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
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.
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). AppendixFigures
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.
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.
Groundwater Monitoring Progress
The groundwater monitoring component of this project is designed to assist agricultural producers gain a better understanding of the groundwater resources they have for their operation. In addition, as we develop data for each participating ranch, one-on-one interactions with producers will help the producers develop appropriate strategies for conservation of their groundwater and will assist the professional team in determining other data that will be useful for each landowner. The six ranches participating in this effort include five in Mora County and one in Harding County. This geographic distribution provides an excellent opportunity to explore groundwater behavior across diverse landscapes, ranging from mountain front at Twin Willows Ranch to high plains at DeHaven Ranch.
To date, static water level measurements have been made in 50 wells on the six participating ranches. The majority of the shallow wells (water level shallower than 50’ below land surface) tend to respond to wetter years, whereas the deeper wells do not. Measurements for the last two years on these 50 wells show 32 with declining water tables and 14 with increasing water tables. Four wells were added in recently enough that there is not enough information yet to determine water table behavior.
The geology in the subsurface is complex throughout the project area. This results in different landowners drawing from different aquifer systems compared to their neighbors. In addition, individual wells on a single ranch are frequently completed in and drawing from different aquifer units than other wells. For example, on Black Willow Ranch, a shallow well adjacent to the Rio Mora on the north end of the property is drawing from a shallow, unconfined alluvial aquifer whereas their “upper mesa” well is completed in the Jurassic-age Morrison Formation and is drawing water from the Morrison Formation along with the overlying Cretaceous-age Dakota Sandstone. It is important to recognize the complexity in the subsurface as we continue to develop this data set. Water level data is shared with the participants after each monitoring season is concluded. We also have spent time addressing issues related to individual wells during our time on the properties, including testing for iron slime bacteria, observing well behavior to identify infrastructure-related issues, etc. Below is a summary for each property and example hydrographs are provided in Appendix A Figures 4-8. AppendixFigures
- Black Willow Ranch:
- 6 wells with water levels ranging from approximately 15’ below ground surface (bgs) to 275’ bgs.
- Originally 7 wells – one well was removed in July 2019 due to repeated problems obtaining accurate measurements due to casing disintegration.
- Twin Willows Ranch
- 9 wells with water levels ranging from approximately 40’ bgs to 140’ bgs.
- Originally 10 wells – one well was removed in July 2019 because it went dry.
- Christmas Ranch:
- 11 wells are measured each winter, 5 are measured each summer. Water levels range from approximately 12’ bgs to 250’ bgs.
- Spear J Ranch:
- 7 wells with water levels ranging from approximately 16’ bgs to 250’ bgs.
- DeHaven Ranch:
- 3 wells with water levels ranging from approximately 15’ bgs to 80’ bgs.
- Fort Union Ranch:
- 15 wells with water levels ranging from approximately 18’ bgs to 410’ bgs.
- Climate data collection and analysis: In 2019 we installed four new weather stations and repaired one existing station on participating producer’s ranches. We provided each producer their site specific weather station data. In addition, we presented the participating producers a historical climate summary for their region RegionalClimateSummariesAttachment
- Web-based data visualization portal: This year we were able to create a functional, user-friendly web interface and we are in the process of working with the producer team to refine the tool so that it is functional and meets their needs. The tool we created allows users to view their own weather station data, as well as giving them the opportunity to overlay their data with historical climate data from the surrounding area. The historical climate data used for this portal comes from a separate NMSU effort that compiling data from multiple datasets for 74 stations across the state. (see Appendix Figures 9-12 for examples of the web-based portal) AppendixFigures
- Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Slow (CoCoRaHS) network equipment (precipitation gages and hail pads) were distributed to the six producers participating in this project. Producers were trained in how to properly install it and how to make daily observations.
- Plant community monitoring took place on the 12 established transects in Fall2019. Comprehensive analysis of this data is on-going, however we have developed easy to interpret reporting documents to immediately communicate the monitoring data to the producers involved with this project. ExampleDataSummariesAttachment
Educational & Outreach Activities
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
Summary of education/outreach and educational activities:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- An NMSU Cooperative Extension publications entitled Monitoring your well water (https://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_m/M118/welcome.html) and 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.