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Treated municipal wastewater brings hope for future research at NMSU's Tucumcari Science Center

New Mexico's drought has been devastating, especially for agriculture. For 10 years, the New Mexico State University Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari has halted much of its research due to lack of a consistent supply of water for irrigation. In 2011 a contract was signed allowing the center to get back to investigation in irrigated agriculture.

Treated water is distributed throughout the fields using a sprinkler system. There are a 18- and 30-acre sprinklers in addition to a 35-acre pivot already in place. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)

Leonard Lauriault, the new superintendent at the Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari, points toward trees that have died because of the severe drought. He is currently working with the city of Tucumcari, using its treated water for irrigation. (Photo by Angela Simental)

Leonard Lauriault, the new superintendent at the science center, said that thanks to a 20-year contract with the city of Tucumcari, treated wastewater produced by the city is being pumped two miles to help irrigate the fields at the center. Pipeline construction was completed in late summer 2012.

"We are getting 300-acre feet of water per year from the city of Tucumcari," Lauriault said. "And, bringing the water to New Mexico State was the best and most beneficial use for it at the time the contract was signed."

Lauriault, who became the superintendent at the science center earlier this year after conducting forage crop research there for 16 years, will be able to restart the irrigated research program, including larger pasture trials and small research plots to evaluate forage production - one of the center's main research efforts. Projects also will be conducted by researchers from the university's Las Cruces campus.

Using wastewater brings a new spectrum of research since the water contains pharmaceuticals, salts and even nutrients for plant growth. Lauriault wants to explore the water's impact on the soil, environment and crops.

"We might learn that we have weeds that could be used as contraceptives, who knows," said Lauriault jokingly as he explained that treated municipal wastewater contains remnants of contraceptives, which may affect the weeds or crops.

Water is sprayed in three different fields through 18- and 30-acre sprinklers provided by the city in addition to a 35-acre pivot already in place. Everything must be carefully labeled because the water can contain E. coli. Among the many restrictions, the water cannot be applied through sprinklers within 100 feet of a dwelling and only to fields and other areas when no one is around.

"It cannot be applied to crops for human consumption, only for livestock feed and fiber crops," he said. "We need to evaluate safe application techniques for food crops."

Currently the project is in its trial phase, growing alfalfa, sorghum, soybeans, corn, including blue corn, tepary beans and cotton varieties to test the wastewater's effects, among other things.

Projects will be conducted annually using treated water, but it could take four or five years or more for studies to become conclusive. Many aspects need to be assessed such as the types of weeds that will grow in treated wastewater, the types of crops and how the water will impact the soil and the environment. Will it infiltrate the soil? Or, where will the elements in the water go?

Many cities use a "cleaner" version of treated wastewater to irrigate lawns, gardens and parks. In a state where water is a luxury, new methods of farming and irrigation must be tested, Lauriault said.

"Potable water can now be conserved for drinking, bathing or cooking rather than to be used for irrigation," Lauriault said.

Also, with dependable irrigation, the Eastern New Mexico Outdoor Arboretum, which is located at the science center and showcases trees and shrubs from the area, will be able to maintain its 100 species. It has lost trees that were more than 80 years old - almost as old as the center itself at 102 years old.

"With the drought everything has been interrupted," Lauriault said. "We can see from our weather data a trend of less precipitation over years, increased temperatures and higher wind. I believe it's a cycle. I heard someone say that we will be in the current cycle for 10 or 15 more years. That's a long time. Even when that cycle breaks we are on surface irrigation systems here. If it rains in northern New Mexico and fills up lakes then our local producers will be back to business. Because we're able to continue our irrigated research program, we should have valuable information for them when that happens."

The project with the city of Tucumcari will also help with the expansion of faculty at the center. Whereas other science centers have four or five faculty, in Tucumcari there is only one, Lauriault, who is now responsible for all the administrative aspects as well as research. Over the course of five years, the center might add new faculty. Lauriault anticipates that the first faculty member will be hired within a year.

"Our first priority, as defined by our Advisory Committee, will probably be someone to work on dry land fertility, tillage and other issues for water conservation," Lauriault said.

"We have a very wide horizon of what we can do here now," he said. "We will have to learn what the opportunities are as we go."