Students aid efforts to solve border region's water challenges

September 13, 2013

The border region of southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico faces the sustainability challenges of a semi-arid climate that experiences long periods of water scarcity. Economic, social and political cooperation will be required for the neighboring states to ensure the viability of their water resources in the future, says Arizona State University engineer Enrique Vivoni.

To help foster such collaboration, Vivoni established the U.S. Mexico Border Water and Environmental Sustainability Training program (UMB-WEST) in 2012. It is supported through 2014 by funding from the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experiences for Students program. Vivoni Border Water Study Team Download Full Image

Vivoni is an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

This summer, the program brought together 11 ASU students and 13 students from three Mexican universities (the Universidad de Sonora, the Instituto Tecnologico de Sonora and the Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez), along with 14 faculty members from ASU and other universities to gain a deeper understanding of the water scarcity problem in the Arizona-Sonora border region.

The group included professors and students in the fields of civil and environmental engineering, geology, ecology, agriculture, environmental science and global health.

Lessons in water conflicts

Their endeavor started with a week at ASU, where students spent time “organizing travel logistics, getting to know each other, preparing equipment and familiarizing themselves with the state of Sonora and the current water infrastructure,” explains Nolie Pierini, an ASU engineering doctoral student.
In the second week, students traveled to Mexico to learn about a major ongoing water dispute in Hermosillo, the largest city in Sonora and the state’s capitol, which has experienced significant population growth in the past decade. To meet the city’s increasing water demand, officials constructed a 162-kilometer-long aqueduct to transfer water from the Yaqui River Basin, a major supplier of water, to agricultural users in Ciudad Obregon.

“It's a commonly seen water conflict between industrial water users and agricultural water users,” says Matthew Thompson, who is pursuing a master’s degree in civil engineering at ASU. “The problem is amplified in the case of Sonora because they are in an area with significant drought and not enough water to meet everyone’s needs.”

Hydrology field studies

Students visited both Hermosillo and Ciudad Obregon, and heard discussions and presentations from those on both sides of the water debate. They took field trips to an aqueduct, a dam and reservoir, a hydroelectric power plant and a water treatment plant – all parts of water infrastructure in the state of Sonora.

After a week of tours and presentations from water policymakers and stakeholders, the students traveled to the nearby rural city of Rayón for a week of hydrology field research.

One research project, led by David Gochis, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., involved attaching radiosonde sensors to large helium weather balloons to track various atmospheric conditions at altitudes as high as 20 kilometers (65,600 feet) at various times of the day. The radiosonde measures temperature, humidity and pressure in the atmosphere, data that is sent directly to a laptop computer and then used to create an atmospheric model that tracks monsoon-season weather dynamics and patterns.

Another project, led by Agustin Robles-Morua, a professor at the Instituto Tecnologico de Sonora and a former postdoctoral researcher at ASU, surveyed people living in Rio San Miguel about water use practices, water quality and the impacts of new infrastructure.

Seth Morales, an ASU senior civil engineering major who is fluent in Spanish, was able to lead his group as they learned about different perspectives of water management and the water-use practices of specific users in the Rio San Miguel area near the town of Rayón.

ASU student Thompson, who worked with a team to install a weir (a barrier placed in a channel to enable measurement of water discharge) in a small stream, says he liked the hands-on aspect of the project. “It was gratifying to go to a remote, cool area and to use our hands to get a job done,” he says.

Seeing impact of research

Ara Ko, an ASU engineering doctoral student supervised by Vivoni, worked with water plant pressure chambers under the direction of Instituto Tecnologico de Sonora faculty member Enrico Yepez. Ko says she liked learning about semi-arid plant dynamics and exploring a climate and an ecosystem that is extremely different from her hometown in Korea.

Many of the students say learning about the region’s water issues during their first week in Mexico made the research experience more rewarding.

“Research like we did in Rayón can help us learn how to use water more efficiently and can ease future problems in water policy,” Pierini says.

