Civil engineers receive $750,000 to address Rio Grande water questions, inform decisions about river water use along U.S., Mexico border

Aug. 29, 2005

AUSTIN, Texas—To help relieve the most stressed water system in the world, a civil engineer at The University of Texas at Austin is developing a government-backed electronic directory about the Rio Grande water’s distribution, quality and other features.

Daene McKinney
Civil Engineering Professor Daene McKinney stands in front of a map of the Rio Grande/Bravo Basin. McKinney is the principal investigator for the Physical Assessment Project, a collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico to model the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande basin. He is supervising the building of a water resource database that is being developed into an advanced hydrologic planning model that represents the entire basin.
Photo: Jennie Trower

With a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Professor Daene McKinney and graduate students will complete the database that has been mutually endorsed by the Mexican and U.S. federal governments. The researchers at the university’s Center for Research in Water Resources created the easily accessed system that documents past and present water characteristics in the Rio Grande basin. Both governments expect the system to improve decision making by Rio Grande water users such as farmers and managers of the river’s reservoirs.

Already the most comprehensive database ever created for a river, the computer software offers about 2 million separate readings of river height and flow at different points along the Rio Grande that forms the Texas part of the U.S.-Mexico boundary.

The river’s use continues to be critically import because the international boundary that extends from California to the tip of Texas is considered the fastest growing area in North America. Much of the growth exists along the Texas-Mexico border.

“The Rio Grande is considered the worst-case example of water stress in the world,” said McKinney, referring to a 2001 review of rivers compiled as part of Oregon State University’s Transboundary Freshwater Spatial Database.

Known as the Rio Bravo to Mexicans, the Rio Grande has been regulated since the late 1800s, when American farmers upset Mexicans by diverting substantial water for thirsty crops. Farming operations in both countries still consume the most water, but new factories and towns are catching up and further taxing the water source.

The river that extends nearly 2,000 miles from lower Colorado through central New Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico is often dry for hundreds of miles. For instance, human use and a lengthy drought kept the Rio Grande from emptying into the Gulf of Mexico between 2000 and 2002.

“In recent years, the water reservoirs in the Rio Grande river system were very low due to the severe drought,” McKinney said, “but nobody had the right tools to say how many years it was going to take to get the reservoirs full again. Hurricane patterns this year have now produced the rainfall to almost fill the reservoirs again, fortunately.”

Other questions that could be addressed better as a result of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Physical Assessment Project include deciding how quickly farmers should switch to less water-thirsty crops, or the economic and other impacts of another drought or construction of a new dam along the river basin.

“Another question that we’re asking is, can we tweak the Rio Grande system a little bit during seasons when flow rates would normally be higher and bring environmental benefits without doing any harm to the economic system that’s built up around the river. Our goal is to try to find such win/win situations,” said McKinney, “because nobody along the basin is going to give up their benefits, and they shouldn’t have to.”

Carlos Patiño-Gomez
Carlos Patiño-Gomez is a civil engineering graduate student who works at UT’s Center for Research in Water Resources. He has gathered much of the water data for the first phase of the Physical Assessment Project. Graduate student Rebecca Teasley (not shown) will extend the river data northward in New Mexico and perform most of the computer modeling of the Rio Grande basin.
Photo: Jennie Trower

Carlos Patiño-Gomez, a graduate student and native Mexican, first began obtaining data about Rio Grande water height and channel features in 2001 for his thesis project. In 2002, McKinney, who previously provided river-basin-modeling assistance to Kazakhstan and four other Central Asian countries to inform a river treaty, was asked to consider leading the compilation of that data into a form that Mexican and American representatives could access easily online.

The request came from the consortium of 16 universities, governmental agencies and nonprofits that created the Physical Assessment Project to explore water-management options. The major American participants besides The University of Texas at Austin researchers are the U.S. Geological Survey and Natural Heritage Institute. In Mexico, they are the Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, Instituto Mexicano de Tecnologia del Agua and the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico.

The data available already on a Web page for water-planning experts is for the portion of the Rio Grande that extends between Las Cruces, N.M., and the river’s end near Brownsville, Texas. Some sites have historical measurements back to 1857, and data from the Pecos River in the United States and the Rio Conchos (Conchos River) in Mexico are included. Additional information about the Rio Grande basin will be added over time to extend the database’s usefulness.

McKinney and Patiño-Gomez have led training classes on using the database in Austin and El Paso in Texas, and in Mexico City and Monterrey in Mexico. They have also described the database to government officials and others in Spain, Romania and on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. An additional recent request came from Panamanian researchers to show them how to develop similar river models, and McKinney and Patiño-Gomez will present their Rio Grande information in Mexico City in May 2006 at the fourth World Water Forum, where more than 100 countries will be represented.

McKinney noted that Patiño-Gomez’ diplomacy, language skills and knowledge of Mexico were invaluable for quickly obtaining data from multiple agencies to produce the database that has drawn so much interest.

“We simply couldn’t have done it without him,” he said. Patiño-Gomez had served several years in the Mexican government monitoring water projects when McKinney agreed to supervise his graduate degree.

A second phase of the Physical Assessment Project is expected to follow in 2006. It will be spearheaded by graduate student Rebecca Teasley, and will involve turning the water information into a computer model in which users see evaluation sites as points on a map. Each point will have a hyperlink to all historical data about that river site.

Teasley’s previous work for her master’s degree involved contributing additional water data for the section of the Rio Grande between El Paso, Texas, and the river’s confluence with the Rio Conchos near Presidio, Texas. This additional data will be used in a computer model for this region.

For more information about the Physical Assessment Project, visit the Center for Research in Water Resources Rio Grande-Rio Bravo Studies Web site.

View the map of stressed river basins.

For more information contact: Becky Rische, College of Engineering, 512-471-7272.