Research Projects at the Water Center

The Water Center thrives on participating in inter-disciplinary research ventures. Many of our ongoing projects bring together faculty, researchers and graduate students from a variety of academic disciplines to conduct water-related studies. Other Water Center initiatives partner with government agencies and non-profit organizations to meet shared goals in the water arena.

Following are overviews of current and recent Water Center projects. Unless noted otherwise, contact the Water Center at or (540) 231-5624 for more information on these projects.

Clinch-Powell Clean Rivers Initiative

The Clinch-Powell Clean Rivers Initiative (CPCRI) protects and restores water quality in our nation’s most important river system for imperiled freshwater animals. The initiative unites a broad array of groups and agencies working in both Tennessee and Virginia. Working as partners with shared goals and commitments, these agencies, non-profit organizations, and business groups have an unprecedented opportunity to help conserve and connect people to these rivers. 

Effects of cellulosic biofuel production on regional hydrology

Recent increases in oil prices, a strong national interest in greater energy independence, and a concern for the role of fossil fuels in global climate change, have led to a dramatic expansion in use of alternative renewable energy sources in the U.S. The U.S. government has mandated production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022, of which 16 billion gallons are required to be cellulosic biofuels. Production of cellulosic biomass offers a promising alternative to corn-based systems because large-scale production of corn-based ethanol often requires irrigation and is associated with increased erosion, excess sediment export, and enhanced leaching of nitrogen and phosphorus. Dr. Sheila Christopher, Dr. Stephen Schoenholtz, and graduate student Andy Neal examined the effects of cellulosic biofuel production on regional hydrology.

Sediment source tracking using tracers

Dr. Kevin McGuire and masters student Tyler Kreider investigated the use of tracers, including rare earth elements, to quantify stream bank erosion and source prediction.  A collaboration among the Water Center, the Virginia Tech Department of Biological Systems Engineering, Canaan Valley Institute, and U.S. Department of Agriculture/Agricultural Research Service, this work aims to inform the efficient utilization of restoration resources and help delineate sediment sources and quantify reduction from projects that are local in nature compared to the scale of downstream waterways such as the Chesapeake Bay.

Monitoring and assessing total dissolved solids as a biotic stressor in mining-influenced streams

Dr. Stephen Schoenholtz and Ph.D. student, Tony Timpano, are evaluating the response of aquatic life to total dissolved solids (TDS), a common water quality concern in Central Appalachian headwater streams where coal mining occurs. Multiple covariate stressors often occur with TDS in mined watersheds. It is the objective of this research to measure aquatic life response in streams where such covariates are minimized and TDS is the primary stressor. The benthic macroinvertebrate community was chosen as the bioindicator for this purpose due to its proven effectiveness in representing the biological condition of streams in the ecoregion. Results of this research should provide a better understanding of critical TDS levels in these headwater streams.

Water quality impacts from forest roads in the Virginia Piedmont

Dr. Kevin McGuire and Ph.D. student, Kris Brown, evaluated hydrologic and soil erosion models to predict forest road sediment production in the Virginia Piedmont from bare and graveled road surfaces.  Forested watersheds typically release clean water, yet forest roads and trails can drastically impact water quality. Increased stream sedimentation from road and skid trail crossings represent the most significant water quality threat associated with forestry operations.  This study will provide much needed information for managers in closing forest roads and protecting water quality.

Assessing effectiveness of restoration efforts in Central Appalachian coalfield streams

Continued permitting of coal mining in the central Appalachian region has become increasingly dependent on maintaining or restoring hydrologic and ecological function in streams affected by coal extraction. As mandated by the Clean Water Act (section 404), mining operations permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must mitigate streams impacted by valley fill activities. Assessment of stream ecosystem structure and function is essential to determining ecological condition and success of mitigation techniques employed on these streams. Traditional bioassessment techniques are cost-effective, efficient, and are often conceptually linked to ecosystem function, but effects of restoration practices on stream processes that drive hydrologic and ecological functions of streams are usually not measured directly.

Dr. Stephen Schoenholtz and Ph.D. student, Tripp Krenz, used measures of carbon dynamics to assess the functional status of restored coalfield streams relative to forested reference streams and to streams not impacted by mining but with riparian vegetation canopies similar to mining-restored streams; explore relationships between structural and functional assessment metrics; determine functional measures of carbon cycling that are best suited for use in functional assessment protocols for streams being restored in the central Appalachian coalfields; and (4) determine factors that affect carbon cycling measures in streams being restored in the central Appalachian coalfields.

Landform controls on hydrologic flowpaths and pedogenesis in small headwater catchments

Research by Dr. Kevin McGuire, J.P. Gannon, Cody Gillin, and Carrie Jensen has been aimed to explain the spatial and temporal variation in stream water chemistry at the headwater catchment scale using a hydropedological framework, i.e., the combined study of hydrology and soil development. This framework provides a functional basis for discretizing the catchment into similar regions that can be integrated to explain catchment runoff and water quality. The overall goal of the project is to develop a predictive model of landform control on hydrologic flowpaths and pedogensis that explains solute retention and export from pedon to hillslope to catchment scales.  The National Science Foundation Division of Earth Resources and Long Term Ecological Research programs fund this study.

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