The research center in El Paso, TX focuses on the most critical needs of Far West Texas – adequate adequate, reliable, safe, and economic water supplies. A border population of more than 2 million, rapid growth has created competition for existing water. Environmental issues and frequent drought also underscore the urgency for finding and implementing effective solutions.
Premier research projects include waterborne pathogen detection, soil and water salinity management, reclaimed water use, desalination concentrate alternatives, ground-surface water management, and evaluation of the economic impacts of technology and policy changes.
Key Research Areas
- Waterborne pathogen detection and control
- Water and soil salinity management
- Hydrogeology and district delivery efficiency
- Water value, pricing and irrigation efficiency
- Reclaimed water use and bioremediation
- Agricultural economics and water policy
- Urban landscape water conservation
- Integrated river basin management and analysis
- Hydrologic research, done in the Far West region focuses on maintaining a healthy ecosystem during extreme drought and helps more than 2.5 million people from the West Texas, New Mexico, and along the U.S.-Mexican border.
- Researchers from the Far West region provide the scientific data on a protozoan water pathogen, this data is used to support public health decisions and regulatory monitoring by the EPA.
- Results show that a least one irrigation or about 3,000 acre-feet of freshwater per year, can be saved using soil moisture based irrigation scheduling in El Paso County.
- The El Paso Center leads a bi-national effort to ensure adequate water resources for Texas, New Mexico, and the Mexican border region.
- El Paso center researchers are developing bioenergy crops that can use marginal-quality water sources such as treated urban wastewater and gray water.
Water Resources and Salinity Management
Dr. Girisha Ganjegunte develops methods for freshwater conservation, water-use efficiency, water reuse, and salinity management in arid environments. These practices sustain land productivity and ensure that irrigated agriculture and landscapes remain viable long-term.
Among other projects, Ganjegunte and his collaborators:
- Are working to diversify the water portfolio for agriculture in the Rio Grande Basin.
- Have developed an improved pecan irrigation schedule that could save enough water in El Paso County to supply 12,000 households.
- Have increased cotton yields by 20% and improved cotton fiber quality in high-salinity soil by treating irrigation water with a sulfur burner. The treatment proved highly cost effective over a year, and multi-year studies are underway.
Hydrology and Water Resources Management
Flow patterns in rivers and aquifers have many implications for water resource management and ecosystem health. Dr. Zhuping Sheng studies hydrological processes, water-resources management, managed aquifer recharge, and aquifer mechanics in the El Paso and other arid regions. His theoretical and applied research is relevant for water-source protection, securing water resources during prolonged droughts, and alleviating damages due to droughts and floods.
Sheng collaborates with federal, state, and local agencies and research institutions on numerous projects, including the following:
- Developing a water database and flow model for flood planning and water operations within the Rio Grande.
- Assessing transboundary aquifers between Texas and Mexico.
- Assessing impacts of climate variability on regional water resources.
- Assessing the multimillion-dollar economic impacts of Rio Grande salinity on both agricultural and urban sectors.
- Developing a Far West Texas regional water plan.
Urban Landscape Water Conservation
In the southwestern United States, using marginal-quality water for irrigation helps conserve the region’s scarce freshwater. However, alternative water sources can contain elevated salt levels that would be harmful to crops. To enable the use of these alternative water resources, Dr. Genhua Niu seeks out salt-tolerant cultivars of landscape plants, bioenergy crops, and regionally important crops such as chili peppers, pecans, and pomegranates.
Among Dr. Niu’s many other research projects are the following:
- Smart pesticide spray technology. Collaborating with USDA-ARS, the team is testing this advanced technology in a pecan orchard. By retrofitting a smart-spray controller, the team can reduce spray volume by 50%, drift reduction by 87%, and ground loss by 70–90%.
- Controlled-environment agriculture and hydroponic production of leafy greens and herbs. Growing plants in hydroponics in a greenhouse can reduce water use by over 90%.
- Indoor vertical farming. By growing crops using LED lights without soil and sunlight, indoor farms can be built close to population centers, cutting the length of the supply-chain and the distance of transportation.
Natural Resource Economics and Policy
In today’s changing world, stewards of natural resources must account for diverse factors such as the effects of extreme weather and societal conflicts or the side effects of management strategies.
Dr. Gregory L. Torell leads a theoretical and applied research program on effective management of water, agriculture, and natural resources. Among his research topics are hydroeconomic modeling of river and aquifer systems; the nexus of food, energy, and water; urban and rural water use; risk management; and environmental benefits of ecosystem services.
The program has worked to train and guide water professionals, recommend profitable crop choices to regional producers, and provide science-based recommendations for policy makers.