WESLACO — Water experts and officials from throughout Texas and New Mexico gathered recently at a conference here to discuss progress and goals of the Rio Grande Basin Initiative, a federally funded effort focused on efficient irrigation and water conservation in the region.
The meeting was held at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Weslaco.
The Rio Grande Basin, a huge area of land on either side of the Rio Grande, from the mouth at the Gulf of Mexico to southern Colorado, is the river’s watershed and includes one of the most productive agricultural regions of the United States.
But severe drought, an exploding population, new industries and inefficient agriculture irrigation systems are but a few of many factors exerting tremendous pressures on the beleaguered Rio Grande.
Recognizing that a total water management system for the basin did not exist to help meet the future water needs of Texas and New Mexico, the U.S. Congress in 2001 funded an extensive, three-year collaborative effort to develop a plan to expand efficient use of available water and create new water supplies.
Administered through the USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES), the initiative called on the Texas A&M University Agriculture Program and the New Mexico State University College of Agriculture and Home Economics to implement strategies for meeting present and future water demands in the Rio Grande Basin.
Now in its third year, the program has gained momentum and almost daily acquires new colleagues from various agencies and entities already working on related water issues, according to Craig Runyan, of the New Mexico Cooperative Extension service and project coordinator of the Rio Grande Basin Initiative.
“We’ve got to keep up the momentum, keep up the progress and there’s perhaps no end to what we can do to help achieve real water conservation, particularly in the agricultural area,” Runyan told those attending the opening session of the conference.
Runyan said all those involved in the initiative fall into at least one of several main projects of the effort: irrigation district studies; irrigation education and training; institutional incentives for efficient water use; on-farm irrigation system management; urban landscape water conservation; environment, ecology and water quality protection; saline and wastewater management and water reuse; basin-wide hydrology, salinity, modeling and technology; communications, oversight, biometric support; and accountability.
Bill Harris, associate director of the Texas Water Resources Institute and project director of the Rio Grande Basin Initiative, said outcomes and accountability of initiative efforts needed to be communicated effectively in order to continue the group’s water conservation efforts.
Harris pointed out that a team of economists with the project had documented astounding amounts of water that could be saved by renovating infrastructure of aging irrigation districts in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
“One analysis documented an expected net water savings of 138,019 acre feet of water, or 45 billion gallons, from renovations to the Harlingen Irrigation District Cameron County Number 1. That’s a lot of water. That’s more than twice the amount of water used annually for agriculture in that district. This is the kind of information and strategies we’re developing that we need to let the public and elected officials know about,” Harris said.
Harris went on to point out other scientific studies in the initiative showing farmers could save 25 percent of irrigation water they use simply by knowing and monitoring their crops’ water requirements.
“Here’s another one,” Harris said. “Water-thirsty saltcedar trees along the Pecos River may use as much as 7.7 acre-feet of water per acre per year, or 2.5 million gallons. That’s a huge impact statement for us. That tells us that if we can put money into saltcedar control, and there are now several bills before Congress to control saltcedar in five states, we can save huge amounts of water. It’s important for us to release this type of outcome data information that’s based on good, solid reference points.”
In opening statements, Dr. Ed Hiler, vice chancellor and dean of Texas A&M’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said conservation of urban and agricultural irrigation water is key to sustaining social, economic and environmental development in the Rio Grande Basin of Texas and New Mexico.