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Students Study Water from Fairways to Forests

LAS CRUCES - New Mexico State University graduate student Casey Johnson kneels in the grass near the university golf course and squints in the sunlight.

Casey Johnson, New Mexico State University graduate student, examines a blade of grass. He and others are trying to produce recreational lawns using low quality groundwater. (12/08/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

Working on a crucial putt? No. Johnson is working to ensure others will be able to enjoy green lawns and have a more abundant supply of drinking water.

Johnson's research looks at using nonpotable, saline groundwater to grow a variety of turf watered with sprinklers or subsurface irrigation. His research plot covers almost an acre south of the golf course and includes 21 types of grass.

About a hundred miles away and almost a mile higher in elevation, NMSU graduate student Anthony Madrid creates an artificial rain shower to measure the effect of dense forests on the watershed near Cloudcroft.

Madrid's research is divided among four research sites in Mora and three in Cloudcroft. He is studying runoff, erosion and percolation in forests at about 9,000 feet in elevation.

The two are among a dozen students who received research grants from the Water Resources Research Institute at NMSU with increased funding from the 2003 New Mexico Legislature. The one-year grants, up to $5,000 per project, support water research by undergraduate and graduate students at the state's six public universities.

Johnson, a native of Auburndale, Wis., is a second-year master's student in horticulture. He earned a bachelor's degree in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin.

For him, the project is a chance to study the importance of water in a water-restricted environment unlike his native state. "I guess we kind of take water for granted (in Wisconsin)," he said. "It's something I think you have to take seriously in the desert."

Johnson's faculty adviser, Bernd Leinauer, an NMSU Cooperative Extension Service turfgrass specialist, said 70 to 80 percent of the groundwater in New Mexico is considered highly saline. Leinauer said that using low quality groundwater, brackish water and effluent from wastewater treatment plants can save good water while sustaining landscapes and sports fields such as golf courses. Green fees and cart rentals generate an estimated $120 million annually in New Mexico, Leinauer said.

The key is finding grass varieties that can thrive in salty conditions.

"It's really hard to find the perfect grass that can sustain those salt loads," Leinauer said. New Mexico's seasonal temperature extremes complicate matters. More research is needed to test many new turf varieties coming on the market, he said.

Forest watersheds fascinate Madrid, a range science student who earned a bachelor's degree in natural resources management from New Mexico Highlands University in 2003.

"We need to look at these thinning treatments and how they affect these areas," said Madrid, who grew up on a cattle ranch near Cuba, N.M. "A lot of watersheds need help. We need to manage them a little better."

Madrid conducts several experiments at his research sites, measuring runoff, erosion and vegetative cover. Moisture sensors below the ground measure whether rainfall is percolating into soil.

"We've had 100 years of fire suppression that have led to denser forests, a lot of pine needles and not a lot of herbaceous cover," said Sam Fernald, Madrid's faculty adviser and an NMSU assistant professor in animal and range sciences. "The hope is by thinning the forest, we'll have more surface vegetation. Hopefully we'll get better forest health and better watershed health."

Madrid's research offers a way to reach out to the community. Recently, he led a Cloudcroft High School FFA team on a tour of his research plots. "Anthony's really been a great emissary for the university," Fernald said.