Pairing Groundwater and Climate Data to Inform Sustainable Ranch Management in Uncertain Times

Progress report for OW18-034

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2018: $49,995.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2021
Grant Recipient: New Mexico State University
Region: Western
State: New Mexico
Principal Investigator:
Amy Ganguli
New Mexico State University
Expand All

Project Information

Abstract:

Ranchers and farmers in northeastern New Mexico have been, and will continue, to face urgent challenges related to uncertain groundwater supplies and frequent drought. The overarching research question being pursued through this partnership is: How can groundwater and weather data be used to inform land managers that are faced with making critical decisions that influence long-term sustainability and operational profitability? The economic and ecological viability of ranch businesses is inherently tied to long-term water availability, but research previous research has shown that many aquifers in northeastern NM are not recharging. Furthermore, drought is a persistent threat to short- and long-term forage supplies. In effort to better understand the local hydrologic cycle, this project is allowing the member ranches of the Alliance to continue participating in the collection of essential scientific data, provide the resources necessary for our science team to facilitate comprehensive analysis of groundwater and weather data, and support the development of a producer-oriented, web-based data access platform. This report summarizes the progress we have made towards our goals and objectives since April 1, 2018

Project Objectives:

The following objectives will support our goals of, 1) expanding key hydrological and climate data collection, 2) developing a tool that provides land and livestock managers with easy access to this data, and 3) integrating this data into management decision-making to improve farm and ranch sustainability:

1. Develop a clear picture of local water table dynamics on producer lands: Continue measuring static water levels; Integrate existing water level monitoring and supplemental high resolution measurements to capture daily fluctuations; Integrate subsurface hydrogeology data with regional geologic mapping to create educational materials.

2. Compile, analyze, and expand on climate data collection efforts from Decagon weather stations installed on participating producers’ lands: Provide summaries of local and regional climate data for individual properties as well as the region relevant to drought planning and grazing management; Integrate climate and groundwater data for development of comprehensive water resource management materials.

3. Develop, test, and refine a web-based tool for data input, management, visualization and communication: Customize and field test features and functions to meet producer needs; Develop animations/visualizations capable of conveying complex data relationships for application in land and livestock decision-making.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Victoria Blumenberg (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. Joseph Zebrowski (Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

HPGA Mapping for Monitoring Location Selection: We worked closely with the landowners to determine locations for both monitoring transects and sites for the installation of weather stations. The landowners provided us with property boundaries and potential locations for monitoring based on their management concerns. We took that information they provided, imported the boundaries into GIS software, and developed maps of each property to further inform the site selection process. For each property, we created multiple maps that displayed characteristics of interest for the selection of monitoring locations. We provided each landowner with a map of digital imagery (NAIP), soil map units, ecological sites, and combinations of each. These maps were then used in discussions with each manager to finalize the choice of monitoring locations that would best fit with each property’s management objectives. By using both the input from each manager and the additional information from our mapping, the monitoring strategy on each property was tailored to concerns specific to each property and their management. (see Appendix Figures A1-A3 for maps of participating ranches, monitoring locations on the participating ranches, and an example map provided to one producers to help identify monitoring locations). Appendix & Figures

Hydrogeological data collection and analysis: Static water levels will be measured biannually in the summer and winter at 27+ wells in the Mora-Wagon Mound Soil & Water Conservation District, to capture maximum and minimum drawdown on local water tables. Water levels will be measured with a steel tap per USGS standards and hydrographs will be compiled for each well showing changes in the local water table over the course of the project. Eight water level continuous monitoring loggers were installed to capture high-resolution fluctuations in local water tables. HOBO water level loggers were installed in wells with different depths to water in order to capture a high-resolution record of water table fluctuations in shallow and deeper aquifer systems. Existing data sets for the surrounding area include water chemistry, trace metal chemistry, radiocarbon and tritium isotopic information, oxygen and hydrogen stable isotopes, and geologic maps and cross-sections. We will compile this information with water level information to develop a four-dimensional picture of the local aquifer systems. This information will then be paired with climate data (September-December of each year) to provide producers with real-time local hydrologic information and analyze potential impacts on management.

