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Water: Researchers seek ways to make the most of a limited resource

August 15, 2005
Texas A&M University - Agricultural Communications
Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researchers in El Paso look for ways to make water resources stretch further.

EL PASO – Mild winters, low humidity, lots of room, culturaldiversity, higher education opportunities and a lively economy – ElPaso has a lot to offer.

But one thing it doesn't have is a lot of water.

Enter Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researchers, who study ways to make the most of the area's limited water supply.

ElPaso sprawls at the base of the Franklin Mountains in the farthestpoint of West Texas. The terrain is mostly desert except for the RioGrande, which meanders along the southern edge of the city, marking theTexas-Mexico border.

The river also marks the most valuablesource of agricultural water in the area, said Dr. Zhuping Sheng,Experiment Station hydrogeologist in El Paso.

Sheng and hisresearch assistant, geologist Joshua Villalobos, are involved inongoing research to determine more efficient ways of utilizing waterfrom the Rio Grande for agriculture, while protecting residents' waterneeds and the environment. Researchers from New Mexico State Universityin Las Cruces are also participating in the study.

"It's a delicate balance between irrigation needs, municipal needs and environmental needs," Sheng said.

Theland in the Rio Grande valley near El Paso is the richest farmland inthe area, Villalobos explained. And to help keep it that way, beginningmore than 100 years ago a series of canals was built to help deliverthe water to the fields.

One of the oldest of these canals – the Franklin Canal – was constructed in the late 19th century, he said.

Currentlythe El Paso Country Improvement District No. 1 operates and maintainsabout 350 miles of canals and laterals to divert water from the riverfor agricultural applications and municipal and industrial uses, Shengsaid.

Most of the canals and the irrigation ditches that feedfrom them are basically ditches dug in the natural soils of the area,which means some of the water is lost through seepage, Villalobos said.

Severalmonth ago, the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 put downabout 800 feet of thin rubber lining on a portion of the Franklin Canalto determine its effectiveness in canal lining, Sheng said.

Infact, research by Sheng and Dr. Phillip King from the department ofcivil engineering at NMSU has shown that 10 percent to 30 percent ofthe water delivered by the system of canals is lost through seepage.

Shengand Villalobos are studying how lining certain areas of the canalsmight impact the interaction between ground water and surface water.

"Wewant to know how it will affect the soil moisture content," Villalobossaid, "since much of the water is absorbed in the soil."

Thedifferent soil types in the canals affect seepage rates, Villalobossaid. In some areas the clay soil forms a natural barrier and keepsseepage rates lower.

"Other areas with sandy bottoms lose water easily," he said.

Usingdata collected from tests and measurements of the Franklin and othercanals and laterals, the researchers have made some preliminaryfindings. They believe that lining 10 miles of canals could potentiallysave enough water for 1,000 acres of crops or 8,000 homes.

Theyalso found that lining canals is expensive; therefore determining wherewater loss is greatest and lining those areas would be the mostcost-effective.

Preliminary results will soon be published by Texas Water Resources Institute and New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute.

Even so, said Sheng, the research will be continued to confirm the potential water savings by canal lining.

Additional monitoring will be implemented to assure the performance of canal lining and high delivery efficiency, he added.

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Materials provided by Texas A&M University - Agricultural Communications. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Texas A&M University - Agricultural Communications. "Water: Researchers seek ways to make the most of a limited resource." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 August 2005. <>.
Texas A&M University - Agricultural Communications. (2005, August 15). Water: Researchers seek ways to make the most of a limited resource. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 5, 2024 from
Texas A&M University - Agricultural Communications. "Water: Researchers seek ways to make the most of a limited resource." ScienceDaily. (accessed March 5, 2024).

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