eNews September 2017

Arsenic and Algae: Finding Sustainable Water Purification Systems (continued)

Arsenic contamination is creating international, widespread health concerns, particularly in developing countries. Here in the United States, the amount of arsenic in water is regulated and limited by the federal government. However, that is not a luxury afforded by developing countries, which sometimes see up to ten times the safe amount of arsenic in their water.

The naturally occurring chemical is found in soil and bedrock. Sometimes it is also left behind as a residual from industries such as mining. The contaminant has no smell, taste, or color – which adds to the complexity of trying to pinpoint it in wells and other water sources; only lab assessment can confirm its presence and concentration. Ingesting arsenic has both short and long-term health impacts, including nausea, vomiting, neurological effects, and increased risk of certain cancers.

UNM undergraduate Chase Stearnes, his partner, Rachel, and their baby Aldo.

With those dangers facing so many people in developing countries, Stearnes wrote a proposal and submitted it to the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute – hoping to receive funding for a small-scale research project. He was awarded a $6,000 grant to pursue algal remediation of arsenic, and to focus his research on what type of material would be best used to create a reactor on which the algae could grow.

“I compared two different surfaces for the algae to attach to, cotton and nylon. And I had control of a suspended culture, which other research already shows is effective for growing algae cultures,” Stearnes said.

He found that the algae cultures have a definite preference to grow on the cotton, with the cotton reactor averaging more than four times more algal biomass than the control.

“But this was just a small study; we definitely need to do more research,” Stearnes said.

That research isn’t on his radar at this point, though. Stearnes and his partner Rachel just welcomed their first child into the world, a young son named Aldo.

“It’s the most exciting part of my life right now – even more exciting than my research,” he said.

Stearnes is also finishing his degree, and working at Daniel B. Stephens & Associates – an environmental and water resources consulting firm.

Between the baby, school, and work, he won’t have the time to launch new research for a little while – but eventually he hopes his work can stretch beyond the lab, to make real-world impacts.


Chase Stearnes, under the guidance of his research advisor, UNM Dr. Andrew Schuller, received a 2017 NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant. The research was done as part of ongoing work at the UNM Center for Water and the Environment:

eNews September 2017

Meet the Researcher: Ethan Mamer, New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources (continued)

Recently, Ethan has been working with colleagues on estimating groundwater storage changes in the aquifers throughout New Mexico as part of the NM WRRI Statewide Water Assessment. Following methodology developed by Alex Rinehart (also with NMBG) in 2015 and 2016 to evaluate groundwater storage changes in unconfined aquifers, Alex and Ethan in 2017 further developed and applied the new methodology to quantify groundwater storage changes in variably confined aquifers in New Mexico. The method is described in a technical report for WRRI, and is under peer review and is scheduled to be published by the end of the year.

Ethan received a BS in geology from Beloit College in Wisconsin in 2010, and in 2013 he earned an MS in hydrogeology from The State University of New York at Buffalo. His master’s thesis was entitled, Two-dimensional quantification of groundwater flux using heat as a groundwater tracer: Applying amplitude shift methods to distributed temperature measurements. This involved building a giant sandbox to simulate a streambed. Using this physical model he was able to study the groundwater/surface water interactions that take place in the streambed, and then he applied the insights grained from the sandbox model to the same interactions in the real world.

In the four years that Ethan has lived in the Southwest he has learned to love New Mexico for all of its eccentricities, from the stark rugged, barren landscape, to a deep fondness for green chile. His favorite New Mexico activities include skiing in Santa Fe, hiking in the Magdalena Mountains, and camping at White Sands National Monument.

eNews September 2017

NMSU Student Uses NM WRRI Grant to Monitor Native Fishes in the Gila and Mimbres River Basins (continued)

The viability and distribution of cold-water native fishes are affected strongly by changes in stream temperature and flow rates, including intermittency. These factors are in turn influenced by a changing climate. As Dr. Caldwell has noted in her research, northern New Mexico has experienced an increase in average air temperature of approximately 0.3ºC per decade. In addition, the timing of snowmelt and seasonal flows has also shifted earlier in the year by approximately 11 days, resulting in less discharge during the summer months. Trends like these have brought about some contraction in the historic range of unique native fish populations in the arid Southwest. Thus, there is an ongoing need for the assessment of stream temperature and intermittency monitoring programs in the Gila and Mimbres river basins to effectively manage for the protection and restoration of critical habitat for native cold-water fishes in the future.

Under this grant, Tyler, along with state, federal, and NGO coordinators, established a total of 60 temperature and water intermittency monitors in streams within the Gila and Mimbres drainage system. These sensing devices are also data loggers that record water temperature, air temperature, and relative water conductivity data on an hourly basis. This data can subsequently be accessed and processed to provide useful metrics such as daily average water temperatures, mean weekly maximum temperatures to assist with the assessment of distribution and persistence of a cold-water fish, and monthly averages to gauge easily the likelihood of streams approaching a chronic condition of excessive heat stress for cold-water fishes. The network will help provide state and federal stakeholders and water managers the data needed for model development for assessing the likely effects of regional climate change on the distribution of native fishes, and for water planning in general.

Tyler’s student grant completion report is available on the NM WRRI website and by clicking here.

eNews September 2017

62nd Annual New Mexico Water Conference Hosted at NM Tech (continued)

U.S. Senator Tom Udall moderated a panel discussion and provided an update on efforts associated with the 2012 Conference Report, a product of NM WRRI’s 57th Annual New Mexico Water Conference. Senator Udall was joined by his cousin Brad Udall – a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute – in a lively and informative exchange on our limited water resources in the arid Southwest.

On the morning prior to the start of the conference, two field trips were offered and over 50 people took advantage of the opportunity. The Bureau of Reclamation hosted a trip to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge with stops along the way at the low flow conveyance channel, at Cañas Arroyo where Reclamation is monitoring high runoff and westward erosion, and at the pilot realignment project on the Refuge. NM WRRI appreciates the Reclamation staff who were very knowledgeable about the projects and did an excellent job hosting the field trip: Michael Vollmer, Jonathan AuBuchon, Aubrey Harris, and Cameron Herrington.

The other field trip, hosted by Stacy Timmons and colleagues from the Aquifer Mapping Program at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, ventured to the San Agustin Plains. Participants learned about the hydrogeology of the area and the state’s pending water rights application for 54,000 acre-feet/year and proposed transfer of groundwater to the Rio Grande region. The group visited two multi-generation family owned ranches in the area and discussed the issues associated with transferring water from the region.

A record number of posters were presented at this year’s conference ‒ 48, of which 40 were given by students. The poster session is always a highlight of the conference and it provides a perfect opportunity to exchange information and showcase water research projects. Students are able to network with water professionals, and on occasion have even been offered job opportunities at the poster session.

Most speaker slides, as well as video of most of the sessions, are available on the conference website.

Planning has started for the NM WRRI’s 63rd Annual New Mexico Water Conference. Dates for the 2018 conference will be announced in early 2018. We hope to see you there.