In support of this objective, we were able to initiate a new graduate student led project in 2019 assessing seasonal precipitation isotopes patterns for subsequent characterizations of seasonal inputs to groundwater recharge. Precipitation was collected from 10 locations throughout northeastern NM monthly from March 2019-March 2020 and were analyzed for δ18O. 

 

Climate data collection and analysis: Work on existing weather stations and new weather station installation was initiated in Summer 2018 and Spring 2019. New stations are being funded through alternative means, which facilitated one new station in 2018 and four new stations installed in Spring, 2019. All stations will be calibrated and we will train producers to address problems with sensors and download data from their weather stations. Throughout the project we will analyze weather station data to look at variability in the region in addition to interpreting the site specific weather data with the local soils and land potential using LandPKS to assess soil available water holding capacity and runoff potential.

Short-term and long-term monitoring: Following identification of monitoring locations we established 50-meter transects to conduct soil and plant community monitoring using standard USDA monitoring methods. Two long-term monitoring transects were established on each property. Measurements taken on these transects include line-point intercept, the size and abundance of canopy and basal gaps, visual obstruction, and a belt transect to determine density of shrubs. Photo monitoring of the transects was done with the GrassSnap mobile application (University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension). Additional assessments at each transect location included rangeland health, and elements of site potential were evaluated using the LandInfo module of the LandPKS mobile application. The LandPKS mobile application calculated the available water capacity (AWC) for the sites. AWC is an integrative variable that is determined through several physical soil characteristics and provides a metric to characterize relatively static components of site potential inherent to a given location. In association with each transect we established 4 exclosures for monitoring annual productivity.

Web portal for data visualizations: Linking historical climate data and drought is one of the more important adaptive management practices. We have been working with the producers associated with this project and the HPGA over the last several years to develop a user-friendly tool to visualize their weather and climate data. Although the producers we are working with recognize the necessity to consult with local and regional scientists and extension personnel to better understand data interpretation, they desire site specific data at their fingertips to understand the patterns they are seeing and to make informed management decisions. What initially presented a formidable challenge was the desire to have some elements of the data publicly available and sensitive data private in a web-based format that is easy to use. To develop such a tool requires considerable programming and previous attempts resulted in products that were not user friendly and were deemed unacceptable by the producers.

Using collaborative input from participating scientists and producers to ensure the inclusion of all relevant data and development of correct data processing, and reporting structures a secure data portal will be created. The data visualization tool will incorporate current and historic data for production of the most robust environmental change model. Web portal will include practical elements such as login requirements, data security, reporting, interactive data collection and reporting, and educational features. Field testing will be conducted by producer team and Alliance members. Complexity of the datasets will drive an iterative refinement process of the tool to best meet producer needs.

Research results and discussion:

Covid-19 impact

Over the last year of this project, the Covid-19 pandemic had a strong impact on our field based research activities. During this time we were not able to collect groundwater samples or maintain weather stations. Despite losing those sampling opportunities, we have still been able to make progress on all of our objectives. With Covid-19 conditions improving in New Mexico and many project members receiving vaccines, the remaining critical tasks (i.e., weather station downloads and maintenance) will be performed provided a no-cost extension is granted. 

Groundwater Quantity and Quality

Biannual static water level measurements (SLWs), as performed for this project, provide valuable insight into water table behavior. In addition, geochemical data obtained through other contemporaneous groundwater-oriented projects in the area yield preliminary information about groundwater quality and recharge potential in the study area. Static water level measurements were conducted in July 2018, December 2018, July 2019 and December 2019. Winter measurements are the most critical as this is the generally the time of year when there is the least draw on groundwater resources. Cattle water consumption is lower and most producers in the region do not start calving until late January to February at the earliest. Center pivot irrigation is dormant until the beginning of March when pre-planting watering begins. Thus, the winter SLWs provide a baseline for the overall behavior of the water table and comparison from winter to winter over many years can be used to determine the medium and long-term trends for various water tables. Summer SLWs provide insight into the impact of the highest use when there is greater demand by both cattle and crops. The recovery (or lack of) the water table at a given well from summer to winter is also important to understand how high use creates short and long-term impacts on local aquifer units. Two full years of SWLs are a valuable contribution to understanding aquifer behavior; however, two winter data points cannot be used to make declarations regarding water table behavior. Understanding of aquifer drawdown and recovery cannot be determined until multiple winter measurements have been obtained and trends do not become interpretable until more than seven to ten years’ worth of observations have been obtained. 

