A stream of information about how Virginia Tech is working to protect and preserve an essential resource
Water is a common part of everyday living in the United States. We drink it, play in it, collect it, cook and clean with it. At Virginia Tech, water is even central to the actual design and structure of the campus.
Water is an inorganic compound consisting of hydrogen and oxygen. The odorless, tasteless, and nearly colorless substance is critical for socioeconomic development, energy and food production, healthy ecosystems, and for human survival itself.
As the population around the globe continues to grow and the effects of climate change become more far-reaching, water stress is a growing concern. According to a new report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF, if current trends persist, billions of children and families will be left without critical, life-saving water, sanitation, and hygiene services as early as 2030.
Across Virginia Tech’s campuses, leaders and scientists are focused on developing strategies to protect existing water resources and finding solutions to related problems that range from aging water infrastructure and stormwater management systems to improved access to clean water and preservation of fragile ecosystems.
Because every drop counts.
A Matter of Campus and Land-Use Planning
Virginia Tech alumni and students often refer to the university and the Blacksburg campus as a piece of heaven on earth. But long before achieving that status, the region’s abundant resources and natural beauty were likely the allure that attracted early inhabitants and settlers.
“The geography of the region made it sort of like a 'Garden of Eden,'” said Hugh Campbell, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and author of “The Blacksburg Drama: A History in Three Acts.”
“And it all goes back to the water,” Campbell said.
The Tutelo/Monacan people are the historic custodians of this lush region, which experienced an influx of settlers from Europe beginning in the mid-1700s. Campbell speculates that former British sea captain James Patton was captivated by the landscape when he explored Blacksburg during that period. The relatively flat valley, surrounding mountains, and Stroubles Creek watershed likely contributed to Patton’s decision to found Draper’s Meadows, the outpost that eventually became Blacksburg.
“When he [Patton] found this place, he quickly recognized its potential,” said Campbell, a former editor of The Smithfield Review.
Over the next 300 years, Stroubles Creek played a major role as Draper’s Meadows grew, changed its name, and eventually became home to the university now known as Virginia Tech. And while the creek’s influence on the history of the community and the university is clearly evident, the waterway continues to shape the present and affect plans for the future.
“The town of Blacksburg is largely here because of Stroubles Creek,” said W. Cully Hession, a professor of biological systems engineering. “So, really, the university’s here because of the creek.”
Hession is the director of Virginia Tech’s StREAM Lab, which focuses on studies related to stream rehabilitation efforts. One of the goals of the associated research is removing Stroubles Creek from the Clean Water Act’s list of impaired waters. Impaired waters are bodies where the pollution controls are considered insufficient for maintaining water quality. The lab operates alongside several other projects with similar goals, including the Stroubles Creek Improvement Partnership and Stroubles Creek Coalition.
Located downstream of campus, the StREAM Lab operates multiple monitoring stations to analyze water quality and record flood data. As director, Hession’s work involves learning as much as possible about the creek, including its historic relationship with the university.
“Everything is where it is because of where the creek is,” Hession said.
Stroubles Creek runs through the town of Blacksburg, Virginia, and underneath the campus of Virginia Tech. Since 2002, the creek has been designated an impaired waterway by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Several projects and programs have been established to address problems, such as agricultural runoff, sewer overflows, pollutant buildup on impervious surfaces, lack of streamside forest, and improper disposal of grass clippings and trash, to make the changes needed to improve the health of the waterway.
- Repair oil and fluid leaks on your car.
- Dispose of used motor oil at recycling centers.
- Discard litter in trash cans or recycling containers.
- Pick up pet waste and dispose of it in trash cans or toilets.
- Follow application and storage directions for fertilizers and other chemicals.
- Volunteer to get involved with campus or community groups that organize cleanup days or plant streamside trees.
Efforts to study Stroubles Creek aren’t new. Hession’s research uncovered a 2010 report from the Virginia Water Resource Research Center that revealed Virginia Tech faculty and students have studied the natural waterway for more than 100 years.
