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A River of Water Research Flows Throughout The Commonwealth

For Dexter Howard, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, was a motivator to consider a career in water.

“All I knew is that I didn’t want a desk job,” said Howard, who graduated with a water degree from the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) in 2020. “I was poking around what degrees were available in the college, and the water major sparked my interest. The Flint water crisis was dominating the news then, and I thought the water major would give me the chance to have an applied degree that worked on real-world problems.”

The degree program that captivated Howard – water: resources, policy, and management –  is offered by the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and was developed in partnership with faculty in the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, who hold tenured faculty appointments in the department. It is one example of the many contributions the center has made to support educational opportunities, research collaborations, and public connections during its 58 years at Virginia Tech, including the past 18 years in the college.

“The water center operates as something of a focal point for water education, outreach, and research at Virginia Tech,” said Stephen Schoenholtz, the center’s director and a professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “We’re an independent, non-siloed place to foster and promote training, research, and collaboration on water challenges across the university and throughout the commonwealth.”

For Howard, the opportunity to study water led to a senior research project examining the drivers and variabilities of dissolved organic matter in the drinking water of a reservoir in nearby Roanoke. To conduct that research, Howard received funding from the water center’s Competitive Grants Program for students.

“My project looked at carbon cycling in a drinking water reservoir,” said Howard, who is from Purcellville, Virginia. “Working with Professor Cayelan Carey’s lab, I used high-frequency sensors to look at how organic matter concentrations change, which is an important part to understanding the general carbon cycling dynamics in a reservoir. The funding helped in the maintenance of sensors, and it allowed me to run chemistry samples for sensor validation.”

The Virginia Water Resources Research Center coordinates funding for student research, such as Dexter Howard’s (at right) undergraduate research on carbon cycling in a reservoir. Photo courtesy of Dexter Howard.

Howard is continuing his research into reservoirs as a doctoral student in the Department of Biological Sciences, where he is currently partnering with the Western Virginia Water Authority to explore applied topics of water safety, such as how water quality changes when reservoirs are utilized in recreational events such as triathlons.

Supporting research from campuses to the Capitol

In addition to coordinating grants for undergraduate researchers in CNRE, the water center offers grants for student researchers throughout the commonwealth.

“We support student research projects all across the state,” said Professor Kevin McGuire, the water center’s associate director. “It’s a way for us to highlight cutting-edge research, and it helps us stay connected with faculty and student researchers all across the state. We try to select proposals that align with the priorities of the region, the state, and the country.”

Past grant recipients – selected by a review panel of water experts – researched the hydrological impacts of beaver activity on stream restoration, wastewater impacts on local water resources, and stormwater control measures in urban wetlands, to name just a few projects.

“Our grant program is a critical facilitation piece,” said McGuire, whose research focuses on how water moves through landscapes and forest systems. “It helps us build our networks with other researchers and universities, it supports younger researchers who are starting their careers in the field, and it allows us to serve as a clearinghouse of information about water issues pertaining to Virginia.”

Another important facilitation connection is the collaborations that the water center – which was recently recognized as a national leader in education and outreach – participates in with the other 53 federally funded water centers that comprise the National Institutes for Water Resources.

“As a group, we help coordinate regional and national water initiatives in close affiliation with the U.S. Geological Survey, which provides annual federal funding to support our mission,” said Schoenholtz, who is an affiliated faculty member of the Center for Coastal Studies at Virginia Tech. “Right now, we are working with other mid-Atlantic water centers to coordinate newly-funded research on contaminants of emerging concern in stormwater across disadvantaged communities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”

The water center has hosted conferences aimed at bringing regional, national, and international researchers together to talk about critical water issues and has annually made its presence known in the halls of Washington, D.C.

Last year, a delegation of Virginia Tech researchers affiliated with the water center was one of only 22 academic institutions invited to attend the 2023 United Nations Water Conference, which aimed to find solutions for the multidimensional challenges of pollution, drought, flooding, and severe weather.

“Our university has an excellent mix of scholars from different colleges researching all aspects of water,” said Yugasha Bakshi, a Ph.D. student in the planning, governance, and globalization program who collaborated with Schoenholtz to secure accreditation for Virginia Tech to attend the conference. “I thought Virginia Tech should be a part of this milestone event.”

Alan Raflo (third from left) assists a team of students surveying invertebrates in Stroubles Creek as part of their wildlife conservation capstone course project. Photo by Krista Timney for Virginia Tech.

Sharing water stories – and water decisions – with the public

Since 2010, Research Associate Alan Raflo has been the voice of Virginia Water Radio, a program dedicated to telling short-form stories about the intersection between water and life in Virginia.

“I was inspired by the NPR program ‘Car Talk’, along with the radio program ‘StarDate,’ said Raflo. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to start a story with the sound of something related to water and then tell a story about it.’”

Raflo’s stories – one of many outreach efforts undertaken by the water center – have touched on subjects ranging from natural environments to emerging water policies to public service information relating to water. He is currently working on a series about water and U.S. civil rights, including the 14th Amendment, which protects the rights of all citizens.

“Water provides a unique way to consider the 14th Amendment, which has both historical significance and is very much a subject of the present day,” said Raflo, who is also tasked with updating and maintaining an inventory of water-related measures considered by the Virginia General Assembly. “For example, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1873 Slaughterhouse Cases decision, focused on the Mississippi River in Louisiana, has had an important influence on the 14th Amendment’s effect and enforcement in the states well into the 20th century.”

Looking ahead, McGuire hopes that the center will continue to be a touchpoint for researchers studying water issues.

“In order to tackle the challenges that water faces in the coming years, we need to rely on the expertise of researchers working across different disciplines,” explained McGuire, an affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center. “The more we can engage professors, future researchers, and the community into the fold, the better we can help Virginia conserve and protect our important water resources.”

For Schoenholtz, water is the collective tie that unites many of the critical challenges of the day.

“From extreme events such as droughts, wildfires, floods, and contaminant spills, to the emerging concerns about access to secure, reliable, and clean water for public health and environmental sustainability, water resource challenges are a daily part of the news cycle,” he noted. “As such, the Virginia Water Center’s mission to promote water training, research, and outreach is more relevant to Virginia Tech and the commonwealth than ever before.”

Krista Timney

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