It is important to remember that depth to water is a critical factor in water table behavior and potential recharge. A general observation from nearly a decade of SWL monitoring in the region is that wells with a water table less than 50 feet below ground surface (bgs) can recharge if there is sufficient rain or snow over the course of previous years. Most of these wells are located adjacent to drainages in shallow alluvial deposits that are highly porous and permeable. Wells deeper than this are located away from drainages and draw from older, more cemented and compacted, less permeable bedrock aquifer units. These wells generally do not receive volumetrically significant quantities of modern recharge. Recharge potential is determined by analyzing water samples for the presence or absence of the hydrogen isotope tritium. This isotope is naturally occurring in the upper atmosphere and generally is not present in significant concentrations. However, during atomic weapons testing in the 1950s, massive quantities of anthropogenically-generated tritium were released into the atmosphere. Thus, the presence of measurable excess tritium in a groundwater samples is an indication of the presence of post-1950s recharge making its way into the groundwater system.

The tritium isotope replaces the hydrogen atom in the water molecules in precipitation and is carried down into the aquifers during infiltration. However, there are barriers to this recharge migrating downward to the most-utilized bedrock aquifers. Some aquifers are separated from the surface by impermeable rock layers (generally shale or mudstone-dominated strata, referred to as aquitards), and modern precipitation simply cannot penetrate these horizons. In other cases, precipitation can migrate downwards, but its progress is so slow that the tritium decays away and is thus not measurable. Therefore, a deep groundwater source may be receiving recharge, but the process is so slow that discharge via agricultural consumption is far greater and faster than the replenishment of the source waters. The vast majority of the wells sampled for tritium isotopes in the region show little to no measurable tritium, indicating that depth to the water table coupled with subsurface barriers to infiltration lead to consumption overrunning recharge. In addition, tritium values reflect the prolonged drought in the region, with shallow aquifers having suppressed tritium measurements due to a lack of rain and/or snow.

SWL data obtained during this study, while of very short duration, are a critical component of these ongoing, long-term monitoring efforts both locally and regionally. In addition, the opportunity to work closely with agricultural producers to learn more about local aquifers is invaluable. Historical observations regarding well behavior, including declining yield and changes in quality, are an important addition to data gathered as part of these big picture, long-term efforts. Providing critical information about groundwater resources to the stakeholders in real time allows the producers to make informed decisions about groundwater use and begin to consider future options as many of the aquifers currently in use have limited lifetimes. For example, farmers in Sedan (Union County) altered crop management practices when timely groundwater-related data was made available to them. In addition, many ranchers now turn off wells in pastures after moving cattle out, rather than leaving them running for wildlife. Many windmills have also been replaced with solar-powered pumps and timers and float valves have been installed to manage well usage. While conclusions about local water table conditions cannot be derived from two years of information, this data will be a major contribution to continued efforts to fully understand the groundwater resources in the area and the lifetimes of these aquifers.

Precipitation Isotope Study

Precipitation samples have been collected at 10 locations (Figure 1) for 12 months (March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, and December of 2019, and January and February of 2020) with one exception due to an equipment malfunction. Of the 119 samples collected, 79 have been analyzed in the lab at University of North Carolina Charlotte. Total amounts of precipitation for each month have also been recorded at each location, with exceptions occurring when the collector overflowed. In these events, the maximum volume from the collector was used.

Preliminary isotope analysis of the precipitation samples reveals that the LMWL deviates from the Global Meteoric Water Line (Figure 2). This means that NE NM likely has its own local pattern that differs from the overall global pattern. This local precipitation pattern does match the stable isotope data from the groundwater samples in a previous study conducted within the project area (Figure 2). Previous stable isotope analysis of groundwater throughout the study area found a distinct relationship with elevation, with the exception of 10 samples. Those ten samples were far more depleted than elevation alone would account for. Several possibilities were investigated; recharge from higher elevations, winter precipitation, or the presence of ancient water. The samples extrapolated to elevations higher than what is present in the study area, so we were able to eliminate that possibility. Limited precipitation information at that time prevented us from drawing conclusions about winter or ancient recharge.

