Potential testing facility could benefit area lakes

By Thomas Garcia
QCS Senior Writer

A water research collaboration between Mesalands Community College and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Conchas Dam shows potential for establishing a local testing facility that could benefit area lakes and other lakes in the Corps’ Albuquerque District.

Mesalands has been working with the Army Corps of Engineers for the past two semesters to conduct water research at Conchas Dam. This research project was part of a course at Mesalands, GEOL 289: Independent Study in Geoscience.

Stephen Smith, 21, Sanda Garrett, 17 and Nikki Vazquez, 37, were the geology students who analyzed the plankton count, pH measurements, and the dissolved oxygen readings, to determine, in part, how drought conditions in New Mexico impact the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water, and how this may affect macro invertebrates like zebra mussels, a harmful invasive species.

“We are working with data that the Army Corps of Engineers have collected for the past 70 years and we are collecting present data to see if there is a pattern. Especially a pattern with anomalies, like El Niño and La Niña,” said Gretchen Gürtler, director of the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum and Natural Science Laboratory.

Gürtler said the research is important because at some point the corps may want to restock Conchas Lake. She said the research will help them determine what varieties of native fish could survive.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to attend a two-year institution and be able to conduct research. The fact that we are traditionally thought of as a technical college, this really puts our face on the map for research opportunities, as well as preparing students for the next step,” Smith said.

The corps now sends water samples to out-of-state facilities for analysis.

Gürtler said Mesalands students are conducting their research in conjunction with the corps to make sure their research is accurate and performed correctly.

She said in the future she would like to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct the water testing at the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum and Natural Science Laboratory.

It would be a benefit to Conchas and the lakes throughout our district if we could send our testing samples to Mesalands, said Valerie Mavis, Conchas’ lead natural resources specialist.

Mavis said she and Michael Vollmer worked with Mesalands’ students during their research project at Conchas Dam. She said testing they are conducting now would help with the restocking effort, though further development of their testing capabilities may help to detect a dangerous invasive species.

Mavis said corps personnel at Conchas, like all the lakes in the Albuquerque District and across the nation, are doing their best to prevent the introduction of the highly aggressive zebra mussel. She said this mussel if introduced to a lake can wreak havoc on the ecosystem, impacting native fish species and waterways.

Mavis said the Zebra Mussel spreads rapidly and it has no natural predator. It feeds on algae which is a source of food for the natural ecosystem. If any are found in the lake, it would result in closure of recreation at the lake. She said the mussels’ rapid reproduction can also result in blocked waterways, and at Conchas, that would directly affect the irrigation canals of the Arch Hurley Conservancy District.

Recent rainfall has raised the level of Conchas Lake and if conditions continue to hold or improve, the district will be able to release water allocations to its members next spring, said Franklin McCasland, district manager.

McCasland said lower water levels from evaporation, drought conditions and seepage have prevented the district from allocating any water to district members for several years. He said there are already so many factors that affect water allocations from Conchas Lake, the addition of an invasive species could have an even greater impact on the district’s ability to deliver water to its members.

McCasland said he is excited to hear about Mesalands research and its potential, and will continue to follow its progress. He said the continued development of water research projects and the possibility of establishing a water testing facility in this region would be a great benefit to Arch Hurley.

Performing undergraduate research meets the objectives of both Mesalands and the Army Corps of Engineers to improve student access and success in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Mesalands students Garrett and Vazquez will also be attending the New Mexico Academy of Science and New Mexico Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research Annual Meeting and Symposium on Nov. 9 at Albuquerque. The event is an open forum for sharing results of research and teaching on “Impacts of Climate Change on Water in New Mexico” and “Sustaining Energy Development in New Mexico.”

Professors and graduate students from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, recently took a tour of the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum and Natural Science Laboratory and learned more about the college’s various research projects. Texas Tech faculty and students also shared some information about their research projects with Mesalands staff and students.

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