September 22, 2021 — Southwest Research Institute hydrologists will embark upon a two-year investigation of west Texas spring systems to apply scientific tools that will aid water resource management for semiarid regions where vital water systems are at potential risk. The project is funded by a WaterSMART Applied Science Grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The project is led by SwRI groundwater hydrologist Rebecca Nunu. She will collaborate with Senior Scientist Dr. Gordon Wittmeyer and Dr. Ronald Green, a retired SwRI scientist with more than 40 years of experience in water resource investigations.
The team will conduct robust geochemical and statistical analyses of interconnected spring systems in West Texas, specifically studying the San Solomon Springs System in Balmorhea and the Comanche Springs System in Fort Stockton. SwRI is collaborating with the Horizon Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District, and Reeves County Groundwater Conservation District on this two-year project.
“What is particularly interesting about the San Solomon and Comanche spring systems is that they are discharge points for a larger flow system originating from over 50 miles away,” Nunu said. “Our goal is to study these systems to help local water-resource managers make informed decisions about the future sustainability and viability of their water supplies.”
The focused study area is in a semiarid climate where significant rainfall is limited. Thousands of people and endangered and endemic species nearby rely on groundwater and discharge from the local spring systems for their diverse water needs. The water from the San Solomon and Comanche spring systems are central to the surrounding communities’ economic viability.
“These springs serve as sources for everything from drinking water to irrigation and even recreational activities,” Nunu said.
Increased water demands from changing land use and development in the region have put these resources at risk of supply shortfalls, which could lead to competing demands and water conflicts.
“These spring systems continue to be under threat due to land use development in west Texas,” Nunu said. “Everything from increased irrigation, pumping for unconventional oil and gas development, and climate change can precipitate negative changes to hydrologic systems in arid and semiarid environments.”
The SwRI project will identify the relative amounts of groundwater recharge from different source areas as well as any potential changes in spring hydrochemistry owing to land use and development practices.
Using these data, SwRI will apply a geochemical framework and generate a robust geochemical database for local water resource managers as they plan for the region’s future water needs. The team believes this framework can inform several ongoing water resource management and conservation efforts and initiatives meant to reduce groundwater extraction to increase spring discharge and restore year-round water flow to currently impacted springs.
Additionally, SwRI, in collaboration with local stakeholders, will host a series of town hall meetings for the local communities to inform them of their research findings.
The project expands on prior SwRI investigations of the region’s water resources, moving the research forward into practical application. It is one of 20 nationwide projects receiving funding from the Bureau of Reclamation to develop modeling and forecasting tools for local water managers.