UTEP Civil Engineering Students Study Ascarate Lake

The El Paso County Commissioners lauded a group of University of Texas at El Paso civil engineering students and their professor after they presented the final results of a nearly yearlong effort to improve water quality at Ascarate Park.

Ivonne Santiago, Ph.D., civil engineering clinical professor, joined the trio of students – Madison Bencomo, Lindsey Larson and Julieta Saucedo – during the commissioners’ regular meeting at the El Paso County Courthouse on Dec. 4, 2017. The group took turns presenting findings from research that began in September 2016 as part of a senior design course. They also pitched recommendations for improvements to the park.

“We really want to make this park the Central Park of El Paso,” Santiago said. “We are excited to be able to contribute and the opportunity to help in any way we can.”

Those contributions stemmed from five directives that a group of 12 students were given last year. The highlight of their work has been the effort to revitalize the 48-acre Ascarate Lake. The effort focuses on hindering the growth of golden algae blooms. To do so, the group urged the county to create floating island wetlands containing African irises and horsetails. According to their presentation, the roots of the plants naturally cleanse the water and have proved successful at other lakes throughout the world. Students also suggested adding solar-powered aerators and planting trees to along the eastern edge of the nearby golf course to control nitrogen and phosphate runoff.

Other recommendations from Santiago and her students included adding an overlay to walking trails to make the park ADA compliant; constructing a 1,352-seat amphitheater near existing parking lots; adding seven artificial-turf soccer fields; and adding dry wells and other measures to properly drain areas of the park that currently see ponding.

The total cost for the improvements was estimated at about $1.8 million.

“I really hope that we can look for ways that we can fund some of the recommendations, especially when it comes to the lake,” said Commissioner David Stout, whose district includes Ascarate Lake. “I really appreciate the work that you are doing. I, for one, am going to advocate that we move forward with some of the solutions that you are providing for us.”

The work was conducted under a memorandum of understanding with the county that is active until 2018. Santiago is working with the county to extend it until 2021. She said a decision should be rendered in June 2018. If extended, Santiago said the program would benefit students involved in the STEMGrow program, a partnership with El Paso Community College that is geared toward fostering student engagement and creating more professional preparation opportunities.

“I think it’s really fantastic knowing you give us options but also cost estimates,” County Judge Ruben Vogt said. “It’s really great to see opportunities that we have moving forward are also helping UTEP as well in being able to engage students in a tangible project that is also bringing funding to the University to help address some of these opportunities. So, thank you for all your hard work.”

Master’s student Lindsey Larson said working on the project was a valuable experience and one from which the county could potentially benefit.

“It’s a win-win for us to be involved in something that can be used and for them to have solutions that will work,” Larson said.

Students also were assisted in the project by Raed Aldouri, Ph.D., research associate professor and director of the Regional Geospatial Center at UTEP; and Elizabeth Walsh, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences.

Author – Pablo Villa, UTEP Communications