Water Research in the College of Natural Resources

Scientists have spent years trying to convince policymakers that the world’s most critical problem is a shortage of quality water. More than a billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, and by the year 2050, 2 billion to 7 billion people will be facing water shortages.

“Water is rising in every intellectual pool as one of the challenges of the future,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment, who has been working with other research leaders at Virginia Tech on ways to jointly address the problem. “We want to position Virginia Tech as a premier institution in water issues.”

Stephen Schoanholtz, Director of Virginia Water Resources

The college houses the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, a federally funded water center. Directed by Stephen Schoenholtz, the center serves as the state of Virginia’s main vehicle for disseminating information regarding water issues by developing, implementing, and coordinating water research programs in the state.

The water center has embarked on projects regarding headwater streams affected by coal mining in southwest Virginia in partnership with the interdisciplinary Powell River Project, which has conducted research and education programs to enhance the restoration of mined lands and benefit communities since 1980. Jim Burger, the Garland Gray Professor Emeritus of Forestry, pioneered ways to reclaim mined lands in collaboration with the Powell River Project; his successor, Assistant Professor Brian Strahm, continues the work.

Charlene KellyAn issue of growing concern is excess nitrogen in streams and rivers. Increased nitrogen levels decrease water quality and lead to acidification, over-enriching of waters, and excessive algae. Charlene Kelly, now a research scientist at the water center, conducted her doctoral research in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation on the role of forest type in watershed response to excess nitrogen. This study has provided insight into species composition of forests in the face of future climate change and atmospheric pollution, as well as the effectiveness of using different tree species to mitigate water pollution from nitrogen.

Sheila Christopher, a watershed scientist at the center, focuses on landscape controls of surface water chemistry. “My research examines linkages between terrestrial nutrient cycling, nutrient transport through watersheds, and surface water nutrient concentrations, and how these processes are affected by increased anthropogenic [human-caused] emissions, global climate change, and other disturbances,” she said.


The center’s associate director, Kevin McGuire, is researching the time it takes water to travel through watersheds with regards to the relationship of water quality and forestry management practices. “Change in these areas is dependent on understanding the way water travels through ecosystems and how those pathways affect water quality and quantity,” he said.

The college’s Water and Soils Research Group is recognized globally as a leading research and teaching group. Housed jointly in the water center, the Department of Geography, and the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, the group includes 10 faculty members, more than 25 graduate students, and a laboratory complex in Latham and Cheatham halls.

The college recently acquired a water and soil isotope analyzer that will give Virginia Tech new analysis capabilities. Isotope hydrology enables scientists to determine the age, origin, size, and flow of a water source and allow them to map underground aquifers, conserve water supplies, and control pollution.

Michael Champ, an adjunct faculty member in the National Capital Region, collaborates with professors from the College of Engineering and other researchers to develop low-cost energy technology that can convert seawater into fresh water. “By the year 2050,” Champ said, “three-quarters of Americans will live within 100 miles of the coast, and their needs for fresh water are projected to swamp the inland environmental gains that we have made the last 50 years. We don’t want to lose that progress.”

Recently, a group of faculty members from the colleges of Natural Resources and Environment, Agriculture and Life Sciences, Science, Architecture and Urban Studies, and Engineering drafted a degree prospectus for a new bachelor of science in water focusing on science, policy, and management. Few universities offer an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in water.

Winistorfer said he sees Virginia Tech’s expanding leadership in water matters slowly crystallizing. “We are concentrating on the integrative role of water in the environment as it bridges with other disciplines so that issues of water supply, quality, and cycling can be better managed sustainably,” he said. “Across the globe looms the challenge of quality and quantity — either not enough, or not good enough, water.”


Originally published in VT Spotlight on August 21, 2011. Story by Lynn Davis.

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