For the first time, the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, housed at Virginia Tech, received a status of “outstanding” from the U.S. Department of the Interior. Virginia’s Water Center was one of 12 such centers in the nation to receive this designation.

“The water center operates as something of a clearinghouse and a focal point for water education, outreach, and research at Virginia Tech,” explained Professor Stephen Schoenholtz, director of the Virginia Water Center and a faculty member in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “We’re an independent, nonsiloed place to foster and promote research on water issues across a wide range of areas.”

The Virginia Water Resources Research Center traces its origins to the federal Water Resources Research Act of 1964, which sought to establish research centers on matters related to water supply, water quality protection, and water resource management in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam. Virginia Tech was selected to house the commonwealth’s center in 1965. The Virginia Water Resources Research Center was written into the Code of Virginia by the General Assembly in 1982 and is currently housed within Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.

U.S. water centers and institutes that are part of the 1964 act receive funding in five-year cycles, and their output is evaluated by an independent panel of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey. The most recent review, for the years 2011 through 2015, credited the program as having done an exemplary job of communicating water news and information to the broader public. The Virginia Water Resources Research Center was further praised for its focus on research aimed at solving state water issues.

“Engagement and outreach have been a big focus for our center over the last decade,” Schoenholtz said. “We aim to provide unbiased information for water resource management decisions that are being made at the state, regional, and national level.”

Among the center’s outreach efforts is a database of breaking water news stories, water-related legislation decisions and documents, and links to information about water-related subjects pertaining to the state. The center produces Virginia Water Radio, a weekly program focusing on a specific water issue or topic of interest in Virginia. The broadcasts are tied to the Virginia Standards of Learning and can be used in K-12 classrooms throughout the state.

The center provides seed grants for undergraduate and graduate students studying water resources and funds an internship program for undergraduate students at Virginia Tech. This spring, two interns traveled with Schoenholtz to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal policymakers to discuss water issues affecting Virginia. The center also led Virginia Tech in developing a unique undergraduate degree program in water: resources, policy, and management, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to water science, management, and policy.

Looking ahead, Schoenholtz would like to increase student training and expand grant opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. Discussions are also underway about offering master’s and doctoral degrees in water science.

“Water issues range from very local, affecting individual households, to global scales that affect everyone, and those challenges are only going to increase in the face of climate change and growing population,” Schoenholtz noted. “With the Virginia Water Center, we have a wide range of possibilities to address these challenges while working to keep the public aware of the numerous resources available to them.”

Written by David Fleming