Researchers explore human-centered solutions to environmental grand challenges
Virginia Tech researchers receive a $3.6 million grant to solve the problem of freshwater salinization in the Occoquan Reservoir through a combination of engineering, biology, ecology, and social science.
Finding a solution to grand environmental social challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution requires addressing a host of transdisciplinary research and a human-centered approach. Convergence researchers aim to address such large-scale societal problems by working with a broad range of both scientists and stakeholders.
This is the goal of the research project headed by Stanley Grant, professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and director of the Occoquan Watershed Monitoring Lab in Northern Virginia. Grant and 21 other researchers from five universities received phase two funding for nearly $3.6 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for their Growing Convergence Research project, which began phase one in 2020.
Their five-year project seeks to find solutions to the salinization of the Occoquan Reservoir by including over 40 stakeholders in the decision-making process. While the problem of salt contaminating fresh water is not new, what is new is how Grant and his associates are integrating research from biological and social sciences.
“NSF, through the convergence program, wants to see the reconceptualization of ideas in this cross-fertilization and an emergence of completely new approaches,” said Grant, who is the principal investigator. “That intersection between human behavior and ecosystem behavior and science is really under investigated.”
The stakeholders involved with the Occoquan Reservoir agree that salinization is an urgent problem. Increased levels of salt in freshwater bodies harm humans when the salt levels exceed those determined safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They harm the environment by killing plants, disrupting freshwater habitats and ecosystems, and altering soil structures and composition. Unfortunately, removing the salt, while possible, would incur costs so high it is considered a last resort. The goal is to find a solution to limit salt seeping into the reservoir in the first place.
Spanning four counties, two cities, and three utilities, the Occoquan Reservoir watershed cannot be easily regulated because all entities involved must be in agreement and the proposed solution for one entity may adversely affect that of another. "Addressing salinization of the Occoquan Reservoir requires working across many different water sectors, including the local drinking water utility (Fairfax Water), the wastewater reclamation facility (Upper Occoquan Service Authority), the state transportation agency (Virginia Department of Transportation), and city and county departments in six jurisdictions responsible for winter road maintenance, including the City of Manassas, City of Manassas Park, Prince William County, Fairfax County, Loudoun County, Fauquier County," Grant said.
To address contributing issues, Shalini Misra, associate professor of urban affairs and planning in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and an Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment administrative fellow, is synthesizing the societal aspects with the environmental and biological components.
“I come in as a meta person who is looking at the project and facilitating convergence and knowledge integration across these areas. I might question how the stakeholders conceptualize knowledge and how we understand and evaluate the processes and outcomes of this kind of large-scale collaboration,” said Misra. “We need to have a common understanding of facts, baselines, impacts, responsibility, costs, and longer-term impacts — beyond financial implications.”
Rather than initiating a top-down approach for a solution, which would entail broad governmental policies, Grant and his team are seeking a more hybrid approach, which would combine top-down with bottom-up solutions by engaging all stakeholders in conversations in an effort to find solutions that would allow for consensus building and compromises. “We are mapping out a new way forward that involves this kind of collaborative partnership with stakeholders, so in the end they have to make the decision to do the right thing,” Grant said.
The team has conducted interviews with the stakeholders to gain an understanding of what their perceptions are regarding the causes and consequences of salinization and what actions could be taken toward a solution. “There is a strong and explicit focus on addressing the problem through an approach called polycentric governance, which means that multiple entities collaborate across their agency silos to address a problem sustainably and systemically,” Misra said.
Grant points out that this approach is different from the past when governments issued sweeping legislation. His team’s goal is to include the needs of myriad stakeholders with expansive research to find solutions for them, the environment, and for the reservoir. He is weaving the research in, around the needs of the various stakeholders by continuing to seek viable solutions.
“When we go to the stakeholders and we ask what they think about this and they have all sorts of objections, then their valid perspectives could lead us in new and exciting directions,” Grant said. “Those interactions, just from my perspective, are really exciting too because they open the door to investigations that I would not have necessarily thought about.”
With the help of biologists, social scientists, and engineers to grease the wheels and catalyze that social-ecological process, Grant and his team have four more years to establish a polycentric model for governance to address not only water salinization but also perhaps other human-ecological problems.
“We are all learning from each other, but I think the creativity of the project comes from conceptualizing the problem as a human problem, as a governance problem,” Misra said. “It takes a lot of time, and we need to trust each other a lot more to accomplish that.”