“It was surprising to see how the research, or lack of research, can really have an impact on a whole community,” Morales says.

Along with gaining a renewed appreciation for thorough research, the ASU students say they enjoyed learning about a different culture.

“It was amazing to see people living in the same hot summer climate as in Arizona, but without abundant water resources,” Morales says. “Some homes only have access to water every three days for a two-hour window.”

Cultural connection

Along with making him more appreciative of the quality of water infrastructure in the United States, Morales says the program was a “turning point” for him. The experience led him to decide that hydrosystems engineering is the career path he wants to pursue.

Thompson, a self-proclaimed lover of the hot Sonoran desert climate, says he is glad he had the opportunity to get to know some of his “neighbors to the south.” He enjoyed learning about the government, culture, universities and people in Mexico, and says he was surprised that he formed a bond with people in Mexico, despite the language barrier.

“It definitely forces you out of your comfort zone, which is something that is essential for anyone who wants to learn how to coexist with people from other cultures,” Thompson says.

Adds Morales, “Interaction with another culture opens your mind and impacts the way you view science in general.”

Written by Rosie Gochnour and Joe Kullman

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


High school dropout supports brother through college, follows own dream to ASU at age 33

September 13, 2013

Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series about student excellence at the university. To read more about some of ASU's outstanding students, click here.

At 15, Tomas Stanton was a high school dropout, a self-described “angry kid with a bad attitude” who was tired of getting threatened by gang members at his school who wanted to fight. Download Full Image

His mother worked long hours to support him and his brother; his father was absent, a drug addict and career criminal. Stanton’s younger brother soon joined him in dropping out of school, smoking marijuana, drifting through low-paying jobs.

Eight years later came Stanton’s epiphany: he wanted the rest of his life to be different, and to achieve that, he had to get an education. By now, working at the Boys and Girls Club, he had passed his GED test, enrolled in Phoenix College and persuaded his brother to do the same.

At that point their paths diverged, as Stanton’s brother Daniel got the chance to attend Arizona Christian University to play basketball. Tomas made the choice to put his own dreams aside, supporting Daniel through four years of college, so at least one of them could get a college degree. Daniel graduated two years ago and is now working in behavioral health and running a nonprofit organization for youth, G Road.

Meanwhile, still working at the Boys and Girls Club, Tomas found a new outlet, discovering a passion and a sense of empowerment in writing about his life. He made a name for himself as a poet and spoken word artist, performing at poetry slams and schools. He co-founded an organization called Phonetic Spit to work with at-risk high school students, teaching them to tell their own stories and express themselves through spoken word performance.

Eventually he was invited to an ASU class as a guest artist. Professor Melissa Britt and instructor Mary Stephens encouraged him, recognizing his talent, his desire to learn and his ability to connect with young people.

Today, at the age of 33, it’s Tomas’s turn to follow his dream.

He is newly enrolled at ASU as a theatre major in the Herberger Institute, also working in outreach as a management intern in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre. He visits local schools to coordinate campus visits for students and guest appearances by ASU faculty at the schools. Through Phonetic Spit he is involved in 10 different high school and middle school residencies. This fall, he and other artists will visit each school once a week for 12 weeks to teach youngsters how to find their voices.

“We create a safe environment where kids can write about their own personal experiences,” Stanton says. “We provide contemporary poetry for them to read, but we’ve disguised the writing and reading as a fun experience. They become hooked when they share with each other what they’ve written, and it makes them want to write more. They become very excited and encouraged when they realize they have things in common.”

Stanton will be the first student enrolled in a new interdisciplinary ASU major – performance and movement – when it is formally launched next year. It’s the first program he’s found that meets his needs as a teaching artist and youth development specialist.

“I never thought an opportunity like this would be presented to me, to work at and study something I love, on such a beautiful campus,” he says. “I’m so grateful I can dive into a field I’m passionate about. I want to create a legacy, to pay it forward by helping other young people who are struggling.”