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Terrill Yazzie, Rio Grande Project, 4/26/2012


Topic Area

My projects topic surrounds the problem of saving the Rio Grande River from overuse-a conservation stand. This problem does not just lie in the proximity of the river, but can extend miles beyond to the first and second order streams all the way to the third and fourth order streams that recharge the aquifer. The project area for this problem is vast, but it all comes down to sustaining the water which is a precious resource. The monsoon season is the life of the river and these hydrological processes, such as the flooding patterns which naturally occurs helps to sustain the ecological spheres of other organisms, such as fish or marshes. Even humans use the water for survival and common use. There is a variety of habitats that rely on the life of this river. Historically, the Rio Grande River is the corner stone for the agricultural industry that has been developed here in New Mexico. Farming has been an important part of the culture since the settlement of the southwest; but until the world acknowledges the impact of their carbon footprint, the state of global warming will remain the same or even increase. This trend has kept moisture from falling normally throughout the globe, and a state of drought has conservationist, hydrologist, and engineers are worried about the rapid depletion the Rio Grande River and how to save it. Water from the Rio Grande is being used faster than the natural rains can recharge the aquifer which lies beneath it. Currently the City of Albuquerque has implemented many water conserving laws and technologies that have help save water such as low flow toilets, xeroscapes, and smart watering-just to name a few.

The land aside the river is used for farming to produce the crops which become the nutritional source of feed that sustain cattle here in New Mexico. Many agricultural companies use most of the river water to grow alfalfa for their livestock. New Mexico's agricultural economy is dependent primarily on dairy products and second comes beef cattle both of which gross roughly 2.4 million dollars a year (11). Today, there exist twelve feed lots that reside near the river which start from Albuquerque to Las Cruses. In Albuquerque (Bernalillo) there are 6, in Carlsbad (Eddy), Deming (Luna), Hillsboro (Sierra), Jarales (Valencia), La luz (Otero), and Mayhill (Otero) all have one large feed lot (17). In 2007, a government survey concluded that the average size of harvested cropland was 1,009,683 acres (Parker, 2012). Judging from this area, there are vast amounts of water from the Rio Grande being depleted each growing season. And with these drying conditions, many ranchers and dairy farmers have difficulty in growing enough alfalfa to sustain their herds and have the difficult choices to make. Should they pay twice the price this year and have it shipped in from other places or just sell some of their herd to make ends meet. The most frequent reason cited for the increase in alfalfa production is the increasing demand by an expanding dairy industry, other market demands, and lack of profitable alternative crops.

One area of water conservation that is overlooked and needs to be examined is the plants grown to feed the cattle, such as alfalfa. Alfalfa is a crop that is considered to use a large amount of water to sustain high yields to promote profit. Many studies have revealed that Alfalfa has an estimated evapotranspiration rate of ~6.5 feet (1900 mm) of water per season in desert regions (Hutmacher et al). This would estimate that 0.018 feet are needed daily to sustain the alfalfa plants metabolic activities for increased growth. Evapotranspiration is the combination of evaporation and transpiration that fosters plant life (Pelman, 2012). In 2007, a government survey concluded that the average size of harvested cropland was 1,009,683 acres (Parker, 2012). If we convert the acres to feet, then there is about 4.3982E10 square feet in the harvested cropland. If we multiply the evapotranspiration we get the consumption volume of water needed to sustain the field of alfalfa, which is about 8 million cubic feet of Rio Grande water supply from surface or aquifer. This occurs because the business aspect of profit, but if these farmers did not grow their own feed, it would cost them more to have it delivered. Their grown stocks fed from their land are then marketed as beef cattle or dairy products; unfortunately, their use of water from aquifers and river water are not monitored nor have a set price for use. This causes an unknown amount of water to be used and accessed, which ultimately leads to water right abuse. Many land owners are fighting for right to access water, while others are using wells which are unaccounted for by the state and federal government. The lack of proper use and regulation for the Rio Grande creates a debt water loss which is hard to replenish. This proposal investigates hydrology, botany, chemistry, civil engineering, riparian ecology, and entrepreneurship of attempting to save the Rio Grande by creating a new market in agriculture. Using alternative crops that use less water will greatly encourage rejuvenation of a stressed river and aquifer. This is done by creating a market for biofuels, which I would like to establish by making a biofuel production company here in Albuquerque, NM. There is so much focus in traditional markets such as alfalfa that sustaining an income through crop production through biofuels is a niche that will beget profit revenues that are equal or greater.

