Aquifer research helps Texas cities manage cycles of flood and drought

Image: Wikimedia Commons

It’s no secret to anyone that Texas is hot and that with heat comes drought. Across the more than 269,000 square miles that make up the state, many Texans constantly fight cycles of drought or flooding season after season. In these places, good water management is essential and thanks to new research by Associate Professor Gretchen Miller in the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, getting water to those communities that need it most may now be more clean and cost-effective than ever.

Miller works on what is known as managed aquifer recharge or aquifer storage and recovery. These methods are used to intentionally refill aquifers, or water sources that live in permeable rock, from which many communities draw groundwater. Using these techniques, municipalities and utility districts can draw water from the aquifers during times of drought, but also put water back in them during rainier seasons.

“We are hoping to advance the science on aquifer storage and recovery in order to help local entities better implement these techniques as water conservation strategies,” Miller said. “We want to determine how well current techniques are working and how they can be improved.”

Miller’s research focuses on the feasibility of these water extraction and recharge methods, and seeks to improve not only the efficiency of how water is removed or stored in the aquifer, but the quality of water that is used. In working with these systems, Miller is looking for the best places to implement them across the state and has worked with water management agencies in San Antonio, El Paso and Harris County, Texas.

“How the aquifers are used and managed changes depending on the geology,” Miller said. “We can use models to represent a typical managed aquifer recharge system and then test different methods of running it, when and how we extract or inject water and how we can best use the wells.”

According to Miller, it takes a lot of energy to pump water either in or out of a system, so in using these modeling techniques researchers can now give water municipalities the power to understand when they decide to inject or extract water in a well and how it will affect other wells in the system. It will also give them a better understanding of how to best pump wells efficiently to conserve energy and achieve the highest quality of water available. Miller hopes a better understanding of these processes will benefit communities around the state.

“We see this as a mechanism for helping communities be more resilient against environmental changes,” Miller said. “Some of the cities in Texas are so water stressed that they need a whole arsenal of ways to adapt, and we think this can be one of many tools they can use to help communities bounce back faster. Hopefully we can help prevent them from needing to impose tight drought restrictions.”