Week 5, Day 5: Water Infrastructure

Water treatment plants can be good places to go birding! Shorebirds and other rarer birds are attracted to the open water pools and more riparian or marshy areas that often develop around them. This Yellow-breasted Chat, a bird that usually likes riparian areas, was seen at the White Rock Waste Water Treatment Plant. (Photo by Bob Walker)

You use water every day, but have you thought much about where it comes from? Learn about where our water comes from, where it goes, and how it gets there, in today’s activities.

This week’s Take It Outside activities are brought to you in partnership with the Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities (DPU), as part of our virtual water festival.

Look for our Droplet Dude to indicate virtual water festival activities. All are welcome to take part, and we especially welcome fourth graders!

Today is the last day of water week. We’d love to hear what you thought of this week’s virtual water festival! Please provide your feedback here. We hope you’ll join us for next week’s Take It Outside program, where we’ll be focusing on the Earth and sustainability in celebration of Earth Day and PEEC’s 20th anniversary.

Blog Post:

Learn about how Los Alamos gets its water in today’s blog post, which features a video from the DPU’s Clay Moseley. Check it out here!

Craft & Virtual Water Festival:

After learning about where our water comes from in the blog post, explore how groundwater is stored in nature by building a model of an aquifer. You can even try your hand at pumping water out of it! Check out today’s activity here.

Then, to wrap up our Virtual Water Festival, think up creative ways to conserve water at home or in our community! You can draw a picture, or write a paragraph, or build a model, or anything else you can think of. Send your creations to takeitoutside@peecnature.org. We may feature your work on our webpage. If you send your work from an adult’s email, we will contact that email to arrange to send you a prize from the DPU!

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Go on a scavenger hunt today to look for water infrastructure around your neighborhood. How many of the following can you find on your walk?

  • Water tank
  • Pump station or well
  • Utilities truck
  • Water meter
  • Stormwater drain
  • Sewer manhole cover
  • Sewer line
  • Wastewater treatment plant

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

In Los Alamos County, all of our drinking water comes from groundwater. Because it’s in the ground, it’s hard to see, but you can still find signs of the groundwater system around you. Look for:

  • Damp soil where water has infiltrated.
  • Running water in canyon bottoms. Water seeps into the ground below creeks.
  • Rivers and ponds. Rivers are connected to groundwater through their beds.
  • Cracks in bedrock. Water can seep through these cracks on its way to the aquifer.
  • Snow. Melting snow is the largest contributor to aquifer recharge in Northern New Mexico.
  • Gravel beds. Especially in the Española Valley, gravel rock formations store our water.
  • Springs. Where groundwater seeps out of the ground, you get a spring.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about water in your surroundings! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Thanks for joining us for this week’s virtual water festival! Join us next week to celebrate Earth Day and PEEC’s 20th birthday!

How Los Alamos Gets Its Water

By Elizabeth Watts

In Los Alamos county, we get our household water from an aquifer. But what is an aquifer? An aquifer is groundwater that is in the spaces in between rocks. If you have ever visited a beach, and dug a hole down to where it starts filling with water, you reached groundwater. 

Here in Los Alamos, we can’t just dig a small hole. The aquifer that supplies our water is 600 to 1,200 feet below the ground! You can see a diagram of our region below in this 2005 graphic from LANL.

Getting the water up here in the mountains from the aquifer takes a lot of energy. To do this, we need to use mechanical pumps. Watch this video to see a couple of examples of mechanical pumps from an engineer at the Department of Public Utilities.

Did that look hard? Do you want to try to pump all 10,000 gallons of water (per minute!) yourself? No! No matter how much food you eat for breakfast, you would not have enough energy to get even a little bit of water up from the aquifer.

The Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities uses electric and natural gas-powered pumps to pump up groundwater for the County’s residents. It can cost up to $750,000 a year just for the electricity to pump our water! So, when you save water, you’re also saving electricity. 

