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Congratulations to Dr. Laura Norman with the Western Geographic Science Center in Tucson, AZ, for her selection as the winner of the 2024 Farouk El-Baz Award for Desert Research.


Dr. Laura Norman with the Western Geographic Science Center in Tucson, AZ, has been selected as the winner of the 2024 Farouk El-Baz Award for Desert Research. 

A photo of Laura Norman

Dr. El-Baz is an Egyptian-American space scientist and geologist who worked with NASA in the scientific exploration of the Moon and the planning of the Apollo program. He helped lead the study of the Moon’s geology, the selection of landing sites for the Apollo missions, and the training of astronauts in lunar observations and photography. As a NASA scientist, he also visited every major desert in the world to study the origin and evolution of arid landscapes. Dr. El-Baz was a Research Professor and Director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University from 1986 until his retirement in 2018. Information about the El-Baz award and past recipients can be found on the GSA Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology Division (QG&G) website. USGS winners of this award include Julio Betancourt (2012), Dan Muhs (2014), and Merith Reheis (2015). Laura's award will be presented at the QG&G Awards Ceremony on September 24, 2024, at the GSA Annual Meeting in Anaheim, CA. 

Throughout her 25-year career in the USGS, Laura’s research has supported environmental management and various state, federal, and binational stakeholders in the drylands of the American Southwest and U.S.-Mexico border. She has amassed an impressive body of mapping, field, and modeling studies to address point-source and non-point source pollution, environmental health, environmental justice, transboundary watershed management and sustainability, flood risk assessment, ecosystem services, and nature-based solutions.  

Two decades ago, Laura helped develop the USGS Colonias Monitoring Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Mexican National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), to identify “colonias,” environmental justice communities near the U.S.-Mexico border that lack adequate housing or water/sewer infrastructure, and to avail them of the necessary funding. She later co-led the USGS Border Environmental Health Initiative, an interdisciplinary effort to track binational sources and sinks of ground and surface water contamination. Laura developed forecasts for urbanization, estimated flood risks and their evaluated plausible land-use, and assessed vulnerable human population exposure to ecosystem services. Laura’s methods are now being applied for sustainable land-use planning, enabling more equitable management of resources in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. 

Laura also is the leading expert on the use of traditional, practical, and low-cost rock-detention structures to retain and replenish water, soil, and vegetation in ephemeral stream channels and aridland watersheds. These management practices were used by Indigenous peoples in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico for more than a thousand years but have been overlooked, or even frowned upon, in modern water management and restoration science. Laura’s meticulous studies have shown that rock-detention structures promote lateral flows; mitigate flood events; extend seasonality and availability of water; prevent erosion and enhance alluvial deposition; reduce nonpoint sources pollution and improve water quality; promote vegetation, especially during droughts; and sequester soil carbon. Major national land agencies (i.e., USFS and BLM) are developing restoration projects using results of her research as leverage for funding and permitting. In addition, Laura’s efforts to share her dryland watershed restoration work through presentations to a wide array of regional stakeholders, briefings to policy makers, media interviews, and informative videos (e.g., The Sky Island Restoration Collaborative, Re-greening a Dryland Watershed) are admirable. 

Congratulations, Laura! 

Article by Julio Bentancourt, Pam Nagler, and Joel Sankey

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