Research Question

How do we save the Rio Grande River? There are many avenues to attack this problem. I decided that my objective stems from the common goal of preserving the water in the Rio Grande by changing the chief agriculture crop of alfalfa to artichoke, or other low water consuming plants. This is done by establishing the value of alternative crops that provide nutrients similar to that of alfalfa and also generate profit. A mixture is more appropriate because a diversity of plants can provide a better range of nutritional values from the crops planted to sustain beef cattle and dairy as an agricultural product. Another particular avenue of interest is the making of biofuels from the crops that use less water. To encourage the use of alternative crops as biofuel, I will establish a production company to synthesize the fuel and distribute it. This will allow farmers to maintain profits from the plants they grow to sustain a working farm.

The project of saving the Rio Grande through alternative crops will have three possible outcomes. The first outcome is a lose-lose situation where the yield of the alternative crop planted does not exceed the yield of alfalfa, and the market price fails to generate sufficient profit. Second, is a win-lose situation where the yield of alternative crops exceeds alfalfa, but fails to generate enough profit. Another scenario would be alternative crop yield is lower than yield of alfalfa, but it the market price for the plant exceeds alfalfa and generates profit. The final outcome, which is greatly favored, is the win-win outcome where plant yield far exceeds alfalfa and the market price also follows the trend to greatly increase profits.

Significance to Knowledge

Exploring alternative crops to save the Rio Grande requires an investigation of botany in an attempt to understand the growth process to increase yield of a variety of plants. The research into the principles of botany and related information in the area of agriculture will improve and add to the existing techniques currently used today. Information about the different types of irrigation systems and lay out plans of crop fields must also be researched to understand the technology used currently. Next, basic business skills are essential such as the formula: Sales-Cost=Profit; along with knowledge of the marketing for alternative crops and biofuels. By becoming an expert in the following fields, I will challenge myself by expanding my repertoire beyond my training in biology. This research will add significant ideas regarding alternative plants and educate anybody who reads my project about the possibilities of changing today's agriculture world. My endeavor is the first investigation into the water problem here in the southwest and will bring insight for greater advances in the future. Acknowledging and shedding light on the problem will allow new possibilities here in the Albuquerque area will create a confident future.

Literature Review

Previous Research

Previous literature about Rio Grande conservation focuses on maintaining the fragile ecosystem which surrounds the river. Seavy et al (2009) focuses on the riparian ecosystem and identifies changes that must be made in horticulture techniques such as genetic methods which deliberately increase genetic variability or the restoration of private lands that add to the size of the ecosystem. The author also acknowledges that government agencies, private land owners, and non-government organizations must work together to implement changes in water policies, land management, and urban development. Crawford et al (1993) and Robert (2005) conducted the middle Rio Grande Bosque initiative and came up with twenty two recommendations that could help save the riparian ecosystem. In recommendation number three, the researchers state that there should be a reintroduction of the dynamics of surface-water/ground-water exchange, manage ground-water withdrawal, and restrict contamination. While this statement serves to preserve the river water, it offers no solution on how to manage ground-water withdrawal.

There have been attempts to save river water by attacking the salt cedar which takes up a lot of the water by mechanical removal or the use of herbicides, but these efforts are expensive (Dreesen et al, 2001). The mechanical removal of salt cedar can cost as much as 1,500/ha. Saving the riparian ecosystem can help preserve river water. This is done by finding out how much ground water is used by the ecosystem which will provide a more accurate estimate of the recharge rate of the river. Ward et al (2007) identified the barriers to water conservation such as clouded titles, water transfer restrictions, illusory water savings, insecure rights to conserved water, shared carry-over storage, interstate compacts, conservation attitudes, land tenure arrangements, and an uncertain duty of water. One barrier on the list applies to agriculture and that is the illusory on-farm water saving. Many states here in the U.S., especially in the west, are thinking about passing legislation that encourages famers to invest in improved irrigation technologies. Although these changes are good, it does not create any new water, because they only change the flow patterns between the river, storage, and the aquifer. Moreover, the only solution thus far is the reduction of consumptive use on farms which farmers are not apt in doing. Another barrier is the attitudes surrounding conservation which are negative because there is a lack of buyers for saved water which creates the message that there is little social value in reducing water use. This creates inadequate financial incentives to use less water.

Based on previous research, my project is the only one of its kind which seeks to conserve the water from the Rio Grande through alternative agricultural techniques. Although other attempts have been made through other faucets, this is a new area to explore and the findings will add to the ideas on how to save water from the Rio Grande-it could even spark a new idea.

