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Campus News
University of New Mexico experts work to solve regional water issues
August 16, 2004

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Professor engages kids in water quality study

By Carolyn Gonzales

Bill Fleming, left, teaches watershed management along the Rio Grande.

Bill Fleming, associate professor in Community and Regional Planning in UNM’s School of Architecture and Planning, has worked in watershed management for 30 years.

“We look at land use and how it affects water quality and health of the landscape,” said Fleming, who also promotes science among youth.

Grazing, farming, industry and urban sprawl are some issues that affect water quality and riparian health.

“Water quality in New Mexico is affected by sediment from erosion, generally from poor land use,” Fleming said. Sediment reduces the ecological health of the river, reduces water quality for fish, and for the habitats of the insects fish feed on.

Fleming said that acequias and reservoirs fill with sediment, reducing their capacity to hold or move water.

River restoration projects help repair the watershed. “By planting willows and other trees in riparian areas, we can keep that mud – the sediment – from washing in,” he said.

Fleming said the Santa Fe watershed used to be healthy. “The grass cover was up to the belly of a horse, but it was taken down to next to nothing through overgrazing,” he said. When the grass disappeared, the piñon, sage and juniper that used to compete with it took over.

Fleming, who lives in Santa Fe, engages schoolchildren to monitor the hydrology, water quality, biology and other indicators of watershed health. Across the state schools enrolled in New Mexico Watershed Watch receive materials and training from Fleming, the program’s founder, and Rich Schrader, the program coordinator.

Sponsored by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Fleming and Schrader wrote and compiled, “New Mexico Watershed Watch Workbook: a watershed ecosystem approach to water quality education.”

Using the workbook and with teacher assistance, students monitor the area, noting temperature and streamflow, test the water’s chemistry for zinc, copper and nitrates, and monitor the insect life.

“They conduct an overall riparian health assessment using a survey method we provide,” Fleming said.

Students’ efforts help government agencies make decisions regarding hunting and fishing.