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Valencia County Extension office demonstrates traditional water conservation systems

LOS LUNAS Harvesting rainwater for use at a later time has been a practice for centuries by many societies. As living Green and conserving natural resources has a renewal in our society, the concept of using a rain barrel is one way people can gather water for gardening instead of using groundwater.

NMSU's Valencia County Extension agricultural agent Kyle Tator points to the spout of the olla irrigation system that is being used in a rainwater harvesting and water-wise gardening demonstration on the front porch of the extension office located at 404 Courthouse Road in Los Lunas. Rain is captured by gutters and routed to the 55-gallon barrels to the right of Tator. When the buried unglazed clay olla, Spanish for earthen jar, reservoirs need to be filled, Tator manually transfers the water with a bucket. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

Kyle Tator, New Mexico State University's Valencia County Extension agricultural agent, has established a rainwater harvesting and water-wise gardening demonstration to introduce the traditional concepts of rain barrels and olla irrigation to the residents of his county. With a Rio Grande Basin Initiative grant, Tator is gathering the rain runoff from the roof of the extension office at 404 Courthouse Road in Los Lunas.

As the demands for groundwater increases in the urban/rural communities of Valencia County, Tator says residents have asked for ways to conserve water and use it more efficiently.

"We installed rain gutters on the south side of our building to collect and direct the rainwater into five 55-gallon barrels," he said. "Water collected by this system is irrigating container gardens using the ancient olla form of irrigation. Ollas were brought into this region by the Spanish settlers and adopted by Native Americans for its benefit on growing crops in the arid lands of New Mexico."

Even with the limited rainfall in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, Tator said his barrels have been full and even overflowing this summer. For every square foot of roof surface, the harvesting system gets about six tenths of a gallon during a one-inch rainfall event.

"During one rainstorm when we had an inch and a half of rain, our barrels overflowed," he said admitting that with 1,600 square feet of roof, larger storage tanks could be used. "But since this is a demonstration system we decided we didn't need to capture everything that runs off the roof."

The captured water has been enough to water the container garden on the front porch of the extension office building.

While Tator manually transferred the water from the barrels to the ollas, Spanish for earthen jar, he explained how the irrigation system uses the buried unglazed clay pots as water reservoirs, which then seeps into the soil.

"I fill up the olla once a week, but it depends if there has been any rain, or if it's been hot and windy. To determine if water is needed, I put my finger down into the olla. If the clay is moist, I don't add water, as the moisture is absorbed by the plant roots. The spout of the olla dries out first."

As the moisture moves into the soil, the plant roots grow toward and around the olla to be able to absorb the nutrients of the water.

"While no research supports this, it is believed that irrigation by ollas results in almost 100 percent of applied irrigation water being absorbed by plants," Tator said. "Different plants have different water requirements, so we are studying which plants work best with this system."

The demonstration system and garden is available for viewing during regular office hours, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. "We have a poster in the office window that explains the system and study. We invite people to stop by and learn more about this system," Tator said. "Our office is having an open house from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Oct. 11. This may be a perfect time for residents to stop by and see the demonstration system and garden and learn what else we do in the county."