According to the report, the 12-mile creek primarily originates from various springs in Blacksburg, and those streams merge at different locations. The creek divides into two watersheds—Upper and Lower—with the Duck Pond acting as the midway point. A watershed is an area of land where streams and rainfall drain to a single outlet. What flows into Stroubles Creek heads to the New River, then to the Kanawha and Ohio rivers before merging with the Mississippi River and heading to the Gulf of Mexico. A blue line crossing Blacksburg’s South Main Street near Sunset Boulevard marks the Eastern Continental Divide, the separation line for waters running east to the Atlantic Ocean and west toward the Mississippi River.
In the Campus Master Plan, Beyond Boundaries 2047, the hydrological patterns of Virginia Tech are said to be defined by the three branches of the creek—the Central Branch, Webb Branch, and South Tributary. The Central Branch enters campus near the intersection of College and Otey streets and is channeled beneath the Graduate Life Center, Eggleston Hall, and the Drillfield before daylighting near the Duck Pond. The Webb Branch enters near the intersection of Prices Fork Road and Stanger Street, where it daylights briefly and is then piped under campus to eventually merge with the Central Branch at the Duck Pond. The South Tributary parallels Southgate Drive before merging with Stroubles Creek near U.S. 460.
Stroubles Creek was even a consideration when Blacksburg founder William Black laid out the town’s original diamond-shaped 16-square grid in 1798. The design established a central space situated amid the tributaries of the Central Branch, with strong springs located near the northeast, southeast, and southwest corners.
“You don’t often realize how water in the early days was so important to life,” said Donna Dunay, the G.T. Ward Professor of Architecture and lead researcher of the 1986 report, “Blacksburg: Understanding a Virginia Town.”
“The 16 squares, its orientation, we decided, was determined on the basis of water,” Dunay said.
Over time, urbanization and university growth led planners to cover or divert much of the upper watershed. The expansive development also prompted increased water monitoring and prompted recommendations for change regarding creek usage by the area’s growing population.
A 1911 report from the Virginia Health Department detailed the creek’s lack of a sanitary sewer system and prevalence of “unsanitary privies” constructed over the creek both in town and on campus.
“It basically said they were using the creek for their waste and drinking from it,” Hession said. “And they had massive typhoid outbreaks.”
Hession said he’s unsure exactly when the area first erected a system for sewage treatment, but a facility for such a process was referenced in a 1913 report.
During the university’s earliest days, the Central Branch stretched alongside an agricultural experiment station. That field, in which a variety of crops grew, was prone to flooding. Dunay speculates the resulting marshy conditions motivated campus planners to locate buildings around the area, rather than in it.
By 1937, this tract between buildings had been expanded to 1.2 million square feet. Dedicated as the Drillfield for the Corps of Cadets, the site became the central organizational element in the campus plan.
Around the same time, a dam was built where the Central and Webb branches merged to create a small recreational pond that later would become known as the Duck Pond.
“I think the Drillfield, how it is today, is really a gift from the water,” Dunay said.
When the Drillfield expanded, the Central Branch of the creek, which had been visible, was diverted underground.
“It [the creek] is the reason Virginia Tech is here, yet thousands of students walk across the Drillfield every day and never know it’s there,” said Nicholas Polys, director of visual computing for Virginia Tech’s Advanced Research Computing.
“Everything is where it is because of where the creek is.”
- W. Cully Hession, professor of biological systems engineering
Polys is working with a cross-disciplinary group of researchers, engineers, and artists to increase awareness of the creek’s historical importance and to spotlight potential for future impact by creating an immersive virtual watershed experience. Their work is funded by an Institute of Creativity and Innovation grant.
An offshoot of the 3D Blacksburg project, an initiative to create a comprehensive three-dimensional model of the town of Blacksburg, the virtual watershed project uses 30-plus years of climate change data, LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology, and the Institute of Creativity and Innovation’s 360-degree cameras to offer audiences a first-hand experience with the creek and watershed.
“It’s about actually taking people to the place, so they can identify with it, empathize with it ... so they experience its story,” Polys said.
Polys said the project is designed to appeal to a wide range of audiences, including schoolchildren. In fact, it has been aligned with parts of the Virginia Standards of Learning. The project team hopes the experience will engage participants with topics that range from from history and social studies to biology and environmental science.
