Research Projects

Influence of Watershed Management on Hydrologic Processes and Ecosystem Services in Rio Grande Headwater Watersheds

Student Researcher: Lauren Jaramillo
Faculty Advisors: Mark Stone and Ricardo González-Pinzón
Funding: National Science Foundation

laurens projectClimate change and forest management practices promoting fire suppression have altered wildfire regimes and are now likely to be longer and more severe resulting in changes to hydrologic processes. This project is investigating the impact of wildfires and forest management practices on two hydrologic services forests provide: (1) snowpack accumulation and retention from the forest canopy and (2) groundwater recharge and surface water runoff attenuation provided by the forest floor and soil.

Estimating Watershed-Average Precipitation, Evapotranspiration, and Dynamic Storage from Streamflow Fluctuations

Student Researchers: Cameron Herrington and Jacob Mortensen
Faculty Advisor: Ricardo González-Pinzón
Funding: New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute

cameron and jacobStatewide water budgets typically rely on hydrological model packages that transform point-source input data (e.g., from precipitation gauges or site-specific hydraulic conductivity measurements) into watershed-scale outputs (e.g., hydrographs) through ‘physically based’ and empirical algorithms (e.g., Richard’s equation and Soil Conservation Service Curve Number). However, most of these models are poorly constrained, i.e., the number of parameters introduce more degrees of freedom than the data can constrain and such parameters become unidentifiable, i.e., generate equifinal system representations. We seek to use a parsimonious model that utilizes streamflow data to estimate watershed-averaged precipitation and evapotranspiration rates in the four major New Mexico basins, i.e.: Canadian River, Rio Grande, Gila River and the Pecos River. The methods proposed for this work are based on the use of streamflow time-series available from USGS gauged sites in New Mexico (USGS).

Decoupling Nutrient Transport and Biological Uptake Along a River Continuum

Student Researcher: Cameron Herrington
Faculty Advisor: Ricardo González-Pinzón
Funding: National Science Foundation

Eutrophication is the second most common cause of water impairment across the U.S. (after pathogens) and the percentage of impaired freshwater ecosystems increases with stream order (i.e., from headwater streams to large rivers). However, the transport and fate of nutrients in lotic ecosystems have been primarily studied in headwater (i.e., 1st-4th order) streams. Due to the extreme scarcity of research (~10% of all nutrient tracer studies) in > 4th order streams, we lack the mechanistic understanding of underlying drivers necessary to scale in-stream nutrient processing along a river continuum. We seek to decouple the dynamic partitioning between nutrient transport and biological uptake demand along a river continuum (1st to 8th order streams) to identify how they define in-stream nutrient processing.

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Polymeric Nanosurfaces and Their Effect on Physio-Chemical Interactions Towards Biofilm Growth and Wastewater Remediation

Student Researcher: Philip Roveto
Faculty Advisor: Andy Schuler
Funding: National Science Foundation

philip roveto projectA primary focus of wastewater treatment plants is to remove toxic and eutrophic nutrients such as ammonia and phosphorus before recovered water is returned to a natural waterway.  This crucial purification is achieved through activated sludge systems wherein specialized bacterial biofilms use these nutrients as intermediates in their metabolic processes.  This project will focus on the synthesis of azlactone polymer substrates and applying them towards the optimization of bacterial colony adhesion, growth, and nitrification efficiency.  Chemical structures of varying size and polarity will be attached to the terminal layer of a polymer construct to promote physical and chemical interaction with bacterial cells.  Increasing Van der Waals interactions and hydrogen bonding between the microbial-surface interface will be of utmost importance to foster rapid biofilm growth.  The oxidative processes that remove ammonia and nitrite from a laboratory wastewater bioreactor will be measured to assess the health of the biofilm and the quality of the surface it has grown upon.

Investigation of Membrane Distillation for Tertiary Treatment of Municipal Wastewater for Potable Water Reuse

Student Researcher: Michelle Miller
Faculty Advisor: Kerry Howe
Funding: National Science Foundation

michelles projectMunicipal wastewater discharges to the environment are regulated by the EPA, but the rise of interest in potable water reuse may cause consumers to be concerned about trace constituents such as pharmaceuticals. Imagine if tertiary treatment using membrane distillation could treat the effluent from municipal wastewater treatment plants to drinkable water quality so it could be reused in the community rather than sent to the river. This project is investigating the effect of coagulant pretreatment for direct contact membrane distillation on membrane fouling by wastewater effluent to make wastewater reuse a reality.

Effect of High-Concentration Solids Recycle on Silica Removal for Prevention of Reverse Osmosis Membrane Fouling

Student Researcher: Magdalena Sims
Faculty Advisor: Kerry Howe
Funding: National Science Foundation

maggies projectSilica, a compound that is ubiquitous in nature and in most natural water sources, is known to cause scaling of industrial equipment and reverse osmosis membranes. Silica scaling can lead to a reduction in process efficiency and result in monetary losses. It is most commonly removed from water during a lime softening process but research has shown that the presence of magnesium and, more specifically, the formation of magnesium hydroxide during lime softening is closely linked to silica removal. This project seeks to further explore how magnesium facilitates silica removal and, additionally, how incorporating solids recycle impacts removal during the chemical softening process.

Selecting New Mexico Algae Wild Xenic Populations for Green Bio-Fuel Applications under Extreme Light, Heat and Nutrient Environmental Stressors Identified with Next Generation Sequencing

Student Researcher: Sarah Kintner
Faculty Advisor: Andy Schuler
Funding: National Science Foundation

sarahs projectAlgae rarely exist alone and little is known how mixed algal communities exist together much less how they grow when cultured in the laboratory. Most algae research has explored only a small fraction of the available algae species focusing on growing an axenic, single specie, algal culture. Little investigation has been undertaken how wild xenic algal communities interact in a batch reactor and their potential to produce biodiesel lipids.

