Fulbright Scholar Alma Anides Morales uses drones to keep water basins clean and communities safe

Dec. 22, 2023

The Environmental Science doctoral candidate spent six months studying soil erosion in Mexican communities to better understand how to support watersheds affected by pollution

Anides Morales with a drone

Napoleón Gudiño-Elizondo and Alma Anides Morales use unmanned aerial systems including one designed by the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC) to study soil erosion.

Instituto de Investigaciones Oceanológicas de la UABC.

Along the United States-Mexico border, where multiple cultures come together in small towns, Environmental Science doctoral candidate  Alma Anides Morales feels at home, both in her personal life and her research.

After spending a few years conducting research in Naco, Arizona for her master’s thesis and Nogales, Sonora and Arizona for her doctoral research, Anides Morales earned a Fulbright Fellowship to spend six months doing applied research with Napoleón Gudiño-Elizondo’s Aerial Oceanography Laboratory at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, in Ensenada, Mexico.

A storm drain in Ensanada affected by erosion

Urbanization, vegetation removal, unpaved roads and water infrastructure failure are all factors that contribute to increased runoff and excessive soil erosion in Ensenada communities.

Commuting between labs in Ensenada and the field site at Los Laureles Canyon Watershed (LLCW) in Tijuana, Anides Morales assisted in conducting aerial photogrammetric surveys of different communities within the watershed. The high-resolution drone imagery is used to produce digital surface models and measure terrain changes due to soil erosion over time. LLCW is an urban watershed that lies primarily in Mexico and drains into the Tijuana estuary, the largest coastal wetland in Southern California.

“This project is part of a series of socioecological initiatives that will improve the environment and people's quality of life,” Anides Morales said. “We use the drone flights as inputs to inform modeling of best management practices such as green infrastructure, to limit runoff and decrease erosion and flood hazards to protect human and watershed health”.

Although LLCW is only a fraction of the larger Tijuana River Watershed, it contributes a significant amount of sediment and solid waste to the Tijuana Estuary. 

“During heavy rain events, channels that may otherwise have a slow flow fill up as surface runoff flows downhill and is mixed with sewage from breaks in the waterline," Anides Morales said. "Excessive erosion from hillslopes, channels, and unpaved roads produces large amounts of sediment that is carried down along with solid waste.” 

Green infrastructure uses soil and plant systems or engineered systems to mimic natural processes that can assist with stormwater management. By revegetating and reinforcing certain hillslopes, for example, Anides Morales said that root systems can help stabilize the soil and prevent surface erosion. 

A photograph of Alma Anides Morales, Jorge Ibañez (“Don Jorge”), and Dr. Gudiño-Elizondo

Left to right - Alma Anides Morales, Jorge Ibañez (“Don Jorge”), and Dr. Gudiño-Elizondo during an aerial survey. Don Jorge is the Director of Vivero Hormiguitas, a local nursery in Los Laureles Canyon that grows native plants and is actively working towards ecological resilience.

Provided by Alma Anides Morales

This research is done in conjunction with the University of California San Diego’s Center on Global Justice, which maintains long-standing relationships with communities throughout the watershed area. Anides Morales and the team worked closely with community members to learn more about how they can use localized solutions to solve environmental challenges, such as supporting a community plant nursery that provides native vegetation for restructuring hillslopes.

Anides Morales's master’s and doctoral studies in border towns at the University of Arizona helped prepare her for working in the community during her Fulbright work, but so has her personal life. 

After moving to cities around the U.S., Anides Morales said she first felt at home when her family landed in San Diego, California, where her family still resides today. Since then she has also lived in the border town of Mercedes, Texas, where she volunteered with AmeriCorps before starting her graduate degrees in Tucson. 

Both her passion for the environment and the cultures she grew up with combined to lead her on a path of binational research.

Anides Morales is also part of the record-breaking 2022-23 class of UArizona Fulbright Scholars.

Jake Kerr, CALES Marketing and Communications Strategist