“Water is a great cross-cutting theme. It’s the perfect kind of medium or topic to unpack a lot of different issues,” Polys said. “You can find a way for anyone to connect to it, and it serves as a great foundation from which lots of interests can grow.”
The project already has resulted in a three-dimensional game that builds familiarity and environmental awareness by tasking users with navigating Stroubles Creek’s watershed in search of Blacksburg’s iconic 16 frogs, frog statues that can be found throughout town and the surrounding area to call attention to the freshwater under and around the streets and buildings of downtown Blacksburg. Aspects of augmented reality on campus and in town are expected to be added to the project in the near future.
Bringing awareness to the university’s watershed is also a major goal of Katelyn Muldoon ’15, ’17, a water resource specialist and administrator of the university’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ).
“I don’t think people realize that everything left on the ground or put near a storm drain is more than likely going to wash into our rivers, oceans, and waterways,” Muldoon said. “They don’t think about the fact that every time it rains, everything [in the path of the runoff] gets carried to our waterways.”
VDEQ permit requirements include educating Virginia Tech faculty, staff, and students about waterways and the environmental impacts of stormwater each year. However, Muldoon and her team within Site and Infrastructure Development in the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities regularly go above and beyond the requirements by engaging the public through such efforts as their stormwater-focused Facebook page. During previous school years, they also have been able to offer outreach education to as many as 750 students from Montgomery County Public Schools.
“My theory is these are the kids who are going to go home, and they’re going to talk to their parents about what they learned,” she said. “It [water] doesn’t just stay on campus. It flows through campus and leaves, so it makes sense that it’s a much bigger audience than what VDEQ says I have to reach.”
Muldoon said Virginia Tech students’ willingness to help teach the younger audiences remained key to the outreach's success. Between the stormwater field trips and an initiative to plant trees along Stroubles Creek, Muldoon estimated that about 1,000 Hokie students volunteer each year.
According to Muldoon, there are two primary categories of concern connected to stormwater quantity and quality. To maintain the VDEQ permit, Muldoon helps ensure that projects across the Blacksburg campus have addressed both during and after work takes place.
Duck, Duck, Goose
Artificially created in the mid-1930s when a dam was built where the Central and Webb branches of Stroubles Creek merge, the Virginia Tech Duck Pond has become a beloved campus landmark.
Over the years, a number of classes have supported projects to benefit the Duck Pond. Funds for an overall restoration of the area, including the numerous benches scattered around the area, were contributed by members of the Class of 1943, and the classes of 1988 and 1989 helped build the gazebo where students, alumni, and visitors can study, feed the birds, or enjoy the seasonal beauty of the natural area.
The Duck Pond is home to a variety of wildlife, including such waterfowl as Canada geese and mallard and Moscovy ducks. And the waters of the pond provide a habitat for common carp, mosquito fish, black bullheads, and other species.
Solitude, the house located adjacent to the Duck Pond, is the oldest structure on the Blacksburg campus and is believed to date back more than 200 years. A large black willow tree that grows by the Main Branch of Stroubles Creek near the point where the branch enters the Duck Pond has become a favorite of students, alumni, and arborists statewide. The tree is included in the 2008 book "Remarkable Trees of Virginia" by Nancy Ross Hugo, Professor Emeritus Jeff Kirwan, and Robert Llewellyn.
Campuswide concerns related to stormwater and the campus’ hydrological patterns are also top of mind when the university is planning, and beginning to build, for the future.
“Every project we do, we think about it [water],” said Liza Morris, assistant vice president for planning and university architect. “It’s always sort of been a factor, but now it’s much more integrated in planning. Some of that is the requirement for water quality and water quantity measures, but also it’s the right thing to do when we’re looking at creating a more sustainable campus and more sustainable buildings. … Water is a very important part of that conversation.”
When the Campus Master Plan was approved by the Board of Visitors in November 2018, best practices for managing stormwater and enhancing natural water sources were woven throughout the more than 370-page document. And a section entitled Landscape Framework specifically addresses the connection between stormwater management, the health of Stroubles Creek, and the work of the StREAM Lab.