Interlocking Findings and Unanswered Questions

There is a strong correlation between evapotranspiration and crop yield. Blane Hanson conducted a study on drip irrigation techniques and offers the following options for places that have limited water supplies, such as fully irrigating a reduced acreage, applying smaller amounts of water per irrigation throughout the crop season, or mid-summer deficit irrigation. Hanson investigated mid-summer deficit irrigation closer by conducting a project on alfalfa, and found that this agricultural technique offers a potential for higher revenue and the saving of water during drought conditions. Efficient use of water is crucial to utilizing river water to its potential.

An unanswered question I have is: Why isn't there an established market here in New Mexico for biofuels? Currently there is a push to advance research of biofuels and its technologies from the state government by things such as an exchange program that allow scientist who work in the biofuel industry have access to Sandia labs and the universities of New Mexico to disperse the knowledge they have acquired. Other initiatives in place are placing research priority on crops that produce the highest and best use of feedstock by-products that can sell in a variety of markets, rather than just transportation fuels. Knowledge about the possibilities of biofuels is lacking here in New Mexico and this study could reveal insight into why crop change can be positive. The fear of change is the greatest factor to overcome in this study.

Preliminary work

The first work done on the conservation of the Rio Grande was reviewing what processes use up the majority of the water from the Rio Grande. Upon review, it was quite noticeable that I must focus on agriculture, since they need the water to supply to their crops. Once my area of focus was identified, areas of improvement were established. One obvious area was in the way fields were watered or their irrigation techniques used, but many innovations have been added to perfect the system. Then I decided to look at the techniques of grazing systems and how farmers managed their irrigated farms to effectively use water. By rotating animals in appropriate time frames allows the watered plants time to efficiently use the water they acquire. This is done by controlling the size of the animals in the field, and one technology used is the twelve foot creep gate that allows smaller animal's access to rejuvenated fields. There was also the possibility that farmers could reduce the number of cattle on their farm, but this notion would not be received well from the agricultural community due to a loss in profits from low herd numbers. Then there was the review of incentives for farmers to use less water, or the construction of some sort of subsidy. Unfortunately, the beef production companies here in New Mexico are privately owned businesses, so there would no incentive to use less water for their crops.

The Remaining Question

One question that still remains is: How do I convince agricultural companies to switch to alternative crops to save the Rio Grande? The farming community may not be aware that other plants such as artichoke, rape seed, or canola could also be used as fodder for their cattle. This information creates a double value of these alternative crops because not only can they use the crops as food, but you can sell any access yield to biofuel producers. The idea of selling your crops as potential biofuel then establishes a need to develop a local company who syntheses the product, which I plan on creating called art-i-go-biofuels. Social attitudes are hard to change, so there must be a focus on the positive aspects of the change, namely the potential increase in profits for farmers. Even if there is no incentive to use less water, there should be an incentive to choose crops that use less water and serve the same function as the previous crop.

Reprise of Research

In this context, my project reviews alternative crops and was designed to evaluate the water usage of certain plants and its price in the market to increase profits; along with judging nutritional values that mimic alfalfa. This project can also be utilized as a review of the current literature that exists around the problem. Any lack of information surrounding the problem indicates that this area of research is not being propagated and should be considered as a future research endeavor. Any of the data collected from this research will also be used to support the transition of traditional crops to alternative water efficient ones. The project is expected to be completed by May 2012.



Solving the problem of conserving the Rio Grande was a journey in itself. I employed techniques learned from Discovery and Innovation to foster my creative thought processes. To approach this problem, I walked along the Bosque to feel my environment and imagined myself in different ecological situations regarding the health and preservation of the river. Another method I utilized was imagination where I portrayed myself as an invading plant or animal, to understand what effects or mechanism that I employ to exploit the Rio Grande. One example was where I pictured myself as an amaranth plant. I was a non-native pheatrophyte that loves the high salinity concentrations in the soil and the water who out competes native species for water from the Rio Grande. Several of these exercises were conducted throughout my investigation. There were times where each idea I had did not seem like a probable solution and the creative process had to start all over again. Each new idea had to be adjusted or more research needed to be conduct to further understand the problem at hand. Next, I reviewed information on the internet which was needed to supplement my knowledge of the concepts or problems that surround the topic. I also read past scientific literature to understand what improvements (if any) have been made in each discipline. This project requires knowledge from a variety of fields, such as biology (horticulture) and business (entrepreneurship), to promote understanding in an attempt to create novel solutions for the problem. The research started with an understanding of alfalfa and a concentration in the evapotranspiration of the plant, which is a reflection of metabolic needs. Alternative plants were then investigated on their evapotranspiration rates per season; along with their yield. Plants with evapotranspiration rates less than alfalfa will be considered, but must also produce an equivalent yield as alfalfa. The plant must also be able to be utilized as biofuel and fodder for cattle. Next, the agricultural practices which sustained growth of greatest yield are researched to minimize water loss and nutrient balance. This places an emphasis on practices such as drip irrigation.