Initial results from this study show that there is a distinct pattern between cooler and warmer months, with March being an exception (Figure 3). These results provide evidence that significantly depleted precipitation does exist in the study area during the winter months, supporting the hypothesis that depleted groundwater samples are the result of winter recharge and not ancient recharge. However, the majority of groundwater samples fall somewhere between winter and summer precipitation on the MWL (Figure 2). While some groundwater samples may be the result of winter-dominant recharge, it does not seem as though recharge throughout the study area is winter-dominant, which is an unexpected finding.

Several studies have found strong relationships between isotopic composition and elevation, and isotopic composition and latitude. Another unexpected finding of this study is that we have not found consistent evidence of these relationships. Figure 3 shows the comparison between δ18O and elevation. Notice that there is a clear relationship in March and April that begins to lessen in May and does not exist by August. We have also failed to observe a notable relationship with latitude so far. Figure 4 provides comparisons between δ18O and latitude. The only month (so far) that we might be able to say exhibits a relationship is October, but not even half of the variability is explained by the relationship. Both of these findings are significant in that they are unexpected and as of today, unexplained. In an attempt to navigate these complex variables and unexpected results, we are also working to characterize monthly sources of precipitation. It is commonly accepted that winter precipitation comes from the Pacific Ocean, while summer precipitation comes from the Gulf of Mexico. Again, we have minimal evidence to support this so far. PrecipitatonIsotopeFigures

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

24 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
6 On-farm demonstrations
13 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

60 Farmers
15 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Development of the web-based knowledge portal

In support of our third project objective we have completed several rounds of development, testing, and feedback of the web-based tool we are developing for data input, management, visualization, and communication. We have developed the High Plains Grasslands Alliance web-based knowledge portal, which is where the climate data visualization tool resides. This portal was created to provide a user-friendly way for producers and other users to access information relevant to rangeland health and management. The map interface uses the ESRI ArcGIS online web-portal technology to help organize and share information internally and with the public. It is hosted by ESRI through New Mexico Highland University’s ArcGIS Online account. The beta version of the map portal has received several rounds of feedback from the producers involved with this project and final revisions are currently being made. See Appendix_WBP for a brief description of what the portal looks like. In support of the work we have been doing on the climate data visualization tool, we created an instructional video to assist in getting feedback from producers. The video was viewed by several producers and we followed up with informal discussions of how the tool could be strengthened.

Webinars

  • Hosted Webinar (March 2021): Geologic maps: How they work and why they matter. This webinar features Kate Zeigler (Zeigler Geologic Consulting), who provides a short overview of how geologic maps work, what they can tell us, and how they can potentially be used to understand groundwater resources in northeastern New Mexico! The presentation is designed for the interested non-geologist and is specific to agricultural producers. Link to the recorded webinar: https://youtu.be/qwaMtlErYmg
  • Instructional Video Created (January 2021): Climate Portal Demonstration  (designed for producer feedback). In this video, Taylor Sanchez, a graduate student from New Mexico State University, describes the Climate Portal we are developing as part of this WSARE funding for producers associated with the High Plains Grasslands Alliance. https://youtu.be/tSowJ0OLS5M
  • Co-hosted Webinar (December 2020): Riparian Health Assessment. This webinar introduces the Riparian Bullseye Assessment method, a simple, qualitative approach to evaluating the health of riparian systems. No formal training in riparian ecology is necessary to use the Riparian Bullseye, which covers the basic indicators of ecosystem health allowing both an evaluation of individual ecological processes and the system as a whole. https://youtu.be/NageOaoIvd8
  • Webinar Contribution (October 2020): Groundwater, soils, and management: Complexities and connections. Two project team members, Dr. Kate Zeigler, Zeigler Geologic Consulting, and Emily Cornell of Sol Ranch touch on the intricacies of the hydrologic cycle and provide a short overview of groundwater resource management. They discuss how the soil interface is a key part of water movement and share ideas for basic monitoring of both soil and groundwater health. This webinar was hosted by the the NM Healthy Soils Working Group  https://youtu.be/iufGHRcUZZU
  • Co-hosted Webinar (July 2020): Drought 2020 in eastern New Mexico and the Southern High Plains – a conversation. Unfortunately this well attended and well received webinar had technical issues with the recording. Drought 2020 in Eastern New Mexico agenda July 22 2020

