NMSU branding

New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

National Science Foundation to fund engineering student's research for three years

As universities, politicians and researchers search for new, innovative ways to conserve water in the region, one New Mexico State University graduate student is doing his part by studying the evapotranspiration of salt cedar and salt grass.

This is a head and shoulders photo of Juan Solis.
NMSU civil engineering student Juan Solis has obtained a $40,000 annual Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation to support his research in the measurement of evapotranspiration of inland salt grass and salt cedar. (NMSU photo by Linda Fresques)

> Civil engineering student Juan Solis has obtained a $40,000 annual Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation to support his research in the measurement of ET depletion of inland salt grass and salt cedar. The organization will fund his research for three years.

A combination of evaporation of soil and transpiration of plants, evapotranspiration measures the amount of water that is consumed by vegetation.

Solis' thesis is based on using New Mexico-native salt grass to manage riparian habitat dominated by salt cedar. An indigenous plant in Eurasia and Africa, salt cedar limits biodiversity and consumes large quantities of water where it grows.

Through his research, Solis hopes to stop the growth of salt cedar with the use of salt grass, which suppresses salt cedar seed germination, filters contaminants, is arid-climate-tolerant and has low water consumption.

Because New Mexico sees little rain, he explained, it's important to conserve water in the ground system.

Solis and his faculty advisers, Salim Bawazir, NMSU civil engineering professor, and Richard Luthy of Stanford University, are using a flux station with sensors to monitor the evapotranspiration of plants in Las Palomas, N.M. Using these sensors, they measure evapotranspiration every 30 minutes.

The work is a continuation of the research done by a former graduate student. Solis has spent the past two years conducting his research, although he said his interest in agriculture was instilled in him as a sophomore in college.

The next phase in his research is implementation of what has been learned at the Las Palomas study site in urban areas. Solis predicted that he and his colleagues would finish collecting data by the end of this year as part of his master's thesis program.
"Our biggest challenge is processing the data and using the analysis to convince people of what salt grass can accomplish," he said. "In addition, we want to show that salt grass serves an important role in improving natural habitat in the riparian zones. And, we have to make sure the meteorological equipment is running perfectly."

Solis' research is part of a partnership between NMSU, Stanford University, Colorado School of Mines and University of California, Berkley. The partnership is known as Re-inventing the Nation's Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt), a research center funded by the National Science Foundation.

"I think it's exciting that we're trying to be innovative," he said. "We're using something natural as a way to control something that's invasive. Instead of having it mowed or sprayed on a continuous basis, which can be expensive, we're trying to use nature to control the spread of salt cedar."

Solis is a graduate of Capital High School in Santa Fe. He has participated in several programs and campus activities such as American Society for Civil Engineers, New Mexico Alliance for Minority Participation, Summer Community College Opportunity Research Experience and the NMSU concrete canoe team.

He earned his bachelor's degree from NMSU in 2011 and hopes to graduate with his master's degree in fall 2014, and then continue to pursue his doctorate at NMSU.

"Since I met Juan, he has always been interested in researching ways to solve water issues in arid regions," Bawazir said. "I am very glad that he received this prestigious NSF grant. It will give him the opportunity to continue with his research to doctoral level without worrying about the financial burden."