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Rio Grande transboundary integrated hydrologic model and water-availability analysis, New Mexico and Texas, United States, and northern Chihuahua, Mexico

April 7, 2020

Changes in population, agricultural development and practices (including shifts to more water-intensive crops), and climate variability are increasing demands on available water resources, particularly groundwater, in one of the most productive agricultural regions in the Southwest—the Rincon and Mesilla Valley parts of Rio Grande Valley, Doña Ana and Sierra Counties, New Mexico, and El Paso County, Texas. The goal of this study was to produce an integrated hydrological simulation model to help evaluate water-management strategies, including conjunctive use of surface water and groundwater for historical conditions, and to support long-term planning for the Rio Grande Project. This report describes model construction and applications by the U.S. Geological Survey, working in cooperation and collaboration with the Bureau of Reclamation.

This model, the Rio Grande Transboundary Integrated Hydrologic Model, simulates the most important natural and human components of the hydrologic system, including selected components related to variations in climate, thereby providing a reliable assessment of surface-water and groundwater conditions and processes that can inform water users and help improve planning for future conditions and sustained operations of the Rio Grande Project (RGP) by the Bureau of Reclamation. Model development included a revision of the conceptual model of the flow system, construction of a Transboundary Rio Grande Watershed Model (TRGWM) water-balance model using the Basin Characterization Model, and construction of an integrated hydrologic flow model with MODFLOW-One-Water Hydrologic Flow Model version 2 (referred to as MF-OWHM2). The hydrologic models were developed for and calibrated to historical conditions of water and land use, and parameters were adjusted so that simulated values closely matched available measurements (calibration). The calibrated model was then used to assess the use and movement of water in the Rincon Valley, Mesilla Basin, and northern part of the Conejos-Médanos Basin, with the entire region referred to as the “Transboundary Rio Grande” or TRG. These tools provide a means to understand hydrologic system response to the evolution of water use in the region, its availability, and potential operational constraints of the RGP.

The conceptual model identified surface-water and groundwater inflows and outflows that included the movement and use of water both in natural and in anthropogenic systems. The groundwater-flow system is characterized by a layered geologic sedimentary sequence combined with the effects of groundwater pumping, operation of the RGP, natural runoff and recharge, and the application of irrigation water at the land surface that is captured and reused in an extensive network of canals and drains as part of the conjunctive use of water in the region.

Historical groundwater-level fluctuations followed a cyclic pattern that were aligned with climate cycles, which collectively resulted in alternating periods of wet or dry years. Periods of drought that persisted for one or more years are associated with low surface-water availability that resulted in higher rates of groundwater-level decline. Rates of groundwater-level decline also increased during periods of agricultural intensification, which necessitated increasing use of groundwater as a source of irrigation water. Agriculture in the area was initially dominated by alfalfa and cotton, but since 1970 more water-intensive pecan orchards and vegetable production have become more common. Groundwater levels substantially declined in subregions where drier climate combined with increased demand, resulting in periods of reduced streamflows.

Most of the groundwater was recharged in the Rio Grande Valley floor, and most of the pumpage and aquifer storage depletion was in Mesilla Basin agricultural subregions. A cyclic imbalance between inflows and outflows resulted in the modeled cyclic depletion (groundwater withdrawals in excess of natural recharge) of the groundwater basin during the 75-year simulation period of 1940–2014. Changes in groundwater storage can vary considerably from year to year, depending on land use, pumpage, and climate conditions. Climatic drivers of wet and dry years can greatly affect all inflows, outflows, and water use. Although streamflow and, to a minor extent, precipitation during inter-decadal wet-year periods replenished the groundwater historically, contemporary water use and storage depletion could have reduced the effects of these major recharge events. The average net groundwater flow-rate deficit for 1953–2014 was estimated to be about 1,090 acre-feet per year.

Publication Year 2020
Title Rio Grande transboundary integrated hydrologic model and water-availability analysis, New Mexico and Texas, United States, and northern Chihuahua, Mexico
DOI 10.3133/sir20195120
Authors Randall T. Hanson, Andre B. Ritchie, Scott E. Boyce, Amy E. Galanter, Ian A. Ferguson, Lorraine E. Flint, Alan L. Flint, Wesley R. Henson
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2019-5120
Index ID sir20195120
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center