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Mexican Students Gain Experience in Las Cruces Wastewater Study

LAS CRUCES - Three university students from Juárez, Mexico are assisting scientists from New Mexico State University in measuring how treated industrial wastewater on Las Cruces' West Mesa affects natural vegetation, primarily Chihuahuan Desert mesquite and creosote.

Students from Mexico's Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez adjust irrigation sprinkler heads as part of a 15-month internship project assessing beneficial uses of industrial saline wastewater on Las Cruces' West Mesa. New Mexico State University graduate research assistant Alejandro Ruiz, background, is helping to direct the research of Adelaido Hernandez, left, Dulse Chavez and Aldo Pinon. (09/08/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo byJ. Victor Espinoza)

The 15-month internship program for the undergraduates from the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez began in July with laboratory analysis of vegetation from an 80-acre test site west of the city. Scientists' goal is a better understanding of the long-term impacts of applying the industrial wastewater containing high concentrations of salt and other nutrients from nearby food processing and light manufacturing plants.

"We're looking at this project as a prototype to evaluate the effectiveness of wastewater irrigation applications," said Geno Picchioni, an NMSU horticulturist who is coordinating the three-year project for the university and the Las Cruces Utilities Department. "We want to find the appropriate balance between irrigation efficiency and plant productivity, while preventing any environmental damage to the site or surrounding area."

The international student internship research program is funded through the City of Las Cruces and NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station, along with grants from the Rio Grande Basin Initiative and the Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP). San Diego-based SCERP is a consortium of five U.S. and five Mexican universities, which serve U.S.-Mexican border residents by applying research to environmental problems in the region.

"These students were selected for their academic skills and professional interest," said Mario Valenzuela-Vazquez, the students' mentor and a biology professor with Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez. The university, located across the border from El Paso, is home to more than 12,000 students and is one of Mexico's leading academic research facilities.

The internships open the door for more cooperative research between the two universities, said Valenzuela-Vazquez, who received his doctorate in agronomy from NMSU in 2001. Both communities share environmental and pollution problems, he said.

The students, who are specializing in biology, include Aldo Pinon of Delicias, Adelaido Hernandez of Chiapas and Dulse Chavez of Delicias. "It's been a great opportunity to put into practice what we've learned in class," Chavez said. "Hopefully, it will encourage others to participate."

"Our intent is to provide these international students with environmental research opportunities and practical experience that they wouldn't otherwise have," Picchioni said. "Meanwhile, they're certainly augmenting our research in vegetation and soil sampling."

While on campus, the students are under the supervision of NMSU laboratory instructor Michaela Mattes.

Conventional wastewater treatment is costly, Picchioni said. The experimental design and research plot, which was developed by the City of Las Cruces and being studied by NMSU, uses appropriate technology in a cost-effective way to treat wastewater, he said. A primary concern is the salt, which is introduced in manufacturing, because high levels inhibit plant growth.

Program coordinators hope that the collaboration with NMSU will allow the students from Mexico to apply many of the same environmentally friendly techniques in their own country as their biology careers progress.

After data is analyzed, final reports on the environmental model will be prepared for the funding agencies, Picchioni said. In addition, students will develop scientific reports and posters for their department in Mexico.