“Virginia Tech’s campus can serve as a national showcase for innovative and holistic stormwater management while creating opportunities for student learning, hands-on research, and landscape amenities,” reads the plan.
Morris said the most recent plan is the most thorough and robust to date and included deep dives into areas that most traditional land-use plans exclude.
“[The plan] looks into a lot of areas and one of those, really for the first time, is thinking about water-receiving landscapes for the main campus,” Morris said. “We often address this on a project-by-project basis, but the master plan pulled back from that and asked, ‘What does the whole campus look like as a system?’”
Morris said this newer approach reflected the shift in societal thinking about management and manipulation of water. The new plan seeks to better recognize the threat posed by water’s natural pattern of collecting, gathering, and moving downhill, while leveraging those needs in ways that further enhance the campus’ already iconic water-related landscapes.
“Combining things that naturally want to be together, such as water and greenspace, you’re addressing the issues and creating amenities,” she said.
One clear example of this approach is open green space in the Creativity and Innovation District, which is partly located at the current site of the Graduate Life Center addition to Donaldson-Brown. Built over the Central Branch of Stroubles Creek, the center has experienced ongoing problems related to flooding, most recently on July 1. When the university is able to demolish the addition, a water-receiving landscape would provide for more extensive stormwater management during storms and serve as an attractive community amenity, a place to gather during non-storm times.
“This allows us to address the current issues with the Graduate Life Center, acknowledge Stroubles Creek, and address some of the stormwater challenges we face as we continue to grow and develop campus,” Morris said.
Other recommendations in the long-term plan include daylighting a portion of Stroubles Creek between the Drillfield and West Campus Drive and the removal of paved areas from the Stroubles Creek floodplain to reduce the percentage of impervious landscape.
Perhaps now more than ever, the impact of Virginia Tech on Stroubles Creek is being considered and the impact of Stroubles Creek on Virginia Tech is being celebrated. And the combination is resulting in a conscious, university-wide effort to ensure an ambitious future for both.
“We’ll continue, with every project, to move toward a better situation overall,” Morris said. “We just have to chip away at it one project at a time.”
“In order to sustainably manage this resource, understanding the human side of water is as important as understanding the science.”
- Stephen Schoenholtz, professor of forest hydrology and soils in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center at Virginia Tech
A Matter of Education
Sustainably managing water resources is a complex challenge, with issues that range from developing efficient water systems for individual households to understanding the far-reaching effects of global climate change on water availability regionally, nationally, and globally.
Finding long- and short-term solutions to address water access, use, conservation, pollution, and other problems requires knowledge from a broad spectrum of academic disciplines. The study of water has long been an integral part of the curricula for students in a variety of majors across Virginia Tech’s campuses, from engineering and science to agriculture and forestry.
One example is a dual program between the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering, housed in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering (BSE), that includes water-focused study. BSE applies concepts from biology, chemistry, and physics, along with engineering science and design principles, to solve problems associated with environmental protection, conservation of natural resources, environmentally sound production of renewable resources, and conversion of these resources to value-added products, such as food, pharmaceuticals, polymers, and biofuels.
And faculty members in environmental and resources engineering, which is part of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, are dedicated to water-related engineering projects and research, including such areas as hydrology, environmental fluid mechanics, water treatment, sustainable infrastructure, and applied environmental microbiology. Some of the studies connected to this group include the recent campus wastewater testing to track COVID-19 and the Occoquan Watershed Monitoring project in Northern Virginia.
“The focus on water education at Virginia Tech came about for a variety of reasons,” said Stephen Schoenholtz, professor of forest hydrology and soils in the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) and director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center at Virginia Tech. “Water is essential. Many aspects of our lives depend on water resources, from food production to industrial processes to environmental health. Water even plays a role in the areas of equity and social justice. And our mission as a land-grant university is to prepare a new generation of leaders—to provide students with the opportunities to become complex thinkers with skills to help solve big problems. Water is right at the top of that list.”
So six years ago, the university took the study of water to a new level after the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia approved an undergraduate degree in water at Virginia Tech in December 2014. The comprehensive Bachelor of Science degree program—called water: resources, policy, and management (WRPM)—is believed to be the first of its kind at the undergraduate level in the United States.
