By Marcus Gay, NM WRRI Student Program Coordinator
After the Gold King Mine spill of 2015 that contaminated the Animas and San Juan Rivers, local agricultural producers were concerned about the safety of produce grown in fields irrigated with water from these rivers. In order for the farmers throughout the Animas and San Juan watershed to know their produce is safe, a thorough investigation of toxic metals contamination was needed.
The examination of whether toxic metals are present in produce in order to inform growers and consumers about food safety is the subject of a research project by Michael Whiting, a master’s student in the New Mexico State University (NMSU) Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. In support of this research, Michael received a 2019 New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute Student Water Research Grant for his project entitled, Monitoring toxic metal uptake by corn grown in agricultural fields across Animas and San Juan Rivers.
The purpose of Michael’s research is to analyze and monitor the levels of lead, arsenic, and aluminum in corn samples harvested from agricultural fields irrigated from the Animas and San Juan Rivers. The soil, leaf tissue, and corn kernels are then analyzed for toxic elements which are not required in any amount for human nutrition. This is particularly important because corn is a staple crop in the region, especially in the Navajo Nation.
Five fields have been selected for this study and will be divided into four quadrants, and three samples will be collected from each quadrant. The exact location of each sample is recorded using a GPS unit.
“It is critical that a research university like NMSU, which has built strong relationships with the local community, conduct these investigations to understand the environmental impact of legacy mining and inform growers and consumers about food safety,” Michael explains. “The overall goal of this project is to educate and inform multiple stakeholders in assessing the safety of their agricultural produce.”
Work currently underway by NMSU is being shared with the farmers across the watershed through Navajo Nation teach-in presentations and factsheets. Michael also presented his research at the 64th Annual New Mexico Water Conference in Pojoaque, NM.
Michael is originally from Yuma, AZ. Michael is working under the guidance of his faculty advisor Dr. April Ulery, NMSU professor in Plant and Environmental Sciences, and plans to graduate in Spring 2021 with a Master of Science degree. After graduating, Michael hopes to work for a government agency in the field of environmental science.