New Mexico Water eNews


June 2016

Photo by Steve McClug

Scientists Confer on Effects of Colorado Mine Spill
by Jane Moorman, NMSU News Service (Published in the Albuquerque Journal, June 6, 2016)

FARMINGTON – Nine months after mining sludge from the Gold King Mine turned the Animas and San Juan rivers yellow, scientists and researchers gathered here recently to share what they have learned so far regarding the contamination of the rivers from the spill in August 2015.

“Immediately during and after the Gold King Mine spill, different groups started monitoring the river water, shores and irrigation systems,” said Sam Fernald, director of the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute at New Mexico State University.

“As they have gathered data, they realized there are a lot of questions about the history of the watersheds, the natural state of the rivers, and the long-term impact. They immediately came up with all of these questions beyond the initial response,” Fernald said.

The conference last month at San Juan College was a time for 150 scientists from state and federal agencies, New Mexico universities, Native American tribes and numerous cities and counties to exchange information from their early stages of research.

While the spill sparked fear among those whose livelihood depends on the water, it has proven to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the scientists.

“This was a historic event,” said Kevin Lombard, a horticulturalist stationed at NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center at Farmington who is conducting two studies regarding the impact of the spill on the agricultural land. “We have the opportunity to record the impact of the contaminants that were in the mining sludge.”

Recording of the impact is proving to be a collaboration of researchers.

“We have a common goal of figuring out what the questions are and figuring out how to address them and how to get the information out to the public,” Fernald said.

Since the spill, the scientists have gathered data regarding river water quality before, during and after the spill; private wells accessing groundwater; the impact of the water quality on the fish; and the impact of irrigated river water on the agricultural land.

The greatest challenge is the perception of health risks that the spill caused. The early finding is that the levels of heavy metals being monitored are within federal standards. Only when rainwater increases the rivers’ water levels do the metal levels increase briefly from the riverbank contamination in Colorado.

Conference collaborators in the long-term monitoring include the NM Water Resources Research Institute, the state Environment Department, NMSU, UNM, New Mexico Tech, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District, San Juan Watershed Group, San Juan County, the City of Aztec and the City of Farmington.

Betsy Summers prepares water quality sensors for deployment to monitor stream conditions during spring tracer injection experiments in May 2016 on the East Fork
of the Jemez River.

UNM Student Developing Toolbox to Study Solute Transport in Jemez River‒Rio Grande Continuum
by Catherine Ortega Klett, Program Manager

The recent Animas River spill underscores the ongoing need to be able to describe contaminant concentrations in rivers from small upstream sources to large-current downstream reaches. This problem is being addressed by Betsy Summers, a Ph.D. student in UNM's Department of Civil Engineering, in collaboration with her faculty advisor, Dr. Ricardo González-Pinzón. Investigations of solute transport typically begin by injecting tracer material and following its concentration versus time and/or distance downstream. Due to the complexity of the transport of solutes, most tracer experiments are restricted to relatively small flow discharge rates and short transport lengths of half a kilometer or less. By tracking the downstream appearance of the tracer concentration as a function of time at a given location, one obtains what is called the breakthrough tracer curve (BTC). With this curve, one can infer important stream channel properties like geometry, resistance to flow, and the dispersive or mixing power of the flow, all of which provide the basis for constructing a model of solute transport in the stream.

Applying tracer experiments to rivers is challenging on multiple fronts: 1) the mass of the tracer that has to be injected is a function of unknown or difficult-to-measure channel characteristics; 2) the observation of some solute transport processes such as decay and sorption may require extensive experimental lengths or multiple sampling points; 3) extreme conditions, like high turbidity, in the river can hinder the performance of instruments that emit ultraviolet light to measure reactive tracers like nitrate in real-time; and 4) streams and rivers have regions of strong secondary circulation and relatively stagnant “dead zones,” which reduce the efficiency of solute transport, giving long tails to the BTC curves. All these layers of complication make planning and carrying out tracer experiments very difficult, especially when we want to understand solute transport processes across entire watersheds or river continuums.