The degree blends courses in water science with those in water policy, law, economics, management, and related social sciences.
“Students in this major cultivate expertise in a field, such as international water management or hydrology, while developing a broad understanding in many areas that can impact water policy and use,” Schoenholtz said. “In order to sustainably manage this resource, understanding the human side of water is as important as understanding the science.”
The degree’s academic home is the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. Four other Virginia Tech colleges—Agriculture and Life Sciences, Architecture and Urban Studies, Engineering, and Science—are partners in the program, reflecting its interdisciplinary nature.
Students in the water major select one area of focused study from a choice of water science specializations (aquatic ecosystems, hydrology, or water quality) and one area of focused study from a choice of water policy specializations (water, climate, energy, and global issues; or water policy, planning, and economics).
The program addresses expected strong job growth in positions requiring a comprehensive understanding of expanding water issues.
“People from government agencies, private industry, international aid groups, and more are all saying they want to hire people who understand both the science and the human dimensions related to water, including policy, communication, and stakeholder issues,” Schoenholtz said.
But, concepts like sustainability and conservation are not linked to a specific discipline. Instead, the solutions for tomorrow require that today’s students learn how to think across disciplines, derive insights through a range of perspectives, and develop the confidence to work collaboratively with others.
Virginia Tech’s Pathways to General Education curriculum includes more than two dozen Pathways minors—thematic, cross-disciplinary programs that allow students to examine important topics from a variety of perspectives while completing general education requirements along the way.
“If we’ve learned anything from the past year, it’s that the challenges, experiences, and questions of today cannot be solved with a single set of tools,” said Stephen Biscotte, director of the Office of General Education. “By completing a Pathways minor, our students graduate with knowledge and perspectives that complement their major and broaden their skill set, details that prepare them for—and set them apart in—a job market that is increasingly connected and diverse.”
One of the newest Pathways minors is the blue planet minor, a CNRE 20-credit hour minor that focuses on water policy, planning, science, and sustainability among other water-related topics.
“My path has always been in soil and agriculture,” said Aaron Price, a senior who is enrolled in the blue planet minor. “A lot of what I do is science-heavy, but this minor has been useful in grasping the applications side of the field, particularly in regard to policy.”
Virginia Tech students may also choose the watershed management minor, which integrates existing programs and courses from five colleges and 12 departments to provide a substantive understanding of watershed science, policy, and decision-making.
Virginia Tech also offers opportunities for graduate students who are interested in expanding their water knowledge. The university offers a watershed management graduate certificate program and graduate studies in water resources that span programs and courses from five colleges. And, according to Schoenholtz, additional graduate opportunities are under consideration.
Did You Know?
Approximately 97 percent of the water on Earth is saltwater. Only 3 percent is freshwater.
Water is the only substance that is found naturally on Earth in three forms—liquid, solid, and gas.
Around 66 percent of the human body consists of water. The brain is about 75 percent water, and blood is about 83 percent water.
A person can live for up to a month without food, but only about a week without water, depending on conditions.
According to the EPA, approximately 400 billion gallons of water are used in the U.S. each day.
Simple ways to save water include turning off the tap while brushing teeth, keeping water in the refrigerator to avoid letting the tap run, and maintaining pipes and faucets to avoid drips.
In just one day, 200 million work hours are consumed by women collecting water for their families.
Approximately 785 million people lack access to at least basic water services, and more than 885 million people do not have safe water to drink.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 485,000 diarrheal deaths each year.
According to the WHO, by 2025, half of the world’s people will live in countries with high water stress.
In 2016, the White House Office of Science and Technology selected Virginia Tech as one of 150 invitees from across the nation to attend a special water summit. During the summit, Schoenholtz explained that the water emergency in Flint, Michigan, sounded an alarm across the nation and throughout the world.
“Citizens now know what scientists have been trying to tell policymakers for years—that the quantity and quality of our water can no longer be taken for granted anywhere on the globe," Schoenholtz said. "Flint’s problems are our wake-up call. And the White House Water Summit is one catalyst for action and solutions for the spectrum of water challenges.”
