The Water Resources Center and CASNR Water Center help promote water quality research through collaboration to preserve the region’s fresh water sources.
Water. It is one of the basic elements of life on Earth. Yet the amount of available fresh water for human use compared to the total amount of water on the planet is surprisingly small.
Of the total surface of the Earth, 71 percent is covered by water. Less than 3 percent of that water is fresh water and more than 98 percent of the fresh water is ice. A 2007 study showed roughly 70 percent of the freshwater used by humans goes to agriculture, and less than 0.3 percent of all freshwater is found in rivers, lakes and the atmosphere.
Making sure there is enough water not only for human consumption but for use in agriculture is of vital importance, and it's an area of focus for two research centers at Texas Tech University – the Water Resources Center in the Whitacre College of Engineering and the CASNR Water Center in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.
Both centers play crucial roles in ensuring there is enough water to use in a variety of ways, from drinking water to crop irrigation. Those two areas come into focus this month with the recognition of National Water Quality Month, encouraging an examination of household and community efforts to protect the sources of fresh water.
“The quality of the water plays a big role in how much water is available, and quality defines what the water is used for,” said Venkatesh Uddameri, a professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering and the director of the Water Resources Center. “Not only do we need a quantity of water but we need to make sure the water is of the right quality.”
Water Resources Center
Founded by the Texas Tech Board of Regents in 1965, the Water Resources Center (WRC) has used research, education and public service to foster water resources research on regional, national and worldwide scales. The center also acts as a central location to access water-related experts throughout the campus.
“Obviously, we are in the middle of a semi-arid region and a lot of water goes for agriculture,” Uddameri said. “So it's clear that protecting water resources is an important component for sustainability in our region.”
The WRC conducts research in a variety of areas to not only protect the main source of fresh water on the High Plains – the Ogallala Aquifer that stretches from the Permian Basin to South Dakota – but also to search for potential new sources of fresh water.
Among the research focuses being directed at the WRC, scientists and engineers are looking into the possible reuse of low-quality water that is produced from hydraulic fracturing, using nanoparticles to clean up contaminated water (which could be used in space to reduce payload weight on manned space missions) and treatment techniques that could help take out the harmful effects of pharmaceutical waste, whether from humans or animals, from contaminated water. In addition, there are efforts on characterizing the amount and quality of brackish groundwater available in the region.
The search for new sources of fresh water was driven by the extensive drought the region suffered just a few years ago.
“Fresh water sources have dwindled, which means we have to increasingly rely on poor-quality water,” Uddameri said. “So how we can reuse that water, reclaim it and give it a second pass or a third pass before discharging it is very important. It is a very significant component to what we do, from the recycling of water in the fracking industry all the way to reusing it for potable water both on earth and in space, like the Mars mission.”
Uddameri said the WRC's water quality work involves more than just finding and maintaining sources of drinking water. There are also agricultural and landscape aspects to the research, especially with conservation. Climate variability plays a significant role on both the quantity and quality of water. He said it's too early to understand the full effects of the recent heavy rains in the state during June, but it's crucial to remember that just because there was a lot of rain in the area, it does not mean conservation should be abandoned.
There are other issues as well, such as developing cost-effective methods to treat the greatest source of water on the planet – the oceans. But because of its high salt content, treatment of ocean water not only has to be inexpensive, but a system also must be developed to deliver that water where it is needed in a cost-effective manner.
“As we get a greater scarcity of water we have to look to poor quality of water, and there are costs involved in treating that water and moving that water,” Uddameri said. “It's not that we don't have water, we just don't have much fresh water. Improving the quality of that water and how we solve the problem depends on how we can improve the quality at a reasonable cost and low environmental impact. That's the bottom line for Texas.”
CASNR Water Center
The CASNR Water Center (CWC) acts as a research clearinghouse on water management in all aspects of agricultural and urban landscape use and conservation.
Charles West, the Thornton Distinguished Chair of the Department of Plant & Soil Science and director of the CASNR Water Center, said the CWC keeps faculty informed about water-related conferences and grant opportunities while also fostering collaboration between faculty members, colleges within Texas Tech and between Texas Tech and other universities.
“Fortunately, the quality of the Ogallala is good for agriculture,” West said. “We currently have minimal problems with salt buildup for example, though it can be a localized problem if not managed correctly. The aspect of saltiness in groundwater that is of greatest concern is if we tap out the Ogallala then drill deeper to another aquifer, such as the Dockum (Santa Rosa), which contains a higher salt content. Then, we have to be very concerned about the quality of water for agricultural purposes.”
Like the Water Resources Center, the CWC is focused on the decline of output from the Ogallala Aquifer. It works closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District to get information out to researchers, agricultural users and the public.
The CWC's research efforts aren't limited to irrigation on the High Plains. Good soil management, such as building soil organic matter and minimizing tillage, encourages the infiltration of rain, which recharges aquifers reduces the need for irrigation. Faculty also do research on managing vegetation along streams and ponds in non-irrigated rangeland areas to prevent streambank erosion, maintain habitat for wildlife and provide drinking water for cattle.
Other CWC research interests includes improving management of landscapes to prevent excess amounts of phosphorus, nitrogen, pharmaceuticals and animal hormones moving into surface water bodies. Research and education on water conservation for both urban and agricultural uses are major emphasis areas in CASNR, involving faculty from economics to communication to plant and soil sciences.
The Texas Water Development Board has funded for 10 years a project at Texas Tech called the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation, which monitors water use in various crops, both irrigated and dryland, and calculates the water use efficiency. The Alliance uses this data to educate farmers and ranchers on the most efficient water-management techniques and how to implement them.
“We found early on that quite a few producers were over-irrigating,” West said. “So we saw that as low-hanging fruit and focused on that by developing online planning tools which guide producers in proper scheduling of irrigation. In the meantime, we do field comparisons of different irrigation techniques to demonstrate how to deliver just the right amount of water for the crop to make a more profitable return.”
West said the recent heavy rains were very helpful in refilling the soil rooting zone with enough water to greatly reduce the need for early-season irrigation, which will temporarily slow the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer. At the same time, the rain fell so hard and so quickly that West has seen soil erosion where the rate of rainfall exceeded the infiltration rate of the soil, causing runoff that took soil with it.
West said one of the brightest opportunities to improve crop use of water involves plant genetics. The goal is to breed more drought-resistant crops that require less water to produce the same or increased yield. Texas Tech has worked closely with major seed companies to develop higher-yield, drought-tolerant and heat-tolerant crops.
The growing West Texas wine industry is a good example, West said, of the production of high-value, water-frugal crops, while farther south there is work being done in the production of olive trees.
“The days of being able to irrigate all acres of a farm at a high rate are over,” West said. “Some producers are concentrating their irrigation to smaller portions of pivot circles and growing dryland or low-irrigation crops in the rest of the circle.”
Climate change also will play a part in water quality and conservation in the future, so the CWC also works with the Texas Tech Climate Science Center to predict what climate change will mean for this area. Faculty in the CWC also collaborates with universities in New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas to share information that can benefit not only the High Plains but other areas as well.
“The CASNR Water Center makes sure the right people know each other and can get together in a collaborative effort to promote water quality and conservation,” West said.