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About the Program

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Water Quality in the Yucatan Peninsula

The Yucatán Peninsula, including the tourism center of Cancún, is considered a groundwater dependent ecosystem (GDE), completely reliant on aquifers for its supply of freshwater. Tourism is one of the most important sources of revenue in the Riviera Maya (along the East coast of the Yucatán), which hosts more than 1.7 million tourists per year, and the region has experienced 20–25 percent annual population growth over the past ten years. This extreme population growth and use of the underlying aquifers to support the tourism industry has led to the potential of serious depletion or degradation of this critical natural resource. Increased groundwater withdrawal and the need for waste disposal and treatment due to the growing population and tourism industry are some of the main potential threats to water supply.

Interdisciplinary Projects

Underlying the Yucatán Peninsula is a highly permeable, fractured karst limestone aquifer characterized by rapid transport of microbial and chemical contaminants from the surface to the aquifers below. Through a set of highly interdisciplinary projects this REU seeks to address questions such as: 

  • What types of contamination are present in the aquifer?
  • What are the potential sources of contamination?
  • How is the aquifer impacted by recreational uses (cenotes)?
  • How do current wastewater treatment and disposal practices impact the aquifer?
  • What are the physical characteristics of the aquifer? How does water move through the karst system?
  • What are the impacts to the health of the public that uses the water from the aquifer in various ways (e.g. drinking water, bathing, recreation)?

Pulling together faculty mentors from Geology, Microbiology, Hydrology, Geochemistry, Public Health, Civil and Environmental Engineering and other disciplines, this REU will assemble a team of students from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines to work to address these important issues facing the residents and visitors to the Yucatán Peninsula.

Students and faculty will spend the first two weeks of the program in DeKalb, Illinois, at Northern Illinois University. During this time, students will be paired and in close contact with their faculty mentors, research their projects, receive training in field and laboratory methods, develop research proposals, and prepare for the next four weeks in Mexico. Participants will be working closely with students from Centro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán (CICY), who will also be in DeKalb during this time period.

Exploring the Culture 

Following arrival in Mexico, participants will spend a few days exploring the history and culture of the area, including visits to colonial era churches and Mayan archaeological sites to emphasize the value of the relationship between science and the environment, history, and culture of the people and their region. Following this introduction to the area, activities will focus on daily field sampling and measurements and laboratory analyses at Centro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán (CICY). This is an exciting time of the project as students work to implement their research plans, overcome challenges, and work together to reach their goals. One aspect of this REU is to have students from the United States working closely with scientists from Mexico. During the time in Mexico, these relationships will be strengthened through close and regular contact.

The final two weeks of the project will consist of data analysis, preparation of research abstracts and posters and discussion of plans for possible future collaboration and continuation of the research.