eNews June 2019

NM WRRI Hosts 4th Annual Animas and San Juan Watersheds Conference

by Mark Sheely, NM WRRI Program Coordinator

A bright warm afternoon greeted the roughly thirty participants gathered in the grass of Berg Park in Farmington, NM to kick off a pre-conference field trip associated with the fourth annual Animas and San Juan Watersheds Conference. This year, among researchers and agency staff, another group of attendees stood out. About 17 high school student members of the local NM Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) joined the pre-conference field trip, and would be present throughout the first three days of the conference. YCC students shared with other attendees why they are passionate about New Mexico’s water and natural resources, and offered a potential glimpse at the next generation of water researchers and professionals in the state.

Standing before the YCC students at Berg Park, Robert Cook, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 6, outlined how the long-term monitoring efforts throughout the watersheds as part ofwould be demonstrated for field trip attendees at four different stations: river sondes, sediment sampling, benthic macroinvertebrate study, and watershed physical habitat assessment. Spaced along the shaded riverwalk of the park, the demonstrations attracted even a few local residents out for a stroll.

On the morning of June 19, 95 participants heard welcoming remarks from City of Aztec Mayor Victor Snover, as well as video statements from New Mexico’s U.S. congressional delegation. Dennis McQuillan from the New Mexico Environment Department set the tone for the general session in his opening remarks by posing the question, “What has changed over the past four years?” McQuillan and other presenters at this year’s conference took up this question and provided a clear set of answers: crops, livestock, and public drinking water are safe to consume; WIIN Act monitoring efforts have increased collaboration among many stakeholders; and efforts to identify, control, and treat acid mine drainage should continue.

Themes new to this year’s program included a presentation by attorneys Paul Nazaryk and Anthony Edwards on the fractured and ephemeral legal landscape of legacy mining cleanup efforts, as well as presentations by researchers at Fort Lewis College, including Dr. Gigi Richard on a statewide monitoring effort to enhance understanding of water yield from snowpack at varying elevations across the state of Colorado; and Drs. Gary Gianniny and Cythnia Dott on the apparent feedback system that exists between the thickening sediments of Lake Powell and thickening river sediments upstream.

Four years after the Gold King Mine spill, despite monitoring efforts showing the safety of the water for agricultural and public use, fear and uncertainty about using water from the Animas and San Juan watersheds continue to linger, as indicated by Dr. Karletta Chief’s presentation on the risk perceptions of water within the San Juan Watershed among Navajo farmers. Going forward, it will be vital for agencies to communicate effectively information about the condition of the watershed to the public. As such, the afternoon session on June 20 was devoted largely to a risk communication workshop hosted by Christine Osborne of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Osborne first highlighted good and bad real-world examples of risk communication before laying out some of the “cardinal rules” of risk communication, addressing the obstacles of effective communication, and sharing possible solutions, including combining explanations of risk with understanding and empathy for the audience, and developing communication plans before the risk becomes an issue.

In the second half of the workshop, attendees split into small groups and were given one of two scenarios involving a chemical spill into the river near the fictional cities of Plentiful and Big Agnes. YCC students, agency employees, and researchers huddled together to come up with their ideal communication response team, and to coordinate a target audience, objectives, and messaging strategy.

The following day, 12 conference presenters gathered at the Shiprock Chapter House for a community teach-in, giving three-minute “flash talks” summarizing their conference presentations, after which a translation into Navajo was provided by interpreter Al Yazzie. The event also saw presentations from Dr. Chief and two of her students from the Diné Exposure Project. Following the flash talks, community members engaged speakers with questions surrounding topics such as water quality standards, legal action regarding the GKM spill, and monitoring efforts of other legacy mines. State Rep. Anthony Allison and Navajo Nation Council Delegate for the Shiprock Chapter, Eugenia Charles-Newton, also gave remarks before the teach-in audience.

On the final day of the conference, seven attendees donned wetsuits, grabbed paddles, and took part in a post-conference rafting field trip down the Lower Animas River. This year’s abundant snowpack meant attendees were treated to exciting albeit cold trip down the river, starting at Santa Rita Park in Durango, CO. Field trip participant Dennis McQuillan (NMED) described the geology of the Durango region, while USGS hydrologist Johanna Blake contrasted USGS river monitoring projects along the rafting route. After three-and-a-half hours on the Animas that included occasional showers and even hail, attendees changed back into dry clothes and concluded this year’s conference.

eNews June 2019

NMSU Student Investigating the Use of Waste Alcohols in the Production of Algal Biofuels

by Catherine Ortega Klett, NM WRRI Senior Program Manager

Zheng Cui is a PhD student in the NMSU Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, expecting to graduate in Spring 2020. Last year she received an NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant entitled: Energy and Nutrient Recovery from Co-Solvent Hydrothermal Liquefaction of Wastewater-Grown Algae.