Fact Sheet Development

  • An NMSU Cooperative Extension publication entitled Playa Lakes: understanding their importance and how to protect them and improve their function was produced 2021 and is currently being revised.
  • An NMSU Cooperative Extension publication entitled  Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) in our waters: Agricultural best management practices (BMPs) to increase resilience to algal blooms (https://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_w/W106.pdf) was produced and distributed to producers in 2020.

  • An NMSU Cooperative Extension publication entitled Monitoring your well water (https://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_m/M118/welcome.html) was produced and distributed to producers in 2018.

Workshop: Prescribed Fire 2019

Based on feedback from producers associated with the High Plains Grasslands Alliance we partnered with the Forest Stewards Guild and Gravitas Peak Wildland Fire Module to plan and host a three-day prescribed fire workshop on the Fort Union Ranch in May 2019. The planning process included obtaining burn permits, developing a comprehensive burn plan, and selecting relevant burn units. Objectives of the workshop were to provide landowners in the region with a hands-on educational opportunity to learn about how to implement a prescribed burn. The secondary objective, which provided the structure for the educational opportunity, was to reduce conifer encroachment by up to 50% in existing meadows.

Approximately 40 people attended the workshop. Participants were private landowners, agency and organizational partners and prescribed fire professionals. Enough fire professionals participated to allow for one professional per 5-8 landowners during hands on activities, which provided the benefit of small-group learning and the opportunity for every landowner to experience each of the tasks involved in setting, managing, and mopping up a fire.

We worked with the Forest Stewards Guild to collaboratively design a post-workshop survey to obtain feedback on the event from attendees. Responses were very positive with most participants feeling that their knowledge and confidence with regard to prescribed fire had improved. Participants identified the biggest impediments to implementing prescribed fire as a management tool on their own lands were money, manpower and education of their neighbors. There was substantial interest in attending future prescribed fire workshops to continue to gain experience and confidence with the strategies and tools needed to work with fire in a safe and effective manner. For survey results and the workshop flier, see FireWorkshopAttachment

Other education/outreach and educational activities:

  • Several project team members were interviewed by the NM Political report, after hosting a webinar on drought in northeast NM. (published August 2020)   https://nmpoliticalreport.com/2020/08/12/as-the-climate-warms-ranchers-keep-their-eyes-on-the-grass/
  • In support of our web-based tool development and other research conducted as part of this grant we gave several presentations during the January 24, 2020 meeting of the High Plains Grasslands Alliance. Progress was shared with attendees and feedback was provided to help strengthen the final product.
  • In our efforts to develop a producer-driven web-based tool that will be used to input, manage, visualize and communicate data, a survey was developed and a report has been prepared and will be circulated at the HPGA Spring meeting on April 27, 2018. Results of the survey are appended to this report. Follow up teleconference meetings have been held among the producer and professional team to further inform the development of this tool and a prototype was presented at the Fall 2019 High Plains Grasslands Alliance Meeting.
  • On May 4, 2018 we conducted site visits with Dr. Margie Ryceqicz-Borecki (Western SARE Program Manager). During this visit we visited with three of the ranch producer households associated with this project (Union Land and Grazing Company, Christmas Ranch, and Cornell Ranch).
  • The PI group held an information/outreach meeting at the High Plains Grassland Alliance meeting in Roy, NM on September 29, 2017 to provide producers in attendance with an overview of the goals of this partnership, which are to incorporate scientific data into ranch management decision-making. Presentations followed by question-answer periods were given by the project professional team leaders (Ganguli, Zeigler, Sallenave, and graduate student Victoria Blumenberg). The content presented included plant community and weather station data collection progress and outreach activities. We also presented our plan for developmental feedback for a producer-oriented web-based data access platform.
  • During the March 24, 2017 High Plains Grasslands Alliance meeting near Watrous NM, PI Ganguli informed producers about the funding for project and what to expect in future months.

Project Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.