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Sustainable Water Resources

Researching resilient and innovative water usage in New Mexico.

An Arid State with Declining Water Supplies

The World Resource Institute recently designated New Mexico as the most water stressed state in the US (, highlighting how New Mexico’s heritage, culture, natural resources, economy, and future are inextricably tied to water.

One of the greatest challenges we face in NM currently is the simultaneous decrease in usable water supply and increase in water demand.  Water policies that privilege politically and financially powerful groups force marginalized New Mexicans to bear a disproportionate amount of the hardship that stems from this scarcity.

Climate change is predicted to worsen our already water-limited state and force changes in the: (1) structure and function of natural and agricultural ecosystems that comprise our landscapes and communities; (2) survival of organisms, populations, and communities in these systems; (3) hydrological processes that supply the state’s water; and (4) options to effectively deliver water to our state’s diverse population.

New Mexico is on an unsustainable path that could wreak havoc on the state’s natural resources, cultures, and economies if the diverging trends of water supply and demand are not reconciled. UNM has the obligation and expertise to step up to what is truly a Grand Challenge: to tackle water resources and the sustainability of New Mexico’s economy, environment, and unique social fabric.

Research that Empowers Communities, Policy Makers and Individuals

UNM will use the size and strength of its interdisciplinary programs in law, policy, natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering to conduct the research necessary to help decision makers, communities, and individuals make better choices about how they manage water.

UNM will become a repository of expertise that the state needs to sustainably manage its water, collaborating with other institutions, stakeholders, and citizens throughout the state.  The Sustainable Water Resources research team is committed to the development of a next generation decision platform that provides policymakers with superior information with which to make decisions.  This will draw not only on the experience, information and outcomes from the participatory research, but also on experts from other research and policy institutions.  This will help us develop a unique infrastructure within the state for solving New Mexico’s sustainable growth conundrum.

UNM will train the next generation of water managers and leaders needed to solve the state’s water problems.

The water sustainability team at UNM will partner with stakeholders and other agencies in the state to develop, refine, and meet water sustainability goals for New Mexico. This approach requires UNM scientists to work to bring other New Mexicans from across the state into the design and application of all initiatives developed through this program. This approach goes beyond simple consultation with other water stakeholders. Rather, we will partner with New Mexicans from diverse communities to ensure their needs are met.

Our Grand Challenge Expertise

The Sustainable Water Resources Grand Challenges team involves experts from across many disciplines at the University of New Mexico.

Contact Information

Please contact the Sustainable Water Resources Grand Challenge team by email at

Leadership Team: Marcy Litvak, Jennifer Rudgers, Becky Bixby, and Alex Webster (Biology), Andy Schuler, Mark Stone, and Anjali Mulchandani (Civil, Construction, & Environmental Engineering), Laura Crossey (Earth and Planetary Sciences), Ben Warner (Geography and Environmental Science), Adrian Oglesby (Utton Center), JingJing Wang (Economics), Sang Han (Chemical and Biological Engineering), Mindy Morgan (Geography), and Kathleen Kambic (Landscape Architecture) Marcy Litvak (Biology), Andy Schuler ( Civil Construction & Env Engineering).

Preliminary Research Questions

In building the foundation of our research, we will address questions that help us better understand the changing nature of water resources in New Mexico:

  • How can advanced instrumentation (Internet of Things, smart sensors, etc.), high performance computing, remote sensing and big data analytical approaches be used to improve understanding of trends and forecasting of water availability across New Mexico?
  • As water stress and disturbance increase, what impact will this have on water quality?
  • How effectively can our riparian zones and wetlands reduce contaminant loads in our streams and rivers and can this be affected by management practice?
  • How are New Mexico’s legacy mine wastes impacting water quality in streams and groundwater?
  • How does groundwater affect surface water quality, whether through leaking oil, gas or disposal wells or natural geothermal leakage?
  • How will New Mexico’s sources of fresh water quality be impacted by climate change and what will this mean for the resilience of our communities?

Exploring the needs of our ecosystems will help us better understand and frame possible solutions.  Among the questions we will tackle are:

  • How do ongoing changes in climate reduce available water in both terrestrial and riparian ecosystems?
  • What specific organisms and ecosystems are most important for maintaining water supplies in both natural and human ecosystems?
  • Which organisms and ecosystems are the most sensitive to declining or fluctuating water availability/quality? Which are the most resilient?  
  • How does decreased soil water availability drive tree-mortality, wildfires and ecosystem transitions, and what impact do these disturbances have on groundwater recharge, instream water quality, climate, carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services?
  • Are there land and water management policies that may increase resilience of natural/managed biomes to climate change?

What are the most effective approaches for using water to restore and manage riparian and wetland ecosystems to sustain the biota and ecosystem services?

Leveraging UNM’s vast high-tech resources, we will develop new approaches and technologies that help us explore:

  • How can agricultural water use be reduced while increasing crop quality and yield? If so, will it actually lead to less water use?
  • Will urban indoor agriculture have positive effects on water use and community health?
  • How can materials engineering be employed to develop passive cooling and heating materials for water collection, and conservation?