In order to apply tracer experiments to a river continuum, Betsy Summers and Dr. González-Pinzón are using a systems engineering approach to combine various models and data in an Excel toolbox to better estimate travel times and the reactivity of ecologically important solutes. This approach integrates: 1) the Aggregated Dead Zone (ADZ) model (Beer and Young, 1983) for solute transport to account for the dead zone phenomenon; 2) a U.S. Geological Survey meta-analysis of tracer experiments conducted in more than 60 rivers of varying discharges and sizes across the U.S. (Jobson, 1997); and 3) the quantification of nutrient cycling and transport (“spiraling”) using the Tracer Addition for Spiraling Curve Characterization (TASCC) methodology (Covino et al., 2010). Summers and Dr. González-Pinzón are developing and validating this technique along the Jemez River‒Rio Grande continuum, which spans eight stream orders, corresponding to a thousand-fold increase in flow rate from the headwaters to the larger rivers.

The objective of this research is to create a user-friendly computational toolbox capable of: 1) estimating injection mass needed to properly characterize a tracer BTC as a function of river discharge and longitudinal sampling distance; 2) predicting arrival time, time-to-peak concentration and mean travel time of a solute BTC as a function of longitudinal distance and discharge; 3) analyzing nutrient uptake kinetics along river reaches from short-term and plateau tracer injections; and 4) characterizing expected concentrations of contaminants in rivers as a function of observed upstream BTCs or known contaminant mass from short-term spills. Preliminary comparisons between conservative tracer BTC predictions with the experimental data show that the toolbox predicts travel times and the mass to be injected in a tracer experiment reasonably well along the continuum.

Betsy Summers received a 2016 NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant and her final report on the project will be posted on the institute’s website in July 2016.  To view, click here.


Beer, T. and P.C. Young. 1983. Longitudinal dispersion in natural streams, J. Environ.       Eng., 109(5), 1049-1067.
Covino, T.P., B.L. McGlynn, and R.A. McNamara. 2010. Tracer additions for spiraling curve       characterization (TASCC): Quantifying stream nutrient uptake kinetics from ambient       to saturation. Limnol. Oceanogr.: Methods 8, 484-498.
Jobson, H.E. 1997. Predicting travel time and dispersion in rivers and streams, J. Hydraul.
.,123(11), 971-978.


Call for Poster Abstracts
by Catherine Ortega Klett, Program Manager

NM WRRI’s 61st Annual New Mexico Water Conference includes a Call for Poster Abstracts. The conference, Where Does All the Water Go? History, Hydrology and Management of New Mexico’s Scarce Waters, will take place on October 5-7, 2016 on the Western New Mexico University campus in Silver City, NM. We anticipate about 200 participants at this year’s conference representing academia and research laboratories; federal, state, and local water agencies; policymakers; private water-related businesses and industry; special interest groups; and many other stakeholders.

This Call for Poster Abstracts seeks abstracts on any water research or management topic. Students especially are encouraged to submit an abstract. The deadline for submitting a poster abstract is September 15, 2016. Abstracts must not exceed 250 words and must be submitted via the NM WRRI website. Click here to submit an abstract. Notification of poster acceptance will be made by September 20.

The poster session at the conference is scheduled for Friday, October 7 from 9:30-11:00 a.m. at the Global Resource Center at WNMU. Presenters are required to be at their poster for the entire poster session.

The NM WRRI conference website has program information, a description of tours associated with the conference, and a link for registration.  To visit the conference website click here.

  May 2016

  Classification of Riparian Saltcedar in the Desert Southwest Using Landsat Data
  and the HANTS Algorithm

  WRRI Miscellaneous Report No. 32
  Dennis C. McCarville
  Max P. Bleiweiss
  Salim Bawazir

(NIR) reflected light, which is the red color in the false-color NIR image, and
the red reflected light in the natural RGB image can be used to calculate the
Normalized Difference Vegetation Index(NDVI). NDVI values are used to
indicate where and how much green biomass is in the observed area. The
HANTS algorithm was used to process multiple NDVI images, and the results
of the process were classified to locate areas with concentrations of saltcedar.