“When you think about water as a basic human right, you begin to ponder the value of human access,” Schoenholtz continued. “And then the issues begin to emerge. How do you charge people for water? But if you don’t, how do you ensure clean water access or discourage waste? Diversity, inclusion, women’s issues, conservation, security, economic stability—it’s all in there.
“Water is about as complex as it gets. It’s an important resource that no one can ignore, but we take it for granted. But its importance just continues to grow. There is no substitute for water. So the more our students know about water, the better off we all are.”
To date, 62 students have graduated with the WRPM undergraduate degree.
One of the first WRPM students, Maggie Carolan, served as a member of the Virginia Tech team led by Marc Edwards that uncovered the water crisis in Flint. Edwards, the Charles Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering, helped lead the effort to assess the extent of the city’s water crisis and continues to support water efforts in Flint and other affected communities.
As a sophomore, Carolan received the Alumni Presidential Scholarship, along with two scholarships established by Jeff Rudd ’83: the Stephen H. Schoenholtz Water Undergraduate Research Fund and the George M. Simmons Water Scholarship. Both of these named awards were created to provide support for qualified students and to recognize the academic and research contributions of Schoenholtz and Simmons, Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of biological sciences.
“Water is one of the most important fields of the 21st century,” Rudd said. “The field offers a vast range of opportunities for work and study, such as establishing policies and engineering processes to conserve and recycle water, researching supply and consumption to assess the cost of water, and crafting strategies to help resolve stakeholder conflicts about ownership and use of water. The degree bridges the gaps between science and policy and theory and practice—and Virginia Tech is leading the way.”
Carolan finished her undergraduate studies in 2018 and is now pursuing a master’s in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa. She researches the distribution and treatment of naturally occurring radioactive material in drinking water.
Another 2018 water grad, Kylie Campbell, is using her education to help protect water resources for future generations.
“I grew up playing in the creek in my backyard all the time, and I’ve always had a strong connection to streams and rivers,” said Campbell, the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s 2018 Outstanding Senior. “I’m passionate about protecting water resources for both people and wildlife.”
After graduation, Campbell headed to Colorado for a 10-month term of service with AmeriCorps. Partnering with American Conservation Experience and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she traveled to wildlife refuges across the country to help with the National Visitor Survey project. In 2019, she joined the United States Forest Service in Sheridan, Wyoming, as a hydrologic technician. Today, Campbell is a hydrologic technician at the United States Geological Survey in Grand Junction, Colorado.
“I’ve gotten a strong background in the science, but I’ve also been able to take policy, law, and economics courses so that I can understand all sides of the issues around water resources,” she said. “That background will allow me to communicate with diverse stakeholders and policymakers about how to sustainably manage our water resources to meet the needs of people, the economy, and the ecosystem.”
And so children can still grow up playing in the creeks.
“Our very future depends on having clean, reliable water sources,”
- Venkat Sridhar, associate professor of Biological Systems Engineering
A Matter of Research and Outreach
Population growth and climate change in combination with increasing industrial and agricultural water needs, aging infrastructure, and poverty are contributing to what some scientists predict may become a global water crisis within the next decade.
Across Virginia Tech’s colleges, institutes, and units, researchers are engaged in studies to solve a wide variety of problems connected to water.
“Water is the one resource for which there is no substitute,” Schoenholtz said, explaining that tackling these issues requires an all-hands-on-deck effort. “You can’t look at water quality and supply in terms of one set of values. You have to take many things into account to solve these complex problems.”
Consider the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Extension agents Theresa Pittman and Ursula Deitch are connecting growers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia with opportunities for funding from the commonwealth that will help them implement agricultural best management practices (BMPs) on their farms. These BMPs aim to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed by tempering nutrient-carrying runoff from agricultural operations that might reach the bay.
In Augusta County, Extension agents Matt Booher and John Benner are working with livestock managers in the Shenandoah Valley to incorporate water conservation into their operations. They help managers adopt stream-exclusion practices and introduce them to cost-share programs that help cover expenses associated with practices that protect streams, like installing fences, planting vegetative buffers, and cross-fencing.