Scroll through these pictures below to see what one of the pumping stations looks like:

We hope that seeing where the water you use everyday comes from helps you to understand the importance of conserving water. We cannot pump an unlimited amount from the aquifer. The DPU has programs such as the W-8 rule during the summer to help limit our usage. Planting native plants in your gardens can also reduce the amount of water you use. 

Are there some simple ways you can think of to reduce your water usage? Send them to us at takeitoutside@peecnature.org and we may feature your ideas on our website.

Water, People, and the Past

In this photo from around 1924, Los Alamos Ranch School students and staff work on the dam in Los Alamos Canyon. (Los Alamos Historical Society Photo Archives.)

By Aimee Slaughter, Museum Educator, Los Alamos Historical Society

How did people in the Pajarito Plateau’s past get their water? How did they live in a dry environment like ours?

Ancestral Pueblo people who lived here hundreds of years ago used ingenious dryland farming techniques, and homesteading farmers at the turn of the twentieth century also conserved water for their farms and families. The Los Alamos Ranch School had to provide water for students, staff, and animals at the school. When the Manhattan Project took over the area, a rapidly growing population strained infrastructure, and providing enough water to homes was a constant concern. For hundreds of years, people have solved the challenges of finding water in a dry environment and have created diverse and vibrant communities here on the Pajarito Plateau.

Ancestral Pueblo people began to create communities here about 900 years ago and lived here for around 400 years before moving on. They were farmers, and our flat mesas provided good locations for farms. Ancestral Pueblo people needed to be clever to make the best use of the little water available. They created terraced farms, which allowed water to run from higher plots to lower ones, making sure little water was wasted.

They also built waffle gardens, small square plots surrounded by low earthen walls arranged in a waffle-like grid. The small berms of dirt around each plot helped to contain the water in the farm. Drought may have contributed to the Ancestral Pueblo people’s decision to move in the early 1500s, and the pueblos they founded — including Cochiti Pueblo and San Ildefonso — are close to the Rio Grande.

In this photo, María and Marcos Gomez are revisiting the site of their homestead on Two-Mile Mesa. Behind them is what was left of a corral. (Los Alamos Historical Society Photo Archives.)

Beginning in the late 1880s, homesteaders claimed land on the plateau for farms. A few homesteaders were Anglos who came west to make a living, but most were Hispano farmers who had lived in the Española Valley for generations. These homesteaders also used dryland farming techniques and conserved water to make sure their crops, animals, and families had what they needed. 

In 1917, the homesteaders had a new neighbor: the Los Alamos Ranch School. An elite college prep school for young men, the Ranch School was centered on outdoor activities and needed water for its gardens, crops, livestock, and horses, as well as students and staff. The large wooden buildings like Fuller Lodge also needed a large supply of water in case of fire. 

To provide this emergency water supply, as well as a place for fishing, boating, swimming, and ice skating in the wintertime, the Ranch School enlarged a pond in the center of the campus and named it after the school’s founder, Ashley Pond, Jr. To keep Ashley Pond filled with water, and to provide a reliable source of water for the school, students and staff built a dam in Los Alamos Canyon. The water from the dam flowed to the school in gravity-fed pipes. 

In these two photos,  Los Alamos Ranch School staff cut ice on Ashley Pond. Insulated with straw, the ice was stored in the cool, thick-walled ice house next to the Pond. The small open-walled structure at the Pond today is on the site of the ice house and is built from the same stones. (Los Alamos Historical Society Photo Archives.)

When the Manhattan Project arrived on our mesa, evicting the homesteaders and the Ranch School, water presented an even greater challenge. The army post of 1,500 residents quickly grew to over 3,000 people by the end of 1943 — and to over 8,000 people by the end of 1945. The wartime community became used to the reality that faucets would not always produce water when turned on. The army urged conservation. Crisis struck the winter after the war’s end, when the pipes from Guaje Canyon and Los Alamos Canyon froze and no water was available for the town. Residents were encouraged to leave if they could, and water was trucked in from the Rio Grande.

