Research Overview

CWEThe research being conducted in the Center for Water and the Environment spans a wide variety of water and environmental issues in arid environments. The challenges associated with water in the arid southwest are complex and intertwined, and can be represented by the vignettes shown in the figure below. These problems are inherently multi-disciplinary, multi-scale, highly uncertain, and not purely technical. They are so complex and intertwined that it is difficult for individual researchers to make major breakthroughs into solving them. The purpose of the center is to develop collaborations between teams of researchers that can tackle these issues more effectively than individual researchers can.

The major challenges include the following:

  • Water availability is changing because of climate change. In New Mexico, surface water is primarily from melting snowpack in the mountains. Climate change reduces the amount of precipitation and causes snow to melt earlier in spring, causing water shortages as the year progresses. Drier conditions lead to disease and wildfire, which causes flash floods that carry massive amounts of sediment and debris that is no longer held by groundcover.
  • Reservoirs store water for year-round use, but increase evaporation and cause other environmental problems.
  • Environmental needs for endangered species must be protected under federal law.
  • Municipal and industrial users need water for growth and economic development, but have junior rights in the competition for an insufficient supply.
  • Irrigated agriculture uses about three quarters of all water diverted from New Mexico rivers, streams, and aquifers.
  • Electric power generation can be limited by the availability of water. A single electric power plant in NM consumes half as much water as the City of Albuquerque.
  • Mining and hydrofracturing to recover mineral, oil, and gas resources require huge quantities of water, and development of these economic resources may be restricted by the availability of water. Mines cause contamination by acid drainage, oil and gas wells generate heavily contaminated “produced water.”
  • Water quality considerations affect the use, reuse, and environmental impacts of the resource.
  • Downstream users have a legal right to water but the quality and quantity is impacted by upstream users.

Each vignette in the figure represents a major research area, and the CWE is not currently working on all of these areas. Current thrust areas are watersheds, treatment technologies, water and energy issues, and integration and decision making. As the Center grows, additional research areas from this diagram will be incorporated.

Click here to see an overview of the specific projects being conducted in the CWE.