And when Extension Master Gardener Linda McConahey moved to the Northern Neck in 2001, she noticed that the water in her well was salty from inundation by the Chesapeake Bay, docks once used to launch boats were flooded far from shore, and the invasive weed called phragmites seemed to be taking over local wetlands.
McConahey helped organize a community of other Master Gardeners, and together they worked to help homeowners become more environmentally conscious. Nearly two decades later, Northern Neck Master Gardeners, working closely with partners at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and county governments, have built the Shoreline Evaluation Program, an educational outreach effort that has provided hundreds of property owners with recommendations for improving upland stormwater management, pollutant and sediment runoff, and shoreline erosion.
But water research isn’t limited to agriculture conservation or coastline protections.
Venkat Sridhar, associate professor of biological systems engineering, studies water resources all around the world. He develops complex mathematical models by layering and weaving together existing datasets, with information gleaned from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others, to predict future precipitation, temperature, snowmelt, streamflow, soil moisture, droughts, and floods.
“Our very future depends on having clean, reliable water sources,” Sridhar said. “I believe we can use big data and modeling to help us ensure we have the water we all need.”
How much is too much?
In July, a series of thunderstorms dumped several inches of rain on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus. The storms resulted in flash flooding. The water affected several campus buildings. But one Virginia Tech researcher is tackling studies that suggest sometimes flooding can be good.
There’s a tendency in modern America to think of all flooding as bad, a threat to homes, farms, roads, and bridges. But flooding is a natural phenomenon that can benefit wildlife habitat and has been crucial for human civilizations for hundreds of years. History shows that ancient peoples relied on the flooding of the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers for crop irrigation.
Durelle Scott, an associate professor of biological systems engineering and affiliate of the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech, is the lead author of a paper published in Nature Communications that examines flooding in the continental United States. Scott and his co-authors looked at “everyday” flooding in streams and rivers of all sizes, using data from 5,800 flood monitoring stations operated by the United States Geological Survey. Among the paper’s findings: smaller streams flood more often than larger ones, but for shorter durations. The more frequent flooding means that smaller streams serve as a conduit between the landscape and the adjacent stream.
What happens if you live in a home without running water?
According to the World Health Organization/UNICEF joint monitoring program, 884 million people lack access to even basic drinking water. More than 2 million Americans are included in that number. The count includes around 250,000 people in Puerto Rico and 500,000 homeless, but the biggest chunk—around 1.4 million people—live in homes without adequate plumbing. They are clustered in five areas: California’s Central Valley; predominantly Native American communities near the four corners of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico; the Texas-Mexico border; the Mississippi Delta region in Mississippi and Alabama; and central Appalachia.
Leigh-Anne Krometis, associate professor of biological systems engineering and one of the foremost experts on water quality and availability in Appalachia, has authored a series of studies targeting water quality and availability in the Appalachian region.
Krometis’ studies have examined the use of “straight pipes”—pipes that carry untreated sewage into an unlined hole in the ground, which drains either directly or indirectly into a stream—and the effects of such wastewater disposal on drinking resources. Some people in Appalachia drink untreated water from springs or streams, which can be contaminated by untreated sewage.
Krometis says that addressing these interrelated problems isn’t easy. For example, options created for developing countries, such as public water kiosks or small water or sewer treatment devices installed for individual homes or clusters of homes exist, but political and cultural obstacles stand in the way of using those solutions in the U.S. Leaders are hesitant to fund water and sewer systems for the residents of Appalachian mountain hollows or California’s farm towns that appear substandard when compared to those available for Americans living outside of these remote locations.
Although Krometis understands that hesitation, she recognizes that many poor Americans are going without any access to reliable, clean water. “I see both sides of the coin,” she said. “The problem is we’re not even having that debate.”
In towns and cities with access to water, what about the path that water takes from municipal systems to homes?
As part of a five-year project funded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a team of researchers has compiled and analyzed data from more than 500 U.S. water utilities and 100 federal facilities to provide a picture of the health of the country’s pipeline infrastructure systems. The team identified 985,000 miles of water distribution lines in the U.S. and found water pipeline infrastructure in need of replacements projected to cost $3.6 trillion over the next 25 years. These findings are among dozens of key insights distilled into reports on pipeline performance, risk, and economics drafted by the team.