Data needs

The water usage of alternative crops must first be identified in order to choose the correct crop or crops to develop the alternative market of biofuels. Any plant that uses less than 1900 mm of water will be considered. The new plants will also be judged on how much biofuel their tissues can produce. Once these parameters are identified, the market cost of the crops will be reviewed to establish the net profit that can be generated from seasonal yields. Biofuel prices must also be considered in an attempt to establish a company based on the fuel product. The information will be retrieved from prior publications and off the internet from agricultural sites.

Analytic techniques

Information found will be assessed based on the type of resource that it comes from. There will be no need to apply any quantitative techniques because all the data presented will be presented to weight the outcome. The graphs made will be reviewed by cross tabulation. The main goal of the graphs will be to identify valid and reliable patterns that show the alternative crops are as a viable crop to replace alfalfa in terms of yield, water use, and profit. Although the graphs may be somewhat limited in their information value, it is easier to see visually than just a table of figures.

Plan for interpreting results

The interpretation of my results will require the use of graphs and data on the evapotranspiration rate of plants in their growing season. By using a visual comparison of the water needed to grow the crop each season will be most effective graphically. There will be no need to apply mathematical statistics to my results and the information obtained should be straight forward.


There are a number of alternative plants that can be grown that save water. Nine of the plants researched have a seasonal evapotranspiration rate of less than 1000mm. The artichoke plant is the only plant that has a favorable yield with low water use. Many of the plants have low yield in comparison to alfalfa. Alfalfa and the coconut plant are the main consumers of water. The plant in question, Alfalfa, has a seasonal evapotranspiration rate of 1900 millimeters with an attainable yield of 7506 kilograms per hectare. Artichoke uses 700 millimeters of water per season with a large yield of 13,015 kilograms per hectare. Canola uses 330 millimeters with an obtainable yield of 3362 kilograms per hectare. The coconut plant uses the greatest amount water, which is 2500 millimeters per season; unfortunately it has a low yield of 2717 kilogram per hectare. Corn uses 558 millimeters of water a season with 11,340 kilograms per hectare. The cotton seed plant uses 876 millimeters of water per season with 5490 kilograms per hectare. The mustard plant uses the lowest amount of water at 235 millimeters per season with a yield of 1529 kilograms per hectare. Rice uses 400 millimeters per season with the lowest yield of 7.56 kilogram per hectare. The sesame plant uses 750 millimeters of water per season and produces 3450 kilograms per hectare. The soybean uses 800 millimeters of water and produces 7,348 kilograms per hectare. The sunflower uses 762 millimeters of water per season and produces 4,006 kilograms per hectare.


This project will not cost any money, but it will cost time and effort in getting the farming community on board with this project. The possibility of having regular orientations about the benefit and key finds within alternative crops of this change could increase the likelihood that the idea will be adopted-this may take years. When and if it is initiated, there will be a need for capital to start a biofuel processing center here in New Mexico. The exact figures have not been established since the first goal of making change has not yet been enacted. There is only one biofuel Production Company here in New Mexico, currently.

Discussion and Conclusion

The original plan for this project was to create incentives for farmers to use less water. This wasn't the case because water in New Mexico is hard to regulate due to private land use and people who have access to river water to irrigate their crops only pay a yearly fee to access the water. Another barrier to the initial solution was that the companies who deal in beef and dairy are privately owned companies, so there is no way to create incentives. This realization caused a halt in the progress of solution A. This problem allowed the generation of an alternative idea, solution B: show that an alternative crop that uses less water can be a viable cash crop.

Artichoke is the ideal plant to use as an alternative crop source. It uses thirty seven percent less water than alfalfa and produces a yield of one hundred and seventy three percent more than alfalfa. This is the type of alternative crop that will succeed in replacing alfalfa. The price for the crop was difficult to obtain in the yield of measurement selected. This same problem existed for all the other plants being reviewed. What was shown in this study is that there exist alternative plants that can provide the same job as the traditional crop. The nutritional values of each plant will differ, so to get the best nutrition out of the selected crops as fodder for livestock is to grow a variety of plants. This variety could consist of growing artichoke with the cottonseed and the soybean. While they use less water, one strategy in using water effectively would be to optimize the layout of the field. Have the crop that needs the most water be positioned toward the end of the field, since most of the water will run off or congregate at the end of the furrows and remain there until absorbed. This is just a preliminary idea and there could exist better ways to attack land management.

