December 2020 eNews

NMT Student Awarded NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant to Monitor Sediment Transport

NMT Student Awarded NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant to Monitor Sediment Transport

By Marcus Gay, NM WRRI Student Program Coordinator

Measuring sediment transport in arid environments presents some unique challenges. Ephemeral channels have sandy, porous bed sediment and are disconnected from the water table. High-intensity storms are required to produce sediment runoff in these channels. When flooding does occur, high rates of sediment are carried down these dryland channels and sediments are routed from the hillslopes to perennial trunk rivers, like the Rio Grande.

This sediment runoff can become problematic for river managers who are tasked with safely and efficiently moving water downstream. Sediment input from tributaries can cause sediment plugs, which prevent water flow. Sediment flow is also important for aquatic species, including endangered species like the silvery minnow whose habitat consists of gravel and woody debris, both of which are transported into the Rio Grande from ephemeral tributaries.

In order to observe and investigate sediment flow, NM WRRI has awarded a Student Water Research Grant to New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMT) PhD student Kyle Stark, who is researching the automated systems that monitor and measure sediment transport. The project entitled, Improving Continuous Sediment Monitoring in an Ephemeral Arroyo in Central NM, focuses on enhancing the operations of a sediment monitoring station, located 200 meters upstream of the confluence with the Rio Grande. The Arroyo de los Pinos site has been chosen as a prime location to study sediment flux in the Middle Rio Grande Valley because it is a direct tributary and drains many common lithologies found along the valley.

The research site includes a host of different instrument types to monitor sediment transport, many of which have never been used in this region. Finding a cheaper way to monitor sediment movement would improve regional knowledge of sediment budgets in the Rio Grande Valley. This grant will help fund the telemeter digital system that transmits and stores data collected at the sediment monitoring station.

According to Stark, the Arroyo de los Pinos system was designed and constructed to be a premier sediment monitoring station. It incorporates peer-reviewed methods of monitoring sediment with novel approaches in the arid Southwest. He explains that, “We produce data that is collected in only a few places around the world.” The inspiration for this system “comes from strong partnerships between federal government agencies, NMT, local New Mexican stakeholders (NM Geological Society).”

Stark has presented this project to the American Geophysical Union, the Geological Society of America, at the 65th Annual New Mexico Water Conference, and at the New Mexico Geologic Society Spring Conference. Stark hopes that this research will benefit academia, government agencies, and local landowners; that it will allow for better management of rivers and floodplains across the southwest United States and semiarid regions worldwide.

Stark, originally from Berryville, Virginia, earned a Bachelor of Science in Geology from The College of William and Mary where he studied the groundwater of early English settlements in Jamestown, Virginia. He then earned a Master of Science in Hydrology from NMT researching sediment transport. Stark plans to graduate in 2022 with a PhD in Earth and Environmental Science with a concentration in Hydrology. After graduation, Stark plans to pursue post-doctoral researcher opportunities related to surface water.