This research addresses aspects of finding economically viable ways to convert organic waste material into biofuels, in this case, wet algal biomass obtained through the treatment of wastewater into biofuels. The thermochemical conversion process Zheng is studying for this purpose is hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL), whereby biomass is “cooked” in a reactor at elevated temperature and pressure. The efficiency of the process depends on several factors, such as the composition of the biomass, the moisture water content, the rate and duration of heating, and the presence of other substances that can catalyze or participate in the chemical conversion processes. The focus of Zheng’s research has been to investigate the effect that alcohols have on the yield and quality of the fuel intermediate: bio-crude oil. She is working under the guidance of two faculty advisors, both from Chemical and Materials Engineering: Dr. Catherine Brewer and Dr. Umakanta Jena.

In HTL, long carbon chain molecules in biomass are thermally broken into simpler molecules, and oxygen is removed in the form of water and carbon dioxide. These reactions result in the production of high hydrogen-to-carbon ratio bio-crude oil, which has higher energy density than unprocessed algae. To increase bio-crude oil yields and thus enhance the energy recovery from the wastewater treatment process using Galdieria sulphuraria algae, Zheng has experimented with the addition of three alcohols (ethanol, isopropanol, and glycerol) as HTL co-solvents. Among these, glycerol is favored from the standpoint of being a low-cost residual material produced from the biodiesel industry.

Alcohols react with acidic components in the bio-crude oils to produce compounds that inhibit the formation of carbon-based residues (char) and the re-formation of large molecules. For this reason, the yield of bio-crude oil from co-solvent HTL is significantly higher than that from traditional water-only HTL. The influence of these alcohols on the optimized HTL conditions have been studied with respect to the resulting product chemistry, using an array of instrumental techniques: mass spectrometry, IR spectrophotometry, and gas chromatography. The main objectives were to evaluate: (1) the yield and quality of bio-crude oil from G. sulphuraria when alcohols are added; (2) the mechanisms of different alcohols promoting bio-crude oil production; and (3) the feasibility of wastewater treatment algal HTL with crude glycerol so as to integrate the wastewater treatment process with the production of biodiesel.

The type of co-solvent did influence the chemical composition of the produced bio-crude oils and co-solvent addition was effective at improving bio-crude oil production. At low HTL temperatures (310 °C), isopropanol and glycerol achieved the highest yields (about 25% by weight). The decrease of nitrogen recovery in the aqueous phase suggests that co-solvents promote the transfer of organic compounds into the oil phase. With 40% by weight glycerol co-solvent, the highest yield of light bio-crude oil (73% by weight of the dry algae basis) was observed at 350 °C for a 30 min. reaction time. This suggests that around 66% of organic compounds in the algae biomass and crude glycerol were converted into bio-crude oil of quality sufficient to be upgraded into advanced biofuels.

Zheng Cui received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 2015 from East China University of Science and Technology (Shanghai) and NMSU through their dual degree program, before staying at NMSU to pursue a PhD degree. After graduation, Zheng hopes to join a chemical engineering firm where she can continue her work on the problem of finding the best pathway for producing alternative renewable energy resources to lessen our dependence on traditional fossil fuels.

eNews June 2019

Meet the Researcher: Linda DeVeaux, New Mexico Tech

New Mexico Tech (NMT) Associate professor Linda DeVeaux joined the faculty of the Biology Department in 2017. Linda started at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, but transferred to the University of California at Berkeley where she graduated with a BS in genetics. In her PhD in microbiology dissertation work at the University of Virginia, she analyzed the transport of vitamin B12 across the E. coli membrane in the laboratory of the late Robert Kadner. After two post-doctoral appointments‒at the University of Illinois and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle‒Linda and her husband moved to Pocatello, ID, where she stepped away from research to raise her three children, teaching evenings at Idaho State University. In 2005, Linda returned to full-time academia as an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Idaho State University. While at ISU, she created a radiation microbiology research group, which, in collaboration with the Idaho Accelerator Center, investigated the molecular mechanisms behind radiation resistance in extremophiles. Using the available linear accelerators, this group created the most radiation resistant microbe reported, at the time.

