Water under the Sonoran summer sun

Sonoran rain

ASU’s new WEST program exposes students to water resource management in Sonora, Mexico

Hermosillo, the capital city of Mexico’s state of Sonora, is the largest city in the state, an important industrial hub, and the site of significant population growth in recent decades. It is also located in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, meaning that water supply is a constant concern. Recently, the state began building a 162-kilometer long aqueduct to bring more water to Hermosillo from the Yaqui River Basin, which also supplies agricultural users in Ciudad Obregon, sparking conflict between industrial water users in Hermosillo and agricultural users in Ciudad Obregon.

Enrique Vivoni, ASU associate professor, and postdoctoral research associate Agustin Robles-Morua saw this situation as a perfect opportunity to expose students to current debates in water resource management. In the summer of 2012, six ASU undergraduates and four graduate students will join Vivoni and Robles-Morua in Sonora as a part of a month-long Water and Environmental Sustainability Training (WEST) research experience funded by the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program.

The WEST program consists of two weeks spent in Mexico sandwiched in between two weeks spent at ASU. In the program’s first week at ASU, students will learn about the geography of the region, read and discuss relevant papers, and help prepare instruments and sampling protocols they will use in Mexico.

Students will spend their first week in Mexico traveling between Hermosillo and Ciudad Obregon to meet with government officials and representatives of major water users in both regions and learn about different sides of the complex issue.

Robles-Morua emphasizes that the timing of the project is crucial. “We wanted to start this project at the same time this big infrastructure plan by the government of Sonora was going on so that we could be part of it.”

During its second week in Mexico, the group will travel north to the rural city of Rayón, where Vivoni has been leading an experimental watershed study, in collaboration with the University of Sonora and the Technical Institute of Sonora since 2004. The site has approximately 35 rain gauge and soil moisture stations, as well as two meteorological flux towers, that capture hydrologic data at a very high resolution. Students will learn how to use these instruments, analyze the data they collect, and participate in hydrologic experiments conducted at the sites.

A big part of the program is its collaboration with Mexican universities. ASU students will be working alongside Mexican students and faculty from Hermosillo’s University of Sonora and Ciudad Obregon’s Technical Institute of Sonora, who will be examining the same issues.

Upon their return to Arizona, ASU students will spend a week giving presentations summarizing their experiences.

Along with exposing students to water management issues and hydrologic experiments, WEST will also give ASU students a unique glimpse into the early stages of water infrastructure development and problems associated with water sustainability of desert regions.

“This is an area that’s currently developing its water infrastructure projects, and you don’t really see those projects being built in the US anymore because that occurred so many years ago,” says Robles-Morua. “Most of the projects in the US are now replacing old infrastructure, whereas in Mexico, this is like starting from zero. So this is another new experience they’ll get to see.”

This is the program’s inaugural year at ASU, and the project will extend into the next two summers of 2013 and 2014. Vivoni and Robles-Morua developed the program with their Mexican collaborators, using a similar effort Vivoni had led at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology from 2006 to 2008 as a model.

The selected participants exemplify the multidisciplinary nature of the field of water resource management; students include ecologists, civil engineers, geologists, environmental engineers, and geography majors from a wide range of ASU departments and schools.

“Recently, water resource management has required a multidisciplinary approach to tackle a multidisciplinary problem,” say Robles-Morua. “We followed along on the same lines, having students from different perspectives that would provide us with different inputs during the course of the summer experience.”

Written by Victoria Miluch