New Mexico EPSCoR successes with climate change impact research

The problem will be exacerbated in the 21st century by a combination of factors, including global climate change, increasing population, constraints associated with traditional water rights and interstate water compacts, and the general lack of scientific knowledge applicable and available to local and regional planners and policymakers. The state is particularly susceptible to drought, and the state’s main source of water, the Rio Grande, depends on high elevation snowpack in its northern, mountainous headwaters region for at least half of its surface water supply. Long-term climate changes combined with sporadic extended droughts, which have more severe effects in a warmer climate, present an extreme challenge to water management not just in New Mexico, but also in the entire Southwest.

Because of the importance of understanding the effects of global climate change on water supply, in 2008 New Mexico EPSCoR began its third Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII-3) grant, Climate Change Impacts on New Mexico’s Mountain Sources of Water. The project’s mission was to address and forecast the effects of climate change on water supply and sources in arid regions.

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The Jemez Mountain Range in New Mexico

The Jemez Mountains, and the Valles Caldera National Preserve in particular, served as one of the main research locations for our water quality, hydrology, and geology researchers. EPSCoR sponsored the purchase and installation of hydrologic sensors and monitoring stations along small rivers in the Valles Caldera to measure water quality for the entirety of the grant.

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An ominous view of smoke from the 2011 Las Canchas fire, as seen from the International Space Station

On June 26, 2011, a tree in the Jemez Mountains near the Las Conchas campsite fell on a power line, sparking a fire that burned 43,000 acres in its first day. After only five days of burning, the Las Conchas fire became the largest fire in New Mexico history at the time. It burned for over a month and consumed 150,000 acres of land, including 16,000 acres of Santa Clara Pueblo, by the time it was contained on August 3, 2011. While the research equipment in the Valles Caldera was left untouched, the fire burned approximately 80% of the East Fork Jemez River, a primary research catchment in the Valles Caldera. Since the research equipment and primary setup area was spared from the fire, researchers had excellent background information on water quality and biodiversity before the fire.

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Burned tree branches, charcoal, and ash in the Rio San Antonio on the Valles Caldera National Preserve

EPSCoR researchers witnessed a dramatic impact on the East Fork and its ecosystem processes just a month later in fall of 2011 when monsoonal rains brought large amounts of fire debris into the system and flooded the tributaries of the Rio Grande with debris and ash, turning the waters black for a time—pictured right. Massive erosion events with major changes in total suspended sediments, conductivity, total phosphorus, total nitrogen, and total ammonia occurred in the East Fork Jemez River, Rio San Antonio, and Indios Creek. Post-fire changes in water quality in the East Fork Jemez River were measured continuously using in situ instruments installed as part of the NM EPSCoR project. Over the next two years, EPSCoR research showed that the fire and flooding strongly altered populations of river algae, aquatic macrophytes, fish, and aquatic invertebrates.

Only one other study to date has documented the before and after impacts of forest fire on a specific stream ecosystem, and the East Fork Jemez River study shows the storm events and water quality degradation of the stream with continuous real-time sensor data that has not been deployed before in the study of fire effects on streams and rivers. This will be useful for water managers and researchers in similar fields across the country.

Interdisciplinary research on acequias and water use

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An acequias in northern New Mexico

Part of the NM EPSCoR RII-3 program focused on interdisciplinary research on community-based irrigation systems known as "acequias" (ah-SAY-key-ahs) in partnership with the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA). The NMAA is the main force that advocates for the needs of or ditches. These acequias are unique to New Mexico and southern Colorado having endured more than four centuries of change in the region dating to Spanish colonial settlement history.

Researchers studied how these ancient irrigation canals function as communal water management systems that provide unique physiographic and cultural elements to help understand the effects of changing mountain hydrology on land and water use, ecosystem change, and stream flow. In addition to researching the hydrological characteristics of the acequia systems, the project also documented the customs and traditions of water management in times of climate variability and its effects on human adaptation and governance.

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