface water has led people to increase pumping of groundwater. McCarthy said this is rapidly depleting the underground reservoir.

“Now, we usually think of water infrastructure as pumps, pipes, treatment plants, things that we feel. But we need to start thinking of our aquifers as infrastructure,” Maurice Hall, a water engineer with the nonprofit organization Environmental Defense Fund, said.

Hall said that while people did not have to build the aquifers, the underground reservoirs provide a wide range of services to communities, including filtering rain and snow seepages from runoff.

“They store that water and they deliver it, you might say even almost magically, to the wells, where we just pump it out. And it’s replenished from the surrounding aquifer,” he said.