UTEP professor conducts research-service project to rebuild and rehabilitate concrete and earth dams in Juarez
LUCERO FIERRO | October 3, 2018
When Reza S. Ashtiani, Ph.D., learned about issues that were affecting the safety and water quality of dams in an underprivileged area of Juárez, Mexico, he didn’t hesitate to act.
The associate professor at The University of Texas at El Paso’s Civil Engineering Department, was compelled to get involved in an effort to study and improve the dams due to the focus of his research in the modeling and analysis of multi-layered systems.
Ashtiani accepted an invitation to collaborate from Oscar Dena, Ph.D., professor at the Autonomous University of Juarez (UACJ), who has been working in similar projects since 2008. Ashtiani decided to work side-by-side in a project to improve the earth regulation dams and water distribution for the residents of Las Viboras stream, an area located on the northwest of Juarez.
The pair worked with Diane Doser, Ph.D. and Hugo Gutierrez, Ph.D., professors in UTEP’s Geological Sciences Department, to study five dams — La Fronteriza, El Filtro, Pico de Aguila, Puerto La Paz and Las Viboras — and determine their sustainability.
“Based on the preliminary studies, some of these dams are structurally deficient,” Ashtiani said. “This was the motivation to study the structural integrity of five existing regulation dams, and to develop plans and strategies to strengthen and amour them. However, some of the earth dams are beyond repair and need to be redesigned and rebuild to accommodate the historical flood patterns, therefore we are also considering demolition and reconstruction of some structures using the state-of-the-art design approaches.”
Las Viboras presents public-safety challenges as constant floods can generate strong water currents. It also is a source of pollution due to its use as a refuse site. Trash and other pollutants settle in standing water of the dams, leading to health concerns and the development of pests such as mosquitoes.
“This project is going to help make the water sheds more resilient to hydrometeorological events. With the building and redesigning of these dams, this community will eventually be protected against flooding and failure in their infrastructure,“ Dena said.
Designed as a research, implementation and educational opportunity, several students from both universities have engaged in this project. UTEP students including Jesus Baca, Daniel Alvidrez and Marcos Arizpe, along with six more students from UACJ have contributed to the project by conducting a series of laboratory and field tests in the area. The laboratory characterizations include permeability tests, strength analysis, settlement potential, durability tests, leaching effects, and other tests pertaining to the physio-chemical properties of the native soil.
Soil is known to be a mixture of minerals, water, organic materials and various life forms. When contaminants such as trash and chemicals reach the soil, they alter their natural state, leading to the diffusion of toxic particles that can harm human health. Soil contaminants can easily be washed out by the rain and end up in our drinking water, regardless of the rigorous tests water desalination plants conduct. This is why the chemical testing of the soil these students are doing is extremely important for the project.
“We need to tackle this problem head on as it can have dire consequences for us who are living here in El Paso. The preliminary studies showed that the poor design of some of these dams could potentially jeopardize the life of El Pasoans and cause serious damages to properties on our side of the border as well,”Ashtiani said.
In addition to the public-safety ramifications of his work, Ashtiani said he also hopes his students can be persuaded to help those in need through their work. That notion is part of an effort to develop quality engineers, Ashtiani said. Civil engineering student Jesus Baca is one such beneficiary of the project. He describes his participation in the project as an excellent tool to reinforce his passion for civil engineering as well as to recognize the importance of staying humble.
“It is great seeing how what we do can help these people, they seem to be really thankful,” Baca said.
The project has proceeded for two months and is expected to extend into late spring. Collaborators say there is still much to be done and helping the people of Juarez has become their priority. Their hope is that the residents of Las Viboras and other affected areas learn how to take care of these dams to prevent serious damage from happening in the future.
“Such high-impacts projects that can save someone’s life are tremendously humbling and rewarding. If presented with the opportunity, we will do it, no questions asked,” Ashtiani said.