About the Research Experience for Undergraduates Program

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. Additionally, 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.

Addressing the Issues

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)?

Students from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines will be mentored by faculty from Geology, Microbiology, Hydrology, Geochemistry, Public Health, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and other disciplines to address these important issues facing the residents and visitors in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Program Structure

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.

Upon arrival in Mexico, 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 in the project as students work to implement their research plans, overcome challenges, and work together to reach their goals. Students will be working closely not only with their faculty mentors, but also with scientists from Mexico.

The final two weeks of the project will consist of data analysis, preparation of research abstracts and posters, and discussion of plans for presenting the findings.

Exploring the Culture

While 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.

Site Funding

Funding for this REU site is provided by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Earth Sciences located in Alexandria, VA. (#1852290 and 1852263) The NSF contact for this program is Aisha Morris. NSF does not handle REU applications; please contact each REU site directly for application information.

Contact Us

Melissa Lenczewski

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