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Gonzalez-Pinzon explores rainfall runoff and transport of uranium

October 8, 2014 - By Karen Wentworth

UNM Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Ricardo Gonzalez-Pinzon is conducting research on rainfall-runoff processes and water quality modeling using parsimonious models. Gonzalez-Pinzon was recently awarded a faculty water research grant by the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (WRRI) to implement a hydrological modeling framework that allows estimates of water budgets from stream flow data.

Originally from Colombia, Gonzalez-Pinzon completed his doctorate at Oregon State University. A visit to Santa Fe for a water conference while he was a Ph.D. student convinced him that the weather and landscape in New Mexico were a fantastic fit for his research. When a job opened at UNM in his field of interest, he was ready to make the move.

"Working in the Department of Civil Engineering at UNM is a great opportunity to grow because we have an excellent team of faculty and students doing cutting-edge research on water resources and environmental engineering. Moreover, there are numerous opportunities to collaborate with colleagues across campus, and also with colleagues from national labs and other universities in the state," he said.

This fall, Gonzalez-Pinzon is teaching hydrology and hydraulics engineering and in spring 2015, he will teach surface water quality modeling. His expertise is in water resources modeling, a component that lets him interact with interdisciplinary groups. Recent collaborations include the modeling of nutrients along the Rio Grande continuum with researches from the UNM Department of Biology, and uranium transport in New Mexico with a multidisciplinary research team.

Gonzalez-Pinzon is a faculty member of the Center for Water and the Environment, a research center based at UNM. The Center received a five-year, $5 million Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Center studies a variety of challenges related to water, including the effects of wildfires and climate change on water availability and quality, advanced water and wastewater treatment, and water for energy development and resource recovery.

The work of the Uranium Transport and Site Remediation Team is part of a large sustainable energy grant from the NSF under the direction of College of University Libraries and Learning Sciences Professor William Michener and New Mexico EPSCoR Program Manager Mary Jo Daniel.

Work on the grant breaks into six research topic areas. Teams of researchers from the national laboratories and universities in New Mexico are focused on solving some of the technical barriers to energy development within the state. The Uranium Transport and Site Remediation Team will try to understand how dissolved uranium in ground and surface water moves. Most of the problems with uranium in water are concentrated in the northwest quadrant of New Mexico where decades of uranium mining on public lands and tribal lands have left underground water aquifers contaminated with uranium. There are also problems with contamination in seasonal streams and riverbeds.

Uranium suspended in water can cause serious health problems ranging from kidney damage to cancer for humans and animals that drink it. Native American communities most affected by contamination of the aquifers are dubious about whether renewed uranium mining can ever be conducted safely. Policy makers trying to determine whether uranium can be mined safely are looking to scientists for answers they don’t yet have.

The team will try to understand how uranium moves on a small scale in the laboratory and on a larger scale that may span many kilometers. They plan to use information developed in the laboratory to predict what is happening in the environment. They hope to be able to provide at least partial answers to policy makers, local communities and industry.