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eNews January 2021

Meet the Researcher, April Ulery, Professor, New Mexico State University

Meet the Researcher, April Ulery, Professor, New Mexico State University

By Jeanette Torres, NM WRRI Program Coordinator

For this month’s Meet the Researcher, we had the pleasure of interviewing April Ulery, a professor of Soil and Environmental Science for the Plant and Environmental Sciences Department (PES) at New Mexico State University (NMSU). April teaches several classes on soil science in addition to an emergency response to hazardous material incidents course. She also serves the NMSU research community by leading the Environmental Soil Chemistry Laboratory, which helps researchers and students obtain metal, salt, and nutrient analyses of their soil, water, and plant samples. Each year, she typically mentors 15 to 20 undergraduate environmental science students, and two to five soil science students. Currently, she is mentoring one PhD student, and three MS students in their field of study. According to Ulery, teaching students and assisting other faculty members is greatly rewarding for her, and being able to create lasting collaboration opportunities with her colleagues is an essential aspect she enjoys.

Ulery completed her BS in Geology (1980) from the University of Redlands in Redlands, California. She obtained both her MS (1985), and PhD (1992) in Soil Science from the University of California (UC Riverside) in Riverside, California. In addition to her current position, April has held numerous positions throughout her career including Interim Department Head for the Agricultural and Extension Education Department (AXED) at NMSU, Environmental Soil Scientist for Komex H20 Science Environmental Consultants, and postdoctoral research scientist for The U.S. Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service Salinity Laboratory at UC Riverside.

April has collaborated and worked with the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) since her employment at NMSU in 1998. She has been a part of many different projects over the years, and has had at least six students receive funding for their research through the NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant. One of Ulery’s students, Bianca Wright, was awarded one of these grants in FY20-21 for her project, Evaluating Soil Lead Bioavailability in Agricultural Fields across the Animas Watershed. Wright and her research team are investigating the lead concentrations in the agricultural soil and vegetation in the Animas watershed. Corn is a staple crop, especially for the Navajo Nation, so this project will strive to determine whether or not contamination is present and to assist appropriate agencies in determining if it is safe to consume corn grown in fields irrigated by the Animas and/or San Juan Rivers. Recently, the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico reached a multi-million-dollar partial settlement with mining companies to help cover both environmental response costs and damages to natural resources as a result of the 2015 Gold King Mine Spill. More information about this settlement can be found here.

Ulery’s main area of research revolves around how to manage soil quality for improving agricultural productivity and environmental remediation. She is especially interested in quantifying soil properties including salinity, nutrient status, metal concentrations, and how they affect plant growth. Understanding soil is important because it connects the hydrology, atmosphere, geology, and biology of an area. Contamination in the soil can lead to, or be the result of, contamination of the other systems. In New Mexico, water resources are in direct competition with urban development, and changes in this regard could cause significant problems for crop growth. April’s favorite project to date has been developing educational videos to better explain difficult concepts found in soil science to help individuals gain a better understanding of the subject. These videos can be found here, and are free for everyone to use.

April’s research can be found in an expansive collection of over 75 scientific journal articles, book chapters, and NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletins. Her most recent study accepted for publication in the Natural Sciences Education journal (2021) is entitled, Pivoting to online laboratories due to COVID-19 using the “Science of Agriculture” digital tools: A case study. With several other articles and manuscripts in the review/revision process, additional research by Ulery and her colleagues will be released within this coming year.

Ulery has been the recipient of more than ten awards for her exceptional professional service with her most recent honors presented by NMSU, including Outstanding Mentor for NMSU’s Teaching Academy (2020), Outstanding Faculty for AXED (2018), and Professor of Exemplary Teaching for PES (2014-2017). Accomplishments in April’s research allowed her to secure numerous funding opportunities in the form of education and research grants, partnerships, subcontracts, and competitive grants. Developing new labs, case studies, and animation tools to improve learning in STEM courses are just a few examples of how funding has supported Ulery and her students.

At present, Ulery works with several professional organizations, which can all be classified as service to her profession, teaching, or to the university. She is the president of the Soil Science Society of America, and chair of both the PES scholarship and curriculum committees. She additionally serves on the NMSU anti-racism/anti-discrimination task force committee, is an American Geosciences Institute Liaison, and is on the Council of Science Society Presidents’ Board of Directors among others.

