University of Memphis Partners with U.S. Geological Survey to Expand Water Research

Oct. 26, 2020 — The University of Memphis and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have had a working relationship for more than 25 years, but it was never formalized until now.

In July 2020, the University of Memphis (UofM) and the U.S. Geological Survey Lower Mississippi-Gulf Water Science Center entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that builds upon their many years of collaboration and commences a shared plan to strengthen research efforts. The MOU primarily addresses issues of the groundwater and surface water resources within the Mississippi embayment, a system that underlies portions of eight central and southern states.

“The University of Memphis and the Lower Mississippi-Gulf Water Science Center are working together on water resource topics of local and national interest with immediate practical applications,” said Dr. Jeannie Barlow, Deputy Director of the U.S. Geological Survey Lower Mississippi-Gulf Water Science Center.
The Mississippi embayment encompasses portions of eight states and its prolific freshwater aquifers provide drinking water to more than four million people and support some of the largest agricultural production in the nation.

“We are excited to formalize our long working history with the U.S. Geological Survey," said Dr. Brian Waldron, director of the UoM’s Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research (CAESER). "Because we share a common interest in the water resources of the embayment, we now have a clearer path forward under the MOU to work together, uniting the strengths of both parties, that will result in strong economic growth for the enumerable communities and farmers who rely heavily on the abundance of water in the region.”

The UofM and the USGS have already begun a new effort under this MOU to unify techniques to map the subsurface. This aims to identify preferential pathways of water exchange between two key aquifers: the Mississippi River Valley Alluvial aquifer and the Memphis/Sparta aquifer. The idea is to combine subsurface profiling conducted by the USGS using airborne geophysics with land-based geophysics to be performed by the UofM to readily locate and confirm these inter-aquifer exchange pathways. Such pathways have implications for altered water quality and water availability.

“Water is critical to both economic development and the quality of life in our region," said Dr. Jasbir Dhaliwal, UofM vice president of Innovation and Research. "I am pleased to see the USGS and CAESER taking their partnership to the next level — it is imperative that empirical scientific research drives all larger decisions as to this critical resource.”

Other identified areas of interest between the UofM and USGS include surface water/groundwater exchange where the dynamics of flow between these two systems provide increased accuracy of large-scale numerical groundwater models, while also building out small-scale information on ecosystem vitality. Another shared area of interest is the development of water-level maps for various aquifers as these surveys help inform scientists, especially those numerically modeling groundwater flow, and community stakeholders, but are also used to define protection zones around key water production wells to minimize or prevent contamination.

“The MOU between the UofM and USGS opens many opportunities for scientific exchange and collaboration in regard to critical water resources in the Mississippi embayment, providing professional experiences for students, faculty and staff, alike,” said Dr. Daniel Larsen, professor in Earth Sciences at the University of Memphis and faculty affiliate of CAESER.

Waldron expands on another facet of the new partnership, “Both parties believe strongly in the importance of trust in data. The U.S. Geological Survey does a remarkable job to ensure its measurements uphold high standards. CAESER endeavors to achieve the same. We use traditional techniques as well as develop robust, innovative research methodologies when making field measurements. Merging these strengths under this MOU is a huge benefit to the science and any project deliverables.”

Beyond the science, the benefits to faculty and students, and gains in knowledge, the primary beneficiary of this MOU are the residents within the Mississippi embayment region who depend on abundant, clean water for their livelihood and the recipients of goods produced from this region.
“Ultimately, this collaboration will help to integrate the unique capabilities of academia to help address multifaceted and interdisciplinary water-resource problems,” said Barlow.