Availability of water in the Rio Grande Basin has long been a primary concern for water-resource managers. The transport and delivery of water in the basin have been engineered by using reservoirs, irrigation canals and drains, and transmountain-water diversions to meet the agricultural, residential, and industrial demand. In contrast, despite the widespread recognition of critical water-quality problems, there have been minimal management efforts to improve water quality in the Rio Grande. Of greatest concern is salinization (concentration of dissolved solids approaching 1,000 mg/L), a water-quality problem that has been recognized and researched for more than 100 years because of the potential to limit both agricultural and municipal use. To address the issue of salinization, water-resource managers need to have a clear conceptual understanding of the sources of salinity and the factors that control storage and transport, identify critical knowledge gaps in this conceptual understanding, and develop a research plan to address these gaps and develop a salinity management program. In 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (NMISC), and New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) initiated a project to summarize the current state of knowledge regarding the transport of dissolved solids in the Rio Grande between San Acacia, New Mexico, and Fort Quitman, Texas. The primary objective is to provide hydrologic information pertaining to the spatial and temporal variability present in the concentrations and loads of dissolved solids in the Rio Grande, the source-specific budget for the mass of dissolved solids transported along the Rio Grande, and the locations at which dissolved solids enter the Rio Grande. Dissolved-solids concentration data provide a good indicator of the general quality of surface water and provide information on the factors governing salinization within the Rio Grande study area. The pattern in dissolved-solids concentrations along the Rio Grande is one of increasing concentration with increasing distance downstream from Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs. The concentration of dissolved solids in the Rio Grande doubles (approximately 500 to 1,000 mg/L) from below Elephant Butte Reservoir to El Paso and increases by more than a factor of 5 (approximately 500 to 3,200 mg/L) from below Elephant Butte Reservoir to Fort Quitman. Marked increases in the concentration of dissolved solids commonly coincide with contributions from agricultural drains, wastewater-treatment plants, regional groundwater, and upward-flowing saline groundwater. The greatest factor, from the surface-water system, in controlling dissolved solids in the Rio Grande is the amount of water that is being transported or stored. Annual variation in streamflow is influenced primarily by climate (precipitation and evaporation) and management of Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs (water storage and release cycles). Seasonal variation in streamflow within the Rio Grande study area is generally categorized generally as irrigation (March–September) and nonirrigation (October–February) seasons; with streamflow in the Rio Grande is highest during the irrigation season and lowest during the nonirrigation season. Dissolved-solids loads during the irrigation season decrease between Leasburg and Fort Quitman primarily because of irrigation diversions and losses to the underlying alluvial aquifer. Conversely, dissolved-solids loads during the nonirrigation season increase between Caballo Dam and Fort Quitman primarily because of the inflow of dissolved solids from agricultural drains, wastewater-treatment plants, and groundwater with elevated concentrations of dissolved solids. Many studies have mass-balance budgets that account for the mass of dissolved solids transported along the Rio Grande. Results from mass-balance budgets developed for dissolved solids indicated that (1) the inflow of saline groundwater, inflow of regional groundwater, and chemical reactions between mineral phases are the primary sources controlling dissolved solids in the Rio Grande, and (2) groundwater pumping and mineral precipitation are causing a net storage of dissolved solids in the Leasburg to El Paso and El Paso to Fort Quitman reaches of the Rio Grande. Looking forward, multiple water-resource managers from State and local agencies in New Mexico and Texas and Federal agencies formed the Rio Grande Salinity Management Coalition with the goal to reduce the amount of dissolved solids that are transported and stored in the Rio Grande study area. The recommendations for additional monitoring to assist the coalition are as follows:
-Monitoring: Couple water-quality and streamflow monitoring in the Rio Grande and agricultural drains; perform groundwater-seepage investigations in the Rio Grande and major agricultural drains; nonitor groundwater water-quality conditions in the Mesilla and Hueco Basins.
-Focused Hydrogeology Studies at Inflow Sources: Map dissolved-solids concentrations in the Rio Grande and underlying alluvial aquifer; perform hydrogeologic characterization of subsurface areas containing unusually high concentrations of dissolved solids.
-Modeling of Dissolved Solids: Develop models to simulate the transport and storage of dissolved solids in both surface-water and groundwater systems.
Additional Publication Details
USGS Numbered Series
Knowledge and understanding of dissolved solids in the Rio Grande–San Acacia, New Mexico, to Fort Quitman, Texas, and plan for future studies and monitoring