Students in The University of New Mexico's Water Resources program are literally going through the weeds to protect the state’s most precious resource.
In WR 573 Field Problems, just a select number of students get to take part in a hands-on intensive semester of watershed studies. It’s a one-of-a-kind course that just turned 31 years old.
Students venture out in chilly fall conditions to gain crucial fieldwork experience when it comes to biological monitoring, hydrology, and chemistry.
“This is a program that really has one foot in academics and one foot out in the water world,” UNM Water Resources Program Director and Research Professor Rebecca Bixby said. “And so that's our goal for the program, and for the class– to make sure the latest, the best and the greatest tools and ideas are all conveyed to them.”
From on campus, to the Rio Grande, to the Valles Caldera National Preserve, lessons are focused on stream monitoring and how to do it. As the semester progresses, students eventually get the opportunity to collect data from New Mexico water sources, and use that site data for final projects and presentations.
“I want every student to have the opportunity to use every piece of equipment. I mean, it's very much hands on and is very much an active learning class,” Bixby said.
That includes working with real-world instruments like a multimeter and flow meter to determine water chemistry, velocity, and oxygen levels within bodies of water. Research also focuses on the tiny creatures in streams, like mayflies in the Valles Caldera.
“Invertebrates are a really powerful tool for biomonitoring,” she said. “They have life histories and tolerances that are good indicators of what the environment looks like.
Students, in the end, learn methods, analyze data, and synthesize data to make recommendations related to watershed assessment.
“One of the outcomes in this year’s class has been that the geology makes a huge difference in how the biological communities and the water chemistry really are influenced,” Bixby said.
Not every learner from the Water Resources Program has plans to continue with strictly fieldwork for their careers. Still, understanding the importance of that work, and how data collection is done, is paramount.
“I wanted to get some exposure to these skills to understand the science that's going to be put into policy decisions,” student Eleanor Hasenbeck said. “It gives me a better idea of how that data is gathered. I'm really, really grateful for that, for one, because I think it'll make me a better policymaker.”
It also hones in on the importance of data itself, student Athena Shapiro said.
“Data is very important and we certainly need a lot of it to be able to enact correct laws that will be meaningful,” she said. “The more you have, the more likely you are to better understand the water and the climate. The class is helping kind of bring it all together.
Bixby said that’s the overarching goal of the course. Outside of understanding state water supplies, and state policy development, it’s about experience.
“My goal in this class is that people who are graduating from our program are good users of data. Not everybody is going to go out and be field techs when they graduate from the program,” she said. “But I think everyone who graduates from this program should understand how the data might be collected, what the outliers might be, and how to be good users of data, even if they're policy-based students.”
Over the years, there have been different goals for what the team of students was aiming to discover. From drought, to wildfire impacts, to the shifting nature of invertebrates within New Mexico water sources, it’s a semester of research which holds decades of real world implications.
“Water problems are not simple, they're incredibly complex, and the science and societal needs, and the management of our resources are really complicated,” Bixby said. “So our goal in this program, and in the class is to just make sure people are real well-rounded as they go out into the world.”
It’s a critical investment in education that will also further the protection of state water. The Environment Department of New Mexico says protecting watersheds has positive impacts on quality. There are dozens of projects underway to do so.
Bixby hopes the next 30 years of the class will also take the hard-earned data gathered so far, and make knowledgeable judgments on the future of water in New Mexico.
“What does it look like going back to the same sites? Can we see temporal changes and what's going on in these streams? I think this idea of having long term data and looking for patterns would be really interesting in the class,” she said.
For questions about the class contact Becky Bixby and Gerhard Schoener. Learn more about this course at Water Resources.