The ways that we’ve solved the challenges of getting enough water have changed with time, but what hasn’t changed is our need for water for our families, our gardens, and our pets. Visiting Bandelier to see waffle gardens or thinking about students at the Ranch School when you’re at Ashley Pond can help us to connect with the people who lived here in the past.

To learn more about historic uses of water on our plateau and about the history of Los Alamos, visit the Los Alamos Historical Society online at @LosAlamosHistory on Facebook and Instagram and at www.losalamoshistory.org.

Clouds and the Water Cycle

A cloudy morning at Bandelier National Monument. (Photo by Sally King/NPS)

By Jean Dewart

Let’s go back, to a time “before clouds.” The air is primarily made up of gases — oxygen and nitrogen — that are invisible to our eyes. Oxygen is about 78% of the air and nitrogen is about 21% of the air. That accounts for 99% of the air! So, the rest of the atmosphere is made up of trace gases that can change depending on time and place.   

One of these trace gases is water vapor — that is, water in its gaseous form. It turns out that Earth is the “goldilocks” planet (that is, it’s just right!) because at the temperatures found on the earth’s surface and in the atmosphere, water can exist in each of its three phases: gas (water vapor), liquid (water), and solid (ice).

Our atmosphere has water vapor in it all of the time — sometimes only a little and sometimes quite a lot. Relative humidity is one way to describe the amount of water vapor in the air. If there were no water vapor in the air (this rarely, rarely happens, and only in very, very cold weather), we describe this as 0% relative humidity. If the air had as much water as it could hold, we describe this as 100% relative humidity. The air in Northern New Mexico is usually between 30% and 60% relative humidity near the surface of the earth.

How does water vapor get into the air? Primarily from evaporation of liquid water from the oceans, rivers, and lakes of the world. In Los Alamos, where we’re far from major bodies of water, water vapor is brought by the winds coming from the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California).  

https://scied.ucar.edu/sites/default/files/images/long-content-page/water-cycle_nasa_small.png
Image Credit: NASA

For a cloud to form, the air must have 100% relative humidity. This allows the water vapor (gas) in the air to condense into liquid water. To get air to 100% relative humidity, the air must usually be cooled. Air can be cooled by lifting it above the ground — sometimes to as high as 20,000 ft above the ground! Air at the earth’s surface can be lifted by winds hitting a mountain (topographic lifting), by a cold front, or by the sun warming the ground and heating the air next to the ground. 

In each case, air will rise (and cool) to a height where the relative humidity is 100% and cloud drops begin to form. If air is lifted high enough, the air can cool enough to form ice crystals instead of water droplets.

Here are the different types of lifting of air in the atmosphere.  

Example of topographic lifting of air to produce clouds:

http://ww2010.atmos.uiuc.edu/guides/mtr/cld/dvlp/gifs/org1.gif
Image Credit:  University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Example of a cold front lifting air to produce clouds

Cold Front
 Image Credit:  University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Example of surface heating of air to produce clouds:

Diagram of how surface heat creates clouds
Image Credit:  University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

What clouds did you see today?

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Were they a large gray, flat cloud, with primarily uniform features? These are stratus clouds. (Photo by Jean Dewart)
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Did you see large fluffy and puffy clouds? These are cumulus clouds. (Photo by Jean Dewart)
C:\Users\Jean\Pictures\cirrus above the mesa.jpg
Were they thin wispy clouds high up in the sky? These are clouds made of ice, and they are called cirrus clouds. (Photo by Jean Dewart)

If there is rain, then it is a cumulonimbus or nimbostratus cloud. Which one is this?

C:\Users\Jean\Downloads\20200330_104513.jpg
(Photo by Jean Dewart)

Although you cannot see the top of the cloud in this photo, the rain being organized into a shaft indicates that this is probably a cumulonimbus cloud. Nimbostratus clouds usually have widespread rains, coming down from many parts of the stratus cloud, rather than in distinct shafts as in this photo.  

The World Meteorological Organization has developed a classification of cloud types. To see this, and learn a lot more about clouds, visit their webpage.