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Team Seeks Clues to Better Water Resources
Students learn research methods while helping local water district

April 21, 2005
By Laurie McLaughlin

It takes just under two hours to go from campus to the Lucerne Valley 's Este Hydrologic Sub-basis, a patch of desert in the Mojave. Once there, a band of professors and students are hunting for clues to better manage groundwater resources.

Richard Laton, assistant professor of geological sciences, and a team of students are using surveying and GPS techniques to locate underground wells, and then drill holes to get a close up view.

"Sometimes we go out and spend the night," says Laton. "We do a lot of drilling, so we're out there for prolonged periods of time."

"We send a gamma ray tool down that tells us the geology surrounding the well," Laton says. The team also extends video cameras into the holes to observe the condition of the wells and where the water's coming into them. Along with other tests, the team monitors both the fluctuation in the level of the water and its quality.

What the team finds offers insight to local agencies, including the Mojave Water District, about how best to "manage and get the water into the ground faster," the researcher says, adding that this year has been especially interesting with a record amount of rainfall. "We come up with ways for them to better manage the water so that it increases groundwater levels versus letting it run down the river.

"In normal years, we see small fluctuations in the water levels, which could just be because a guy turned his pump on," he stresses. "But this year we should see a big bounce, and we can relate it back to exact measurements in precipitation."

The result of this research is a 1,000-page document and 35-page summary tailored to explain the team's findings to the general public. The combination of field work, lab research and testing, publication and community outreach is funded by a $390,000, one-year extension of a multi-year research grant from the Mojave Water Agency. This is in addition to several previous grants the agency awarded to Laton and John Foster, professor of geological sciences.

As for the students involved, "they learn that scientific method and hypothesis testing is still a requirement to organize one's thoughts about non-academic activities, like drilling a well or understanding water yield properties of aquifers," says Foster. They also learn manual techniques, such as surveying and digital mapping skills that may seem less glamorous than the reports they publish, but are proficiencies that will contribute to their professional expertise.

"The students get satisfaction in helping people while gaining knowledge," says Laton, noting that four undergraduate and graduate theses have resulted from this year's project. "It's always amazing how little people know about where their water comes from and how it's impacted by human activities."

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