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Brianda Hernandez Researcher Feature: Water security and more!

Brianda Hernandez is a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) in the Graduate Program of Hydrologic Sciences working towards a M.S. in Hydrogeology. She works alongside Dr. Alexandra Lutz at the Desert Research Institute looking at the feasibility of rainwater harvesting in the southwestern United States to attain water security for food production.

How did you end up in the field of Hydrology?

As very unconventional college student, I didn’t start college until I was 24. I got the financial opportunity to go back to school after taking a 5-year hiatus. During this time, I discovered rock climbing, traveling, backpacking, and simply exploring nature. I always caught myself wondering about the geologic formation and processes, so I decided to take an Intro to Geology course at my local community college when I decided to go back to school— I absolutely fell in love with the science thanks to the amazing and dedicated professors at Mt. San Antonio College. Knowing that I wanted to help people in any way, shape, or form, I figured perusing a degree hydrology/hydrogeology would get me closer to that goal. I knew I wanted to study hydrogeology when SGMA (Sustainable Groundwater Management Act) was passed in California, I was so intrigued and amazed that groundwater wasn’t necessarily being managed or how we didn’t exactly know about the subsurface, a very critical water resource for the West and much of the world. I transferred out to Cal Poly Pomona where I worked with Dr. Stephen Osborn. I worked in the Cal Poly Hydrology Lab where I looked at the potential effects in water quality due to spatial and seasonality changes in an urban river. I also was fortunate to intern for one of the biggest water distributers in Southern California, where I assisted in various projects ranging from rainwater harvesting, groundwater assessments, Colorado River Contingency Plan, food-energy-water nexus— these experiences solidified my excitement and interest in hydrology/hydrogeology.

If funding was no issue, what water-related research question would you really want to investigate?

Droughts are no surprise to California or to much of the western United States. It is obvious when you look at the Sierra Nevada snowpack that drought has affected the water quantity, however, I have seen very little research on how droughts affect water quality. If I had access to unlimited funding, I would try to answer this question for the west. How does water quality change during drought? Particularly in remote or rural areas like the southwestern United States, or Nevada, where research is scarce. Water scarcity is a result of low water quantity and poor water quality and addressing both can help people in rural and underserved communities request for funding to help with water quality issues that are inevitable with this changing climate.

What do you wish you were taught earlier in your research career?

I wish I was taught that it is okay to ask for help when you need it. To this day, I find myself spending hours upon hours trying to figure out a problem, when I know I could have easily gone down the hall and asked an expert that could have explained how to approach the problem in less than 5 minutes. It would not only have saved me time, but I would have been better equipped to tackle the problem. Likewise, I also wish I was told to learn a programming language and learn it well. Although there are a lot of resources online for programming that have been incredibly useful for me in the last few years, I feel like a lot of the time I’ve spent trying to figure to how produce a double y-axis plot in R, could have been better spent on something else.

What is a social issue (in the hydrology community or just water science?) you think everyone should care about?

The substantial amount of people in the United States who lack access to clean, reliable drinking water and proper sanitation, particularly in BIPOC and low-income communities, is a major social issue that surprises me and believe everyone should not only care about but also attempt to address. These underserved communities have taken the brunt of not only climate change but of the COVID-19 pandemic when constant handwashing and proper hygiene is needed to curve the spread of this virus. This is an important issue that needs to be addressed, not only should funding go to levitate the stresses of water scarcity, but I believe the scientific community should help properly research and gather data to help these areas in attaining water security in ways that are better suited for these communities.

Tell us about an extracurricular project you are working on?

I am currently a member of the Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DEI) committee in the Graduate Program of Hydrologic Sciences (GPHS) at UNR. As part of the DEI committee, we have been looking at ways to make the program more inclusive, transparent, and equitable for everyone. I am also a member of the Unlearning Racism in Geosciences (URGE) pod here in GPHS which has given me the tools to be a better geoscientist and a better human in general. I am a member of the GPHS Colloquium Committee where I am a part of forming a colloquium series with speakers whose work and ideas reflects the interest of the students in the program. Lastly, I am a member of the COVID -19 working group for the Native Waters on Arid Lands where I have helped research content for the COVID-19 Toolkit website, where I looked at water quality issues in the U.S. and their effects in Indian Country.

What do you do when you are not at your desk working?

When I am not at my desk, I am usually bouldering either outside or in the gym. I have been rock climbing for 11 years, and although I do enjoy trad and sport climbing, I am a pebble wrestler through and through. I also enjoy fly fishing, even though I am not that good. I am also a mountain biker, although I rather go downhill then climb up the hills. I also just love camping— there’s nothing better than sitting around a fire or in a hot spring with a bunch of friends talking about anything (usually science related with me). When I am not outside, I enjoy reading books about people who do things outside. I also enjoy listening to music and drinking wine while having great conversations with family and friends.

Describe your research and its importance using the ten hundred most common words.

As the days get warmer and there is less clean ice water entering the world’s water ways, finding other ways to get and store water is going to be very important. In the dry, hot areas in the lower states, many people who live far from the cities are using water from the ground that may be filled with bad stuff that can make them sick and can be just as bad for growing food. Having clean water for drinking and growing food is a human right, and people who live in places far from the city should be able to get clean water that is always there when they need it. In this study, we will be looking at the sky for summer rains that happen every year in the lower hot states to see if it is a good idea to be able to get and store water that falls as rain. As the days get hotter, the summer rains happen less but when they do happen, they can be bigger and filled with more water so knowing what the summer rains are doing from old studies and from looking at the changing skies is very important. For this study, we will be working with The People of the Tall Green Trees, who are far from the cities, in the hot dry state that gets summer rains to see if storing the rain is possible. We will be putting in huge cups to get the rain that is falling from the big top walls of a house or building. The rain will then be stored in huge cup-like things for people to use at a later time. This new type of water idea will help the People of the Tall Green Trees grow food. Being able to grow your own food is very important especially after this past year and a half of not totally knowing because of the Big Sick-19. There has not been many studies that show that storing rain in the dry lower states is a good way to get more water to grow food, that is why this is very important to understand, especially after this past year.

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