The largest unknown in algae biofuel research is lack of specific metagenomic data about how algae interact in communities and how these algae communities can be employed to produce biofuel more effectively than single species alone. More specifically algae communities from New Mexico desert environments have a proven record for survival in intense light and high heat such as those conditions used in the biofuel industry. This may hold clues as to how algae species interact to survive while still potentially producing lipids useful to the biofuel industry.

Enhanced Recovery and Groundwater Restoration for In-Situ Leach Recovery of Uranium

Student Researcher: Omar Ruiz
Faculty Advisor: Bruce Thomson
Funding: National Science Foundation

In-Situ Leach mining of Uranium is a relatively new method of mining that has not been practiced in New Mexico. ISL recovers uranium from underground ore deposits by circulating an oxidizing leachate through the ore body to oxidize U from its reduced insoluble phases to oxidized and soluble uranyl species, which allow it to move with ground water and be recovered at the surface. This procedure not only mobilizes uranium but other constituents such as arsenic, chromium, molybdenum, selenium, and vanadium if they’re present in the ore. Co-constituents are of concern since many of these may remain in solution and contaminate the aquifer after ISL mining is finished. This project focuses on the remediation of the contaminated groundwater. Remediation requires removal or immobilization of the contaminants. The ultimate objective of this project is to identify aquifer restoration strategies that will result in re-establishment of high quality ground water following completion of ISL uranium mining.

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Experimental Investigation of Wellbore Damage as a Mechanism for Groundwater Contamination During Shale Gas Hydrofracturing Operations

Student Researcher: Joshua Ellison
Faculty Advisor: Jose Cerrato and John Stormont
Funding: National Science Foundation

Hydrofracturing operations (fracking) have provided a dramatic increase in the efficiency of natural gas recovery from shale formations. Thousands of wells that are used for these operations have been drilled across the United States to provide access to the abundance of energy stored in shale formations.  Many of these formations exist hundreds, sometimes many thousands, of feet below the surface. Consequently, the wellbores used for fracking must penetrate through many layers that overlie the shale, including several altering layers of soil, shale, freshwater aquifers, saline reservoirs, and rock.  

The focus of this project is to investigate the potential for unintentional flow through the wellbore system to contaminate overlying water-bearing zones.  The wellbore, which consists of metal casing surrounded by a cement annulus, can develop vertical ‘flaws’ from inadequate construction or from downhole conditions that induce fractures.  These flaws serve as vertical flow paths through the wellbore system that could allow gas, oil, fracking fluid, saline water, etc., to move from deeper locations to overlying aquifers. We are particularly interested in the simulation of the physical conditions exhibited by wellbores, and the identification of the mechanical and chemical interactions in these flaws, resulting in contamination of freshwater aquifers through a ‘leaky’ wellbore.  A sample consisting of a steel casing and cement sheath (basic wellbore configuration) will be placed in a permeameter system to determine the permeability of the system before and after fluids (gases and liquids) are circulated through the flaws, the above-mentioned interactions. Additionally, analyses of samples obtained from these systems utilizing several devices will be used to identify the chemical alterations that may occur between the steel/cement samples and brine, natural gas, or fracking fluid. 

Modeling Impacts of Energy Development on Water Resources in New Mexico

Student Researcher: Katie Zemlick
Faculty Advisor: Bruce Thomson
Funding: National Science Foundation

katie projectNew Mexico has large reserves of energy resources including coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium. However, the extractive technologies associated with these resources are closely linked to water resources which are scarce and increasingly valuable. This project takes a coupled spatial system dynamics modeling approach to understanding and quantifying the impacts of energy development by resource type and extractive technology on water resources in the San Juan Basin, NM. This model framework will serve as a decision support tool for energy development in the Basin and will be adaptable to other basins with water and energy considerations.

Vulnerability of Natural and Built Water Infrastructure to Wildfires

Student Researcher: Natalia Sanabria
Faculty Advisor: Vanessa Valentin
Funding: National Science Foundation

Wildfires have increase in severity and frequency in response to changes in climate, especially in the Southwest where the arid climate, heat waves and droughts can have a dramatic effect on the risk of fire. Aside from environmental, ecological and social impacts, wildfires can affect natural and built water infrastructure. In order to evaluate technical solutions to reduce the impacts of wildfires, this project integrates the use of fire propagation theory to evaluate immediate and future physical damage to water infrastructure, with social, economic, and policy aspects. Simulation models will be developed to support decision-making processes for the consideration and implementation of the proposed technical solutions.

Effects of Educational Strategies and Treatment Scenario Costs on Public Acceptance of Planned Potable Water Reuse

Student Researcher: Lauren Distler
Faculty Advisor: Caroline Scruggs
Funding: National Science Foundation

Water scarcity is a reality for many Southwestern communities. Planned potable reuse of wastewater is increasingly a topic of discussion, but little research has been conducted to examine its feasibility in an arid, inland context. A topic requiring further investigation is how educational strategies and knowledge of potential treatment scenarios’ costs affect inland communities’ acceptance of planned potable reuse. Using Albuquerque, NM, as a case study, this project will design and cost out treatment process configurations that are appropriate for an arid, inland context; create sets of educational materials to test on members of the public; conduct community focus groups; and design and implement a large-scale survey on public attitudes towards and acceptance of planned potable reuse.