Four undergrads at The University of New Mexico have tackled the problem of water scarcity in the southwest United States by developing a project that would use radar sensors to determine the water levels of the irrigation channels and connect to an app that would let farmers know when to irrigate their farms.

The students, who call themselves the Drip Drop Dream Team, recently took their project Smart Acequias to the BioDesign Challenge in New York. All four are from New Mexico and are profoundly aware of the importance of water conservation and the historic acequia system.

The team studies with Professor of Art and Associated Professor of Computer Science Andrea Polli and her teaching assistant Amy Pillings.

A native of Albuquerque, Devin Pacheco is a junior majoring in film production. After graduating, Pacheco plans to move to California to pursue a career in film. He used his film production skills as a member of the Drip Drop Dream Team.

“For the Smart Acequia project, I handled more of the creative side including our team’s video and poster board,” Pacheco said. “With my focus in film, the BioDesign project was completely out of my element, but I would 100 percent do it again. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that left me feeling confidence in my capabilities. I would have never imagined that signing up for one class would've led to new friends, new knowledge, and new surroundings as I try to create something that I truly care for like the Smart Acequia.”

Born and raised in Rio Rancho, Shai Nootenboom is majoring in Biology and minoring in Chemistry. She currently works as a pharmacy technician and plans to attend the UNM College of Pharmacy to work towards a doctorate degree and become a pharmacist.

“My background in Biology and general science was able to provide much insight into the logistics of our project, including what sensors we could use and how we could apply them. Being born and raised here in the community I was able to appreciate our water sources and really understand the importance of water scarcity and the impact it can have in our communities.”

Nathaniel Gonzales, a senior, is majoring in Biology with a concentration in Biotechnology. After graduating Gonzales plans to enter the field of healthcare and become a lab technician. He grew up in a small community about 20 miles away from Santa Fe.

Cassidy Summers is a sophomore majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry and management at UNM. After graduating she wants to enter the healthcare field and give back to her community. Summers grew up in a small, farming community in New Mexico about 30 miles east of Albuquerque.

An acequia is an irrigation channel that carries snowmelt from the mountains to newly tilled farm fields. There are about 700 functioning acequia system in New Mexico, some dating back to the 1600s. The word acequia comes from the Arabic word as-sāqiya, meaning "the water carrier."

In their research, the team found that:

  • New Mexico is the highest state under water scarcity at above 80 percent, with industry, agriculture, and municipalities withdrawing at least 80 percent of available surface and groundwater each year. Thus, New Mexico has little leftover water to buffer in yearly dry spells. Seventeen other countries face similar water stress, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Botswana. 
  • New Mexico uses 77 percent of its water resources for irrigated agriculture and is 50th in percentage of water per square foot out of 50 states, followed by Colorado and Arizona. The state's total daily water usage is approximately 3,256.85 million gallons, of which 53 percent, or 1,710 million gallons, is used for surface irrigation of which 1,001 million gallons are wasted due to runoff, leaving only 709 million gallons of water for plants — a massive waste of this precious resource.
  • Acequias are an essential part of the water management system in arid regions to distribute water to farms and communities. However, with the increasing demand for water and the need for better efficiency in water management, it has become necessary to explore new technologies that can enhance the performance of acequias.

The team recommended lightweight, cost-efficient radar sensors, devices that use radio waves to detect objects and measure their distance, speed, and direction. In the context of acequias, radar sensors can be used to measure the flow rate, depth, and velocity of water in the canal. This information can be used to optimize the distribution of water and prevent waste through an app.

Radar sensors offer several advantages over traditional methods of measuring water flow in acequias. They are non-intrusive so do not disrupt the flow of water or cause any damage to the canal and they are highly accurate and can provide real-time data on the flow of water, enabling farmers and water managers to make informed decisions about the distribution of water and prevent wastage. They are easy to install and maintain, making them a cost-effective solution for water management in acequias. Powered by solar panels, they are independent of the power grid.  They can be connected to a central database, allowing farmers to share data with each other and government agencies.

However, there are challenges. The cost of installation and maintenance can add up quickly and skilled technicians are needed to install and maintain the sensors, skills farmers and water managers may not have, leading to delays and errors in data collection.

The team proposed pairing the Smart Acequia product with teens in the Northern Youth Project, a foundation in northern New Mexico that aims to support rural youth through agriculture, community service, and leadership projects that honor tradition while looking ahead to the future. The Smart Acequia product would allow these technically adept teens, who have honed their skills by hours on their phones and other electronics, to use their proficiency to further their agricultural efforts.

For the fourth year in a row, a team from Polli’s STEAM NM lab has taken a project to the BioDesign Challenge, this year in person after two years the BDS was virtual during the COVID-19 shutdown. 

“Biotechnology is spreading into every aspect of our lives—from our materials to our everyday products. As it becomes ubiquitous, society needs interdisciplinary thinkers to understand biotech’s impact and to come up with the next solutions. BDC bridges art, design, and biotech to develop the first generation of professionals who cross disciplines, anticipate promises and pitfalls, and engage the public in dialogue about the broader implications of emerging biotech,” according to Daniel Grushkin, BDC executive director on the organization’s website.

Although the team was not among the summit winners, they had the invaluable experience of meeting with students from schools across the globe in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art and Parsons School of Design to showcase their projects before leading thinkers in academia, industry, art, and design, and 400-plus audience members.

“The BioDesign class was one of my favorite classes I have ever taken here at UNM,” Nootenboom said. “A few of the units we covered were laser cutting, 3-D printing, CRISPR gene-editing, soldering, and slime molds, all in preparation for our Smart Acequias project. The Smart Acequias project taught me so much about the unique traditional irrigation systems we have here in New Mexico, I was able to understand just how important these irrigation canals are in our community and the role they’ve played in our state for centuries as well as the mayordomos and people who manage them. This project and the opportunities this class has given me is beyond immense and I’m so grateful I was able to take this course and acquire the skills that I have as I will carry them with me throughout the rest of my career.”

Polli noted that for the past two years, with a generous grant from the Venturewell Foundation, her lab has developed its curriculum and has been able to form a Western Biodesign Challenge Hub that has allowed them to share ideas with faculty from Colorado, Texas and California. The student teams from each of these schools met virtually before meeting in person at the summit.

“It has been an honor to work with all the teams that formed during the Bio Art and Design course, all the students worked very hard, and the jury had a very difficult choice in deciding which team would go on to the summit in New York,” Polli said. “It is great to have UNM students participating in the international BDC for the fourth year and after participating virtually the last two years, it is extra exciting that students will participate in person this year.”

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