In 2012, Dr. DeVeaux and her husband left ISU for the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. The lack of access to linear accelerators compelled Linda to make a change in her research direction.  Drawing on her extensive background in E. coli genetics, together with a new PhD student‒Kelsey Murray‒and SD Mines faculty member Lisa Kunza, Linda started investigating the virulence potential of bacterial communities in contaminated surface waters in South Dakota. South Dakota has the highest incidence of STEC (Shiga toxigenic E. coli) infections in the country. Linda, Kelsey, and Lisa found that the genes encoding shiga toxin were ubiquitous in South Dakota rivers, along with several other virulence genes associated with E. coli O157:H7 and other enterohemorrhagic E. coli. Although not surprising, given that cattle, which harbor STEC in their gut microbiome, outnumber people 5:1 in South Dakota, these results were alarming. With support from the water districts in both eastern and western South Dakota, they continued to monitor the presence of these virulence genes over time, and determined that simple E. coli counts, the standard measure of fecal contamination, do not correlate with the pathogenicity potential of the community.

Since joining the faculty at NMT, Linda has focused on establishing connections between the genetic content of bacterial communities in surface water, particularly the Rio Grande, and those found in patients presenting with antibiotic-resistant infections in the clinic. She is particularly interested in the role that severe weather events have on the evolution of multi-drug resistant pathogens, focusing on the horizontal gene transfer events occurring in the environment. This is of particular concern in New Mexico during monsoon season, when bacterial communities from the surrounding areas are mixed with the river bacterial residents, creating the potential for an emerging pathogen. Two current graduate students, Angelica Cave and Kimberly McNair, have received NM WRRI grants to pursue these topics. Angie’s work focused on the survival of antibiotic-resistant organisms through water treatment at local municipalities, and Kimberly is following the spread of specific antibiotic-resistance genes throughout surface waters in New Mexico.

eNews June 2019

Aggies for Agua! A water system project for the community of Zona Reyna in Guatemala by Aggies Without Limits

by Karen Medina, NM WRRI Student Graduate Specialist

Karen Medina drinking water after a long hike.

Last May, Aggies Without Limits (AWL) had the opportunity to travel to Guatemala to build a gravity water system for the community of San Jose Lote 19 in Zona Reyna, Guatemala. AWL is an NMSU non-profit organization run by students that was founded in 2007. The organization is made up of students from a variety of disciplines who work on projects to assist communities in need of sustainable engineering improvements. AWL’s mission is to “bring students, faculty, and community members together to improve the daily lives of developing communities through sustainable infrastructure.” I have been a proud member of this organization since 2015.

This project involved building ten water tap stands around the community in order to reduce the distance that community member have to walk each day to get water. The community’s pipe system starts at the spring, travels to a storage tank, and then through a system of pipes located around the community, with ten tap stands located along the system. The system also has a break pressure tank to control the pressure throughout the system.

For the project, I was able to work on the design, calculations, and construction. As an NMSU engineering graduate student, I learned some skills outside of the classroom. Thanks to my job
as a student assistant with the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Water Science Center, and my membership in AWL, I had the opportunity to put my skills to use outside the classroom. I developed leadership and problem-solving skills and learned to trust in my ability to complete all the tasks facing me. In addition, my fieldwork with the USGS expanded my technical skills and my ability to work in the field. I’d like to acknowledge that being a woman in the field of engineering in the United States is easy compared to countries like Guatemala where, in some communities, a woman’s role is only to be a housewife. I was able to get the local community leader to listen to me because of my educational background and the leadership role that I took. This makes me feel proud of myself and the people of this organization. We spent a lot of time together on the project and learned from each other, from the community, and ultimately, we felt like family.

Through my work in Guatemala, I learned the real value of water. People had to walk miles to get water every day. The San Jose Lote 19 community does not have indoor plumbing for toilets and showers. They also do not have electricity; therefore, their workday goes from sunrise to sunset. Resources are scarce in this community, but the people pull together to help one another. Even though they do not have much to share, they share what they do have. I am happy to know that we helped them. We did not bring water to every house, but at least the miles they had to walk before were reduced.