This project sought to identify an alternative crop that competes with alfalfa as a cash crop. Unfortunately, the measurement of yield caused the production of such parameters difficult and the value of the crop was not established. That was the main goal; again this was sabotaged based on the yield in the wrong measurement for value assessment. The yields represented in this project are based on water requirements and apt nutritional conditions. I felt that my project was not suffice in presenting a novel solution, since I could not generate the profit margins for the alternative crops, that information was key in providing success to my plan. None the less, this project serves as a preliminary study to encourage more research in ways to save the Rio Grande. I revealed that there is a potential for agricultural change for the future.

With the information obtained in this project it is possible to start a new business surrounding the crop change, which is a production company to turn the plants into biofuels. I would like the change to create farms that are greener, such as using farm equipment that runs on biofuels. When the farmers produce these crops, they can be utilizing the crop as fodder to feed their livestock and use the crop as fuel. In this instance, farmers can reduce their carbon foot print and decrease the trend of global warming; while also, saving a dying river. Continuing research on the Rio Grande is being implemented by the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University. NMSU concentrates most of its research into efficient agricultural practices, but did approach the problem from my point of view. NMSU has been working on developing tougher alfalfa plants for more than three decades (1). A professor and his team, with help from the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Oklahoma, have identified a series of DNA markers on alfalfa chromosomes that they believe play a key role in producing more alfalfa with less water. Coming up with a solution to my problem was a difficult task. The idea presented took months to establish and reason if it was the correct solution.


1. Scientists develop drought-tolerant alfalfa, msnbc.com

2. High Plains Sunflower Production Handbook, USDA.

3. El Naim M. Ahmed and F. Ahmed Mahmoud, Effect of irrigation on consumptive use, water use efficiency and crop coefficient of sesame (Sesamum indicum L.), Journal of Agricultural Extension and Rural Development Vol. 2(4), pp. 59-63, May 2010

4. A. S. Rao and D. Alexander, Prediction of evapotranspiration and grain yield of rice (Oryza sativa L. cv Thriveni) in a humid tropical climate, INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BIOMETEOROLOGY Volume 32, Number 2 (1988), 81-86

5. Sharma, D.K.; Kumar, A, Criteria for scheduling the irrigation of mustard (Brassica juncea L.), Tropical Agriculture (Trinidad and Tobago). (Jan 1993). v. 70(1) p. 16-21.

6. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378377405002684

7. http://www.agroforestry.net/tti/Cocos-coconut.pdf

8. http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/irrigate/OOW/P11/Hergert11.pdf

9. http://www.ers.usda.gov/statefacts/NM.HTM

10. http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/pdf/7221.pdf

11. http://www.ers.usda.gov/statefacts/NM.HTM

12. http://alfalfa.ucdavis.edu/+symposium/proceedings/2008/08-265.pdf

13. http://ddr.nal.usda.gov/bitstream/10113/2220/1/IND43936681.pdf

14. http://www.algaeindustrymagazine.com/new-mexico-biofuels-leadership-recommendations/

15. http://www.oas.org/dsd/publications/unit/oea59e/ch18.htm

16. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/45847703/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/scientists-develop-drought-tolerant-alfalfa/#.T6ijzehDPiA

17. http://www.dreamingnewmexico.org/food/ff-livestock

18. http://ag.arizona.edu/crop/counties/yuma/farmnotes/fn1101alfalfaprod.pdf

19. http://www.fws.gov/southwest/mrgbi/Resources/Recommendations/index.html

20. David Dreesen, John Harrington, Tom Subirge, Pete Stewart, and Greg Fenchel Riparian Restoration in the Southwest - Species Selection, Propagation, Planting Methods, and Case Studies1 http://wrri.nmsu.edu/research/rfp/studentgrants07/reports/Cusack.pdf

21. Nathaniel E. seavy, Thomas gardali, gregory H. golet, F. Thomas griggs, christine a. Howell, Rodd Kelsey, stacy l. small, Joshua H. Viers and James F. Weigand. Why Climate Change Makes Riparian. Restoration More Important than Ever: Recommendations for Practice and Research Ecological Restoration Vol. 27, No. 3, 2009

22. Ward, Frank A., Ari M. Michelsen, and Leeann DeMouche, 2007. Barriers to Water Conservation in the RioGrande Basin. Journal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA) 43(1):237-253. DOI: 10.1111 ⁄ j.1752- 1688.2007.00019.x