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Measuring New Mexico’s Groundwater Remains Challenging—Here's Why Getting It Right Matters

The first hours of daybreak find Ethan Mamer just south of Silver City. He’s standing underneath an old windmill enclosed by metal wire, measuring tools in hand. But it’s not the windmill that has Mamer’s attention, rather what’s underneath.

The hydrogeologist is collecting data on groundwater—measuring the level of water within this rural well. His reported findings will be added to the state database, helping to uncover more information about New Mexico’s groundwater health.

The well is down only a foot since it was previously measured last year, but Mamer says he’s seen significant drops at other sites.

“In the last year, year and a half, I have definitely noticed the water levels dropping, perhaps faster than normal,” Mamer said. “Yesterday, I saw a drop of 30 feet.”

Stacy Timmons is the Associate Director for Hydrogeology at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources. She says areas of the state that are disconnected from recharge and surface water are experiencing serious decline.

“There really is no new input to those aquifers,” Timmons said.  “So, the concern there is that whatever water they take out is water that's pretty much gone for good.”

One area of New Mexico with stressed water resources is the village of Cloudcroft, where Mayor Bill Denney says one well has dropped production by more than half.

“Monday to Monday, we are losing more water than we're bringing in every week,” Denney said. “I believe we are going to have to haul water in trucks to Cloudcroft to fill up some of our tanks so we can survive the summer.”

Just how many wells have gone dry is currently unknown—there is no statewide tracking system in place. New Mexico is not alone, nearby states like Colorado and Texas also have no mechanism for tracking the number of dry wells. Timmons says a self-reporting system has been developed in New Mexico, relying on well owners for data.

“There really isn't a mechanism in New Mexico for tracking where wells have gone dry,” Timmons said. “And this is something we tried to remedy by creating an app that people can complete…so at least we could start to see, map the locations where this is happening.”

Timmons estimates that less than one percent of wells in New Mexico have active groundwater level monitoring, noting that public awareness of the free monitoring program could help improve that number. She also says increased funding for both state and federal monitoring agencies would broaden coverage and increase the frequency of measurements.

Being able to gain a complete understanding of New Mexico’s groundwater is made even more difficult by the geology of the state, which Timmons says contributes to a lack of information.

“I don't think we have a clear picture of what our groundwater situation here is in New Mexico. Fortunately, and unfortunately, we have amazing geology here in New Mexico,” Timmons said. “It hasn't been an easy state to map all of our aquifers in.”

While aquifers serving urban areas are largely understood, Timmons says more needs to be done to ensure the entire state is equally mapped.

“Groundwater flow through this state isn't straightforward and simple. So, putting together accurate maps of all of our aquifers, is a fairly time intensive and data intensive, funding intensive, endeavor. And we're making a lot of progress as a state,” Timmons said.  “So, there's a lot to be done, and a lot of time and money investment that needs to be made to complete that.”

Upgraded technology resources, such as real-time monitoring, help to complete that picture. Rather than relying on annual measurements, real-time monitoring sites constantly deliver updated information to water managers.

Kyle Davis, a supervisory hydrologic technician for the USGS, took KRWG to a real-time monitoring site in Las Cruces, which gets all of its drinking water from wells.

“This well is instrumented with pressure transducers,” Davis said. “It's actually gathering data every half hour or every hour and relaying that information via satellite. So, it's always available 24/7 to water managers or those who are making critical decisions on how we use our water.”

The site has been experiencing a decline in water levels over the past two decades, recently dropping a couple of feet between mid-May and the end of June. According to Davis, the USGS monitors approximately 100 continuous groundwater sites across the state through a combination of real-time and other data collection efforts. 

That information is just one component of USGS and state data that help experts better understand New Mexico’s groundwater health. Andrew Robertson, with the New Mexico Water Science Center, stressed the importance of comparing measurements taken in the field.

“If you pair that with other wells and can report that to a common datum, you can get an elevation and understand kind of where groundwater would likely flow,” Robertson said. “If you monitor it over time, then you get a change in that groundwater elevation, you understand how it is responding to different stressors, such as recharge or withdrawals.”

Robertson underscored the importance of the resource, noting that it provides a buffer when surface water is scarce. He says preparing for future drought impacts will be critical.

“Our groundwater is one of, if not the most, valuable resource that we have,” Robertson said. “And it does provide that buffer when we have surface water shortages, which are going to happen. So, I think we just need to continue to monitor, continue to characterize those resources, and work together to identify how we're going to respond to some of the uncertainty in the future.”

Madison Staten was a Multimedia Reporter for KRWG Public Media from 2020-2022.