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NMSU's Tucumcari science center finds new ways to use recycled treated municipal wastewater

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

Researchers at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari now have the opportunity to conduct valuable irrigation studies, even in a drought situation, thanks to the partnership with the City of Tucumcari to pump treated wastewater to the center. (NMSU photo by Alec Richards)

Do you do your part to conserve Earth's natural resources?

New Mexico State University is doing just that at its Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari where researchers have seen great potential and a second life for water once it's gone down the drain.

The science center has partnered with the city of Tucumcari to pipe recycled water from the city's wastewater treatment plant to the center, giving researchers at the center and at the Las Cruces campus the opportunity to conduct valuable irrigation studies, even in a drought situation.

"We have been without a secure source of water here since 2002," said Leonard Lauriault, interim superintendent of the Tucumcari science center. "It is really hard to develop an agricultural research program when you do not have the resources. This partnership with the city gives us water so we can get back on the ground doing research."

Water is now available at times when it is traditionally not, meaning researchers can look into such things as the effect of winter irrigation on their wheat and alfalfa production, as compared to the typical summer-only irrigation cycle. The center can also focus energies on evaluating how treated wastewater affects crops and livestock and they could become one of a few research facilities in the country that are able to conduct research studies on the agricultural use of treated wastewater.

NMSU researchers are "wasting" no time in making the best out of the $1.75 million grant and loan to the city of Tucumcari from the New Mexico Water Trust Board.

Geno Picchioni, a professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, along with Jamshid Ashigh, an assistant professor in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences; Brian Schutte, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science; Lauriault; and Tom Dominguez, Quay County Cooperative Extension Service agricultural agent, have teamed up to look at the effects of recycled water on weeds with the help of an NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station Rangeland Ecosystem grant. They plan to look at specific weeds and evaluate how widespread they are in the state. They intend to see what kind of affect an application of treated wastewater has on different weed populations and how tolerant they are to the water.

Rangelands are depleted now but when the rains come and the rangeland starts to grow, producers are going to want their herds to start calving quickly. Eric Scholljegerdes, a range ruminant nutritionist with NMSU, has plans to start a grazing trial for heifer development. He wants to look at the effects the higher quality recycled water-irrigated pastures have on calves at the onset of puberty.

Depending on the work being done and the time of the year, the science center pumps between 400,000 and 450,000 gallons of treated wastewater a day, about 1.3 acre-feet a day.

The recycled wastewater being pumped from the treatment plant has a Class 1B rating, which is the second best rating treated wastewater can receive and is suitable for use by livestock as drinking water, and is safe for the irrigation of forage and animal feed crops and even for parks, schoolyards and urban landscaping during periods when public access is restricted.

But, that could change in the future as researchers continue to study the various benefits of using recycled wastewater. Lauriault said for now, they can look at safety issues to see if it is feasible to use the water on human food production with prior permission from the New Mexico Environment Department. Even though the water cannot be used on food for human consumption, researchers can look into different application techniques, such as drip irrigation, on crops where the water would never come into direct contact with the crop - such as grapes.

"The added benefit of the reclaimed wastewater is that it is something that needs to be dealt with from an environmental standpoint, its effect on soils, crops and the environment," Lauriault said. "This work goes beyond agricultural application. When we apply the water to the ground, we need to know what happens to it before it gets to the groundwater system or comes back out as surface water. We are in a really good position now to address these elements and seek funding to continue our research here."

The Tucumcari center will continue its work with dryland and forage crop production.

"Agriculturally, this gives us an opportunity to have an unlimited set of capabilities for doing crop production research," the interim superintendent said.

But, Lauriault said, this opportunity opens many more doors for researchers to explore.

Using reclaimed wastewater might be a new concept for NMSU, but major cities in the United States, such as Los Angeles, have already incorporated this model in their own regions.

"Work is already being done in those places," Lauriault said. "We can add to that; we can participate and gain knowledge that could be applicable just about anywhere."

David Thompson, associate dean and director of NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station, said this partnership has widespread benefits for NMSU and the community.

"This opens up new research opportunities that will bring more money into the Tucumcari area, which will be an economic benefit to the region and the people," he said. "This partnership allows us to conduct successful agricultural research during a time when we have no water to work with. We need water to do our experiments. This collaboration with the city of Tucumcari is allowing us to meet our mission at the Agricultural Experiment Station."

"Everybody involved is excited about this and is really working hard to maintain this partnership because it is so good for the university, the community and the state in general," Lauriault said. "I am just really excited about the prospects of what could happen here in the next year or two that could lead to a long-term program."