As only the third female president of the Soil Science Society of America in 85 years, some of April’s main goals are to be an effective leader for all members of this expansive organization, and to increase diversity in both leadership and membership. In regards to future collaborations with other universities, Ulery has expressed that she is always interested in working on anything water, soil, and/or plant related in managed or native systems located in the southwestern U.S. As a parting message, April Ulery states: “I would like to remind everyone to treat each other with respect and kindness. I’ve learned so much from my students and colleagues over the years, and the most important thing is not about counting research papers or funding dollars, but connecting with others on a personal level and honoring their role in your life. I’ve always loved NMSU because they put people, especially students, first.”

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eNews January 2021

NM WRRI Publishes Technical Completion Report

NM WRRI Publishes Technical Completion Report

By Carolina Mijares, NM WRRI Program Manager

NM WRRI announces the publication of technical completion report no. 388, a collaborative publication prepared for the Bureau of Reclamation and its Desalination and Water Purification Research Development Program (Report No. NMSU005). In 2017, New Mexico State University (NMSU) faculty member Dr. Kenneth C. Carroll (Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences) received funding through a cooperative agreement between Reclamation and NMSU. The cooperative agreement is a collaborative project that aims to increase scientific knowledge and research expertise in the area of alternative waters for water supply sustainability in New Mexico and the western U.S.

An Integrated Geochemical Approach for Defining Sources of Groundwater Salinity in the Southern Rio Grande Valley of the Mesilla Basin, New Mexico and West Texas, USA by Christopher Kubicki, NMSU Water Science and Management alumnus, Kenneth C. Carroll, James C. Witcher, and Andrew Robertson is available in its entirety on the NM WRRI website by clicking here.

Executive Summary

Salinization of aquifers in arid regions is a growing issue due to increased water use as a result of population growth and increasing agricultural demands (Szynkiewicz et al., 2011). Spatial variability in sources of groundwater salinity may exist due to stratigraphic, geochemical, and hydrologic processes even in an integrated and relatively homogeneous aquifer system. For this reason, methods are needed to determine salinity sources, groundwater flow, and transport of salts in alluvial/fluvial groundwater basins.

Geochemical tracers analyzed from groundwater samples were used to determine the sources of salt contributing to groundwater salinity in the Mesilla Valley of the Mesilla basin located in southern New Mexico and west Texas. Results from southern Mesilla Valley groundwaters show a localized area, plume, of saline groundwater (10,000 to 29,700 mg/L total dissolved solids) near Sunland Park, New Mexico.

Results from this work help to construct a conceptual model of groundwater flow and the source of salinity in the Mesilla basin. Analysis of δ18O and δD isotopes from groundwater samples support previous research that effectively shows groundwater in the Mesilla Valley has been recharged primarily from the Rio Grande. North of Sunland Park, New Mexico, lower groundwater salinity is associated with a spatial transition from sedimentary to volcanic rock underlying the alluvial aquifer, increasing alluvial sediment thickness, and δ34S signatures of groundwater (+2.28 to +5.76‰), indicating a sulfate source that could not originate from Paleozoic bedrock. These results indicate a reduced influence of upward groundwater flow from sedimentary bedrock and increased dilution of brackish groundwater within the lower salinity alluvial aquifer in the central and northern Mesilla Valley.

Results for major ion analysis indicate a general shift from HCO3- recharge waters in the northern Mesilla Valley groundwater toward Cl- and SO42- waters in the southern Mesilla Valley. The transition in water types occurs from north to south and along the groundwater flow path, indicating increased influence from halite and gypsum dissolution and/or cation exchange in southern groundwaters. Evidence presented herein shows that groundwater salinity in the Mesilla Valley is increasingly derived from evaporite mineral dissolution and/or cation exchange as water flows southward. The δ34S signatures of groundwater from the southern Mesilla Valley within the area of high salinity (+12.36 to +12.46‰) are comparable to δ34S signatures of Upper Paleozoic gypsum (+12.5‰), indicating prolonged contact between groundwater and underlying Paleozoic bedrock. Greater than atmospheric concentrations of 39Ar (132 to 134% pM) and high 4He (10-6 to 10-7 ccSTP/g(H2O) in groundwater samples collected from the plume confirm a substantial fraction of the groundwater is old (>1,000 years). This study illustrates how nested well clusters and geochemical tracers can be used to identify salinity sources and processes in geochemical investigations.