  New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute
  New Mexico State University
  MSC 3167, P.O. Box 30001
  Las Cruces, New Mexico 88003-8001
(575) 646-4337 email:


Mapping Saltcedar Growth Described in NM WRRI Miscellaneous Report
by Catherine Ortega Klett, Program Manager

While working on a master’s degree in the Department of Civil Engineering at NMSU, Dennis McCarville studied two methods for mapping saltcedar growth in the Southwest. Along with faculty advisors Dr. Salim Bawazir, also in the Department of Civil Engineering, and Mr. Max Bleiweiss of NMSU’s Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science Department, Dennis explored the possibility of tracking the spread of saltcedar by drawing inferences from satellite imagery. The basic idea is to compare satellite images in both the visual (red) and near infrared ranges. In the growing season, vegetation characteristically absorbs red light for photosynthesis, and strongly reflects near infrared heat radiation in order to avoid overheating. On the other hand, in the dormant season dry and sparse vegetation reflects both wavelengths of light similarly, and in the winter season with bare ground the red light is strongly reflected while the infrared light is mostly absorbed. These seasonal differences, which are slightly different for each type of vegetation, provide the basic information needed to track the spread of saltcedar.

Since the satellite data varies strongly over short-time intervals due to such influences as cloudiness, it is also necessary to first smooth out the successive images to suppress this effectively random behavior. At the suggestion of Max Bleiweiss, a kind of running average of the images was performed to filter out noise, by using what is known as the harmonic analysis of times series (HANTS) algorithm. From the resulting smoothed sequence of images, seasonal trends in the implied reflected light as it would appear at the top of the atmosphere could be identified. This provides the basis of a novel classification procedure for associating seasonal vegetation trends, identified as phenological changes, with the HANTA-based time series trends. The study established the feasibility of this remote sensing approach to the problem of tracking saltcedar, as is described in the project’s Abstract, given directly below.

Abstract. Saltcedar (Tamarix spp.) is one of the most invasive species threatening the ecosystem health in riparian regions across the southwestern United States. This research compared maps of saltcedar growth in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge derived using traditional pixel-wise classification methods, to maps derived from a series of normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) images that were processed using the harmonic analysis of time series (HANTS) algorithm. For 2000/2001 the overall prediction accuracies for saltcedar classification based on traditional methods ranged from 88.0 to 91.0%. Corresponding overall accuracies based on the HANTS algorithm ranged from 81.5 to 90.5%. For 2010/2011 the overall prediction accuracies for saltcedar classification based on traditional methods ranged from 88.0 to 89.0%. Corresponding overall accuracies based on the HANTS algorithm ranged from 77.5 to 85.0%. The traditional classification required more data preparation and expertise than the HANTS based classification; however, the HANTS based classification required a larger dataset. The results show that the HANTS reconstruction of NDVI data can be used directly to classify areas with saltcedar. The phenological changes revealed by the HANTS algorithm reconstruction could also be used to select data used with other classification methods.

Those interested in the project can view NM WRRI Miscellaneous Report No. 32 in its entirety by clicking here

NM WRRI Welcomes Student Assistant
by Catherine Ortega Klett, Program Manager

Ashley Page recently joined the NM WRRI as a student research assistant, primarily working on a collaborative effort between New Mexico State University and the Bureau of Reclamation, Center for the Development and Use of Alternative Water Supplies. Ashley is developing a website for the Center and will use her skills in film and media studies to prepare videos for the website. She also is helping plan a workshop in August 2016 where newly funded researchers will describe progress on their research.

In May 2015, Ashley received a B.A. in political science, cum laude, from Davidson College in North Carolina. She has applied to NMSU’s Master of Water Science and Management program where she will pursue her interest in the study of water. Ashley says, “I’m passionate about my dream to contribute to solving water management issues at a time when rising competition over the resource intensifies needs for innovation improvements to existing processes.”

Ashley has written water policy papers focusing on international water issues in Ireland and the Soviet Union. She has also written on the recent Detroit water crisis and prepared a policy paper that was submitted to the USDA on uranium-polluted water and land on the Navajo Reservation. Ashley is currently working on a paper with a Davidson professor that examines the implications of droughts on water conservation policy and legislation in drought-stricken areas of the country.

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