Learning From the Land

Outdoor lab offers unique opportunities for study and service

A bird's-eye view of Albuquerque reveals a bright green ribbon that bisects the high desert as far as the eye can see. That ribbon is the Rio Grande and the cottonwood forest that borders the river for 160 miles. The river and the forest, known locally by its Spanish name bosque, are key to the history and environmental stability of the city and the region.

But through the decades, urban development, non-native plant growth and river management policies affected the health of the river and the bosque. Now, University of New Mexico civil engineering students and faculty are learning from the land and using those lessons to help shape strategies that will restore and protect the river and the bosque for generations to come.

A Wild Lab

coonrodThe Department of Civil Engineering adopted a 10-acre patch of the bosque through a city program in 2002 and named it the Bosque Lab. The idea for the lab came from Dr. Julie Coonrod, P.E., assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering. She was attending a meeting where city representatives were encouraging local organizations to adopt sites and restore them after a fire raged through the area. "I thought that this was a perfect opportunity for us. It’s a win-win, situation providing volunteers for the city and educational opportunities for our students. The soils class learns about in-situ soil testing, the surveying class provides surveys, the fluid mechanics students measure three-dimensional velocity in the river, and many hydrology students make the site the focus of their class projects. In addition, the site complements the current Rio Grande research in which several of us are involved," she says.

The first step was to clear the site. Faculty, students, city workers and volunteers collaborated to remove invasive species including salt cedar and Russian olive trees that had grown back since the fire. Members of student organizations, including the student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, continue to volunteer their time to clear the site several times a year.

The site is now an integral part of UNM's civil engineering curriculum. "Our mission at UNM is to educate students so that they are well-equipped to participate in the world as productive and enlightened individuals. There is no better way to do this than through experiential learning. We practice this approach in civil engineering at several levels. The Bosque Lab is an extremely important facility for providing this experiential learning environment," says Dr. Tim J. Ward, P.E., professor and chair of the Department of Civil Engineering.

While the official goal of the site is to control non-native plants and monitor the effort required to do so, the opportunities have proven to be much greater than the original goal.

Summer On the River

With the sun blazing overhead, a group of undergraduates wades waist deep in the Rio Grande, holding velocity meters in the current. Other students crouch down along the riverbank inserting erosion pins, long metal rods that help measure soil loss, deep into the earth. They will visit the site numerous times over the next nine weeks as part of the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) program.

Civil engineering students from around the country come to UNM to participate in this unique program, which has been funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and organized by the university for the past 14 years. The students are immersed in an intensive research experience that culminates in a final report, a presentation and a poster. Projects have covered the full range of civil engineering interests, but in the last two years, the curriculum has focused on the Rio Grande.

Last summer, several NSF-REU students conducted a riverbank stability study at the Bosque Lab. They also evaluated the effectiveness of non-native tree removal methods, checked new cottonwood trees for the presence of beetles and monitored groundwater levels.

Kristopher Morrison, a senior civil engineering student at North Carolina State University, participated in the program last summer. He and his team were in charge of monitoring the erosion pins. "I think that getting to understand the different environmental problems of the Southwest and applying that information to a civil engineering perspective was the most beneficial aspect of working at the Bosque Lab....The NSF-REU program gave me a whole new perspective on why we, as civil engineers, do different types of research and lab work. Now I'm applying that experience to the research I do here at NC State," says Morrison.

UNM civil engineering senior Michelle Romisher worked with Morrison during the summer, then continued monitoring the erosion pins throughout the fall semester. "I chose to continue the research because I became quite excited about the project over the summer. I was also anxious to find out if dramatic changes would take place during different times of the year. The study of the erosion along the Rio Grande has the potential to provide years of data that can be compiled and compared over time," she says. Both Morrison and Romisher say that their experience in the program and at the Bosque Lab played a role in their decision to go on to graduate school.

Seasons of Learning

But the Bosque Lab is not just a summertime destination. Each season presents a different learning opportunity at the site. The autumn brings litter fall to count, in the spring, new vegetation must be cleared, and the river level fluctuates with snow melt and the monsoons. Throughout the year students in courses ranging from surveying to open channel flow visit the Bosque Lab to conduct experiments including soil coring, installing tensiometers, and measuring river velocity. "This is real world. I think students need something besides the classroom....They can survey anywhere but this gives them some exposure to the area and lets them learn a little bit about what's going on in a natural setting," says Coonrod.

Coonrod and fellow civil engineering professor Dr. John Stormont, P.E., are conducting a number of research studies at the location. Stormont, a geoenvironmental engineer, specializes in the vadose zone, or the unsaturated part of the soil above the water table. He is a coprincipal investigator with Coonrod on a research project called The Bosque Soil Evaporation Monitoring and Modeling study. Their goal is to monitor soil water evaporation as a function of various conditions including soil type, shade, mulch, climactic conditions and more. To do this they installed experiments near towers along the bosque that were previously erected by the UNM Biology Department.

"Our goal is to take all the data we collect and analyze and make it available to people who are making decisions about restoration strategies for the bosque. But the knowledge we gain will be applicable to many other locations," explains Stormont.

Coonrod has another research project that uses satellite imagery to estimate riparian evapotranspiration, or the loss of water from trees and the soil. This study, along with others conducted at the lab, is especially important in light of growing concerns around the country about drought and the need to conserve water.

Growing Potential

While the department uses the Bosque Lab frequently, Stormont says that they have only just begun to tap the site's potential. "We're hoping that this is the nucleus for more involvement and that it develops momentum. That way we can establish a local, regional and even a national reputation as having expertise working with a unique urban river and all the interesting engineering related problems that are associated with it."

Coonrod adds that the department's use of the Bosque Lab mirrors the University's overall mission, "The University's mission is education, research and service, and I think that it's really great that we're able to achieve all of those things at this site and tie it into who we are as a department."