Sunil Sinha, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, said the reports will lay the foundation for a longer-term effort to bring the data and its analysis online. The team is building the Pipeline Infrastructure Database, or PIPEiD, a secured, standardized, and easily accessible online database that can help water utility managers better monitor pipeline infrastructure systems. Sinha hopes PIPEiD can enable water utilities to learn from the local, regional, and national patterns it presents through modeling and visualization, using tools like artificial intelligence and GIS mapping. It will allow users to run queries that provide helpful analysis for decision-making, like estimating the life of a pipeline.
Collaborative Research Across Continents
Inadequate access to safe drinking water remains a substantial problem for low-income rural communities from central Appalachia to rural China. On Oct. 4, 2019, Virginia Tech faculty and students joined officials from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and researchers from UC Berkeley during the first Water & Health in Rural China & Appalachia Conference.
Alasdair Cohen, assistant professor of environmental epidemiology in the Department of Population Health Sciences and Virginia Tech Public Health Program in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, organized the event. Previously, Cohen worked at UC Berkeley as a project scientist and research director for The Berkeley/China-CDC Program for Water & Health, which he helped create in 2016.
During the event, faculty from Virginia Tech and Berkeley signed a memorandum of understanding to mark the restructuring and expansion of the water and health research program to include Virginia Tech.
As people move into desirable areas, how does it affect water resources?
Infrastructure also is affected by population growth. As the demand grows, sometimes the systems become overtaxed. For instance, in the City of Fredericksburg and the nearby counties of Stafford, Spotsylvania, King George, and Caroline, population is projected to increase more than 40 percent by 2040.
Two teams of researchers from Virginia Tech are investigating water quality issues connected to the Rappahannock River and linked to rapid growth and development in the region.
David Sample, a professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, leads a project to monitor urban runoff quality from Fredericksburg’s local sub-watersheds and assess stormwater controls. Lee Daniels, a professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, tracks the formation of strongly acidic soils in the area and evaluates solutions to mitigate their effects.
Both researchers’ projects are supported by the non-profit Resource Protection Group and by Buck Cox, an environmental engineer and entrepreneur who studied biology at Virginia Tech and received his doctoral degree in environmental engineering in 1981.
“By working together with researchers and Virginia Cooperative Extension, we can build partnerships that are a model on how to protect watersheds in Virginia and in the world,” Cox said. “Private citizens, industry, and researchers need to invest time and resources in order to solve these grand challenges.”
Can water managers monitor changes in real time?
Cayelan Carey, associate professor of biological sciences, and Quinn Thomas, associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, both associated with the Global Change Center, have developed a method for forecasting in aquatic ecosystems. The forecast resembles a weather forecast, but instead of predicting weather, it forecasts 16-day water quality conditions that can be shared with water utilities, drinking water managers, and other decision-makers.
The forecasting system deploys open-source software called Forecasting Lake And Reservoir Ecosystems (FLARE), which was developed in collaboration with Renato Figueiredo, a computer scientist at the University of Florida. FLARE has proven to be useful for Roanoke’s drinking water utility, the Western Virginia Water Authority. A new grant has allowed the researchers to scale the operation to 10 different lakes in the U.S. and one in Ireland.
How do water issues affect animals?
Freshwater mussels are among the most imperiled animals on the planet. Scientists with the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) and The Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center are developing an educational program to highlight the plight of the mollusks.
“Benthos 360 is an immersive storytelling project to document the people and environment around the collapse of freshwater mussels in Southwest Virginia,” said Tanner Upthegrove, media engineer at ICAT.
Justin Perkinson, assistant professor of cinema, leads the team in collaboration with Jess Jones, restoration biologist and co-director of the mollusk center, and Jessica Robinson, graduate assistant, to create the project designed for the Cube in Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Center.
“The idea behind the program is to give people who may not be able to participate physically in the activity at the river a chance to learn about and experience the science virtually,” said Matthew Hull of ICAT.