What is required to develop and implement beautiful, small-scale, low tech solutions to local water collection (rainwater, greywater, storm water) to create green urban landscapes, expand biodiversity and mitigate the heat island effects of urban and suburban landscapes?

Connecting New Mexico’s research, technology, policy and practice resources, we will explore different ways of utilizing alternative water sources, including:

  • After we use water inside our houses and businesses, it goes down the drain and flows through the sewers to a water reclamation facility, where it is treated and discharged back into the environment. How can technological advances most effectively remove contaminants from wastewaters to protect our ecosystems and provide new water supplies for our communities through wastewater reuse?   
  • How can wastewater treatment technologies be developed for simultaneous energy production, nutrient recovery, and production of reuse water?
  • Some groundwater in New Mexico is too salty to drink or use for irrigation. This water – saltier than fresh water but less salty than the ocean – is known as brackish water.  Reverse osmosis can be used to separate the water from the salts, yielding a new source of water that can reduce our reliance on fresh water. What is required to make reverse osmosis of brackish water more efficient and cost effective? 
  • Even if we can treat wastewater and brackish water to a quality suitable for drinking, what does public acceptance of water from alternative sources look like in Albuquerque? Are there additional considerations for incorporating water from alternative sources into the potable water supplies of small- and medium-sized inland communities as compared to larger and/or coastal communities?

Through strong local, regional and state partnerships, we will work with stakeholders across New Mexico to questions crucial to all of us, including:

  • What is an equitable distribution of scarce water among New Mexican water users and how may it be achieved, while providing economic opportunity for New Mexico’s citizens?
  • Are socially marginalized communities—marginalized along lines of geography, politics, race, indignity, or other—more vulnerable to increased water scarcity compared to neighboring communities in New Mexico? If so, why, and how may we more equitably allocate water? If not, what policies ensure our equitable water allocation and can they be scaled and applied in other places?
  • Where can operational flexibility be found in Rio Grande water operations to address competing demands while meeting New Mexico’s obligations to the 1938 Rio Grande Compact?
  • Can New Mexico develop an alternative to the prior appropriations approach to water rights that honors historical and cultural water uses but also provides flexibility to meet modern water demands and support economic growth?
  • How can interdisciplinary models be used to compare outcomes and tradeoffs between alternative policy futures for water resource management, as well as understanding of the uncertainty, risks and constraints associated with individual futures?
  • How can local and Indigenous knowledge be used in water management and monitoring strategies?

How can alternative water strategies honor sovereignty and water rights of state and federally recognized Native nations?

Finally, by developing new approaches to community engagement, education, outreach and communication, we will explore new ways to collaborate with our fellow New Mexicans.

  • How can students and volunteers (citizen/community scientists) be engaged in water quality and water quantity data collection, data analysis, and presentation/data sharing?
  • How do we reduce barriers to participating in data collection, analysis, and sharing by stakeholders?
  • How can design be used to communicate the precious nature of water in the physical world?
  • How can we design public surveys and use the collected data to craft tailored community education and outreach programs on water resource issues?

How should we best collect information from members of the public about their knowledge and opinions on water resources and water from alternative sources, especially when the topics we are asking about are not familiar to them?

Pilot Research Projects

In Fall 2019, The Grand Challenges Sustainable Water Resources team announced a Call for Proposals to fund four pilot projects (up to $10,000 each) designed to build capacity to apply for larger research grants. This initiative will foster new collaborations for interdisciplinary researchers, and requires representation from at least two UNM Main Campus, HSC or Branch Campus departments or units. The team received ten high-quality proposals, and selected the following four pilot projects:
Online Learning Academy to Improve Knowledge of New Mexico Water Resources

  • Lead Investigator: Heather Himmelberger, P.E. Director, Southwest Environmental Finance Center, CWE, School of Engineering
  • Co-Investigator: James Daniel Stone, Ph.D. Department Chair, Associate Professor, College of Fine Arts, Department of Film and Digital Arts
  • Co-Investigator: Joni Palmer, Ph.D. Visiting Assistant Professor, College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, School of Architecture & Planning, Department of Community and Regional Planning

Integrated ecological-economic modeling for evaluating sources and impacts of nitrogen surplus in arid-land ecosystems: a pilot study of the Rio Grande

  • Lead Investigator: Jingjing Wang, Assistant Professor, Economics
  • Co-Investigator: Thomas Turner, Professor, Biology; Curator, Museum of Southwest Biology; Associate Dean for Research, College of Arts & Sciences
Understanding the relationship between algal communities and ecosystem metabolism estimates in an arid-land river
  • Lead Investigator: Rebecca J. Bixby, Department of Biology, Water Resources Program
  • Co-Investigator: Betsy M. Summers, Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering

Responses of baseflow to snowpack variability in semiarid, snow-dominated, mountainous watersheds

  • Lead Investigator: Lani Tsinnajinnie, Department of Community and Regional Planning
  • Co-Investigator: Ryan Webb, Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering

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