University of New Mexico Water Resources Program: my newly remodeled career

UNM Water Resources Program 573 class at Rio Grande Central Avenue Bridge, Albuquerque

UNM Water Resources Program 573 class at Rio Grande Central Avenue Bridge, Albuquerque

Thursday morning I found myself standing knee deep in the Rio Grande. Grinning.

University of New Mexico water resources faculty members Mark Stone (that’s Mark in the green shirt helping the knee-deep students learn to measure river flow) and Becky Bixby were out at the river with the summer field course students. It was a trial run for a multi-day field trip to the Valles Caldera, and a chance for me to tag along and…. Well, I’m not quite sure what I do.

When Bob Berrens, an old friend and the newly named head of UNM’s Water Resources Program, invited me a couple of years ago to join the faculty as an adjunct and help teach the introductory “Contemporary Issues” class, I hesitated. I was working at the newspaper full time and trying to write a book. But my eyes lit up when I realized the faculty appointment came with full university library privileges. Library privileges! Plus, look at this course description:

With a focus on southwestern US, students examine contemporary issues in water resource systems, including water quality; ecosystem health; alternative institutional arrangements and property rights regimes; stakeholder concerns; economics; water supply and demand, policy, management and allocation.

I’d want to take that class if I wasn’t teaching it! That’s fun stuff, right in my wheelhouse. I’ve never been big on planning my life, but once I began working with students any hesitation I might have had melted away. These are bright, engaged people who care about water and are hoping to make a career of it. If I care about helping to solve water problems, which was the whole point of my journalism, it’s hard to think of a better way to invest a bit of my time and energy. Huge potential returns. I couldn’t have planned it better.

As I drifted away from newspaper journalism, the Water Resources Program gave me an office on campus, which has turned out to be a delightful place to spend days in the company of people thinking about water – both students and faculty.

When it comes to the actual scientific task of measuring things, which Mark and Becky are teaching in the summer course, I’m just a dilettante, a dabbler, but I’m always happy to stand next to smart people and ask questions, which I did Thursday morning, mainly of the students. They were measuring the rate of water infiltration into the clay-y soil on the river bank, and the Rio Grande’s flow, and collecting samples of algae and other itsy bitsy life.

Mark demanded I clamber down the bank and into the river with the rest of them, for which I thank him, the Teva nearly lost in the muck notwithstanding. They were learning how to use an acoustic doppler current profiler, which I know all about having done a story on the history of stream gauging. When I say I “know all about it,” I mean that in the manner of the journalistic dilettante, by which I mean I know enough to slot it into a web of knowledge about how stuff works, but not nearly enough to do it myself or teach it to others.

There seems to be some value in my newly remodeled career to this intellectual habit of stitching together disparate elements needed to tell stories, and if I’m not entirely sure what a diatom is, the students can always explain it to me. As I mentioned, they’re pretty smart.


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