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NMSU researchers use satellite images to monitor water use

Every year Doņa Ana County enforces water restrictions to curb the region's water shortage. But currently there is no system in place to monitor water use of area farms.

From left: Civil engineering student Brad Kirksey, Professor Zohrab Samani and Professor Salim Bawazir look over satellite images used to measure water usage. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"If you are attempting to implement any kind of water conservation policy or methods you have to make sure they are working," said Rhonda Skaggs, professor of agriculture economics and agriculture business at New Mexico State University. "When the before and after levels of water use are accurately measured, it creates accountability. Enforcing the policy is only possible with accurate measurements of water use."

Civil engineering student Brad Kirksey, Professor Zohrab Samani and Professor Salim Bawazir look over satellite imagesA College of Engineering and College of Agriculture research team at NMSU devised a method of monitoring water use in Doņa Ana County through satellite technology and won second place at a national competition for their findings.

"Tons of farms are using water in the valley," said Zohrab Samani, civil engineering professor. "This is the first time we've found a technique to determine how much water they're using each day. We hope they can use the monitoring system to decrease their water intake and become efficient. This will be a way to understand whether crops are being overwatered."

The research team consists of Samani, Skaggs, civil engineering professor Salim Bawazir, civil engineering student Brad Kirksey, and Max Bleiwiess, scientist for the Center for Applied Remote Sensing in Agriculture, Meteorology and Environment at NMSU.

The team measured the evapotranspiration (ET) level, or the amount of water lost by direct evaporation from soil, pond water and plants. The ET of agricultural crops such as cotton and pecans was measured by using satellite data. These data were then used to estimate the entire water use of Doņa Ana County, Samani said.

The decades of drought and the growing community make it necessary to change Doņa Ana County's complete dependence on groundwater, the scientists said. Based on their measurements, the NMSU team determined the county could be more efficient by introducing surface water into the mix. Samani said when surface water is not used it evaporates and that is an unnecessary loss.

Part of the research was funded by the National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NSF-EPSCoR), the Office of the State Engineer Rio Grande Basin Initiative, Gov. Bill Richardson's Water Innovation Fund II Project and the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute at NMSU.

Kirksey presented the team's research paper, "Estimating Crop Water Use in Doņa Ana County," at the NSF-EPSCoR competition. He won second place for best student paper out of 26 participating states. He also received an award of excellence for outstanding research with his presentation on "Crop Evapotranspiration Study on Doņa Ana County, N.M."

The 19th EPSCoR conference took place at Lexington, Ky., Nov. 7-10. Kirksey was the only undergraduate student to participate in the national competition.

The EPSCoR program provides strategic programs and opportunities for areas that have historically received less funding from the National Science Foundation to research at a nationally competitive level.

"Winning second prize basically shows what we've been doing is important to the national level," Samani said. "It shows the strength of the research. This was the most practical paper they've seen. It has real-world application."

The team is working now with the Office of the State Engineer to implement the satellite monitoring system as part of the water conservation regulation program.