The idea of uncertainty can be an unsettling topic. Dr. Rosario Sanchez-Flores, a Texas Water Resources Institute research scientist, is using science to tackle a major source of uncertainty affecting agriculture and water security along the Texas-Mexico border: transboundary aquifers.
“There is not much data on it and not much research going on in that area, and that’s scary,” she said. “Why? Because groundwater helps supply our agriculture.”
Sanchez-Flores has not always been involved in water research, though.
Her background is in diplomatic and international relations; she earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Monterrey Tech and her master’s in diplomatic affairs from Matias Romero Institute, both in Mexico. Flores then went to work for the Consulate of Mexico in Yuma, Arizona and the Consulate General of Mexico in Denver.
While working for the consulates, Sanchez-Flores led the office that protects human and civil rights for Mexicans in the United States, which helped her “understand how the authorities in the U.S. worked,” she said.
Though her transition from the diplomatic arena to water research was not an easy one, “I was able to do it, with a lot of pressure and a lot of help,” Sanchez-Flores said. “Now I can say I am able to fill that gap between science and policy.”
After finishing her doctorate in water management and hydrological sciences from Texas A&M University, Sanchez-Flores realized her strength was looking at water from an international perspective. Her research now focuses on transboundary aquifers between Mexico and the U.S.
This work is particularly important as growing populations in Texas continue to stress surface water supplies and water suppliers turn to groundwater for additional resources.
Trying to identify the transboundary aquifers and how the water moves in them, including across the border, is difficult, Sanchez-Flores said. Data availability is not the only problem; the limited existing data does not provide a full perspective because it is bound by geopolitical boundaries.
Because of this, the work Sanchez-Flores and her colleagues do is unique and important.
“We know the groundwater is there,” Sanchez-Flores said. “We don’t know how much, we don’t know the quality, we don’t know who is pumping it, we don’t know how much water we are going to have left, and we don’t know the interaction between the surface water and groundwater.”
It is not only difficult finding the data, but interpreting the data also requires much of Sanchez-Flores’ time. Differences in methodology and language complicate the work.
“Mexico uses and recognizes a certain methodology to identify aquifers, and Texas uses another one,” Sanchez-Flores said.
To determine which aquifers are which, she uses different data from both sides of the border.
“The cultural, language, and methods differences and trust between institutions is very complicated,” she said. “But, you just can’t close your eyes and pretend everything is okay because it is the responsibility of the other side.”
Facing all of these challenges is essential to fulfilling the research’s ultimate purpose: collaboratively taking care of water resources.
For more information, see Sanchez-Flores’ web page.