VCU Rice Center

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VCU providing the science for critical public policies

The Inger and Walter Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences is becoming internationally known for its scientific research. At the same time we recognize the importance of the application of this science - particularly in how we inform public policy related to river ecosystems, their watersheds and the conservation of species that inhabit those watersheds. The VCU Rice Center understands the importance of collaborating with other institutions and agencies to further our programs and ensure the benefits of collaborative research. And it is through these close ties with other environmental agencies and universities that VCU's voice on these critical environmental issues is being heard.

A primary example of this relates to a major new study of the James River launched to investigate harmful algal blooms and their effects on water quality, living resources and human health. The six-year, $3 million dollar project will document the occurrence of algal blooms and their deleterious effects on the health of the James.

VCU and Rice Center researcher Dr. Paul Bukaveckas have been tapped by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to lead the Science Advisory Panel in developing a research strategy and interpreting the findings of the study. The project team includes faculty from VCU, Old Dominion University and the Virginia Institute of Marine Scientists, with a companion modeling project that includes experts from throughout the region. The project addresses a number of basic research elements that seek to identify causes of algal blooms as well as their harmful effects. The important applied aspects of the project are (1) evaluating the existing water quality standards for the tidal James to determine whether they are protective of human and ecosystem health and (2) developing a predictive model that can forecast improvements in water quality arising from anticipated nutrient load reductions.

This project brings together previously disparate research and monitoring efforts on the James and enhances collaboration among university researchers, regulatory agencies and diverse other stakeholders who have an interest not only in the health of the James but ultimately its effects on the Chesapeake Bay and the people living in the region who depend economically on the river and bay.

VCU will regularly present updates on this project to the DEQ’s James River Stakeholder Advisory Group as well as the EPA and the Virginia Office of the Secretary of Natural Resources. In addition, the lead researcher, VCU’s Dr. Paul Bukaveckas, will brief the Maryland Harmful Algal Blooms Task Force on this James River study in an effort to better collaborate with agencies working on other rivers affecting the bay. Bukaveckas will also present this study at the Virginia Environmental Conference at VMI in the spring.

VCU Rice Center personnel are also helping to improve regional fishery management policies, particularly those focused on Chesapeake Bay waters. Our fisheries scientists participate in several technical advisory groups, including Dr. Greg Garman on the Science and Technical Advisory Committee for the Chesapeake Bay and the Fisheries Management Goal Implementation Team. Results from applied research grants to the Rice Center have been used to help craft new or improved policies on topics ranging from control of invasive fishes to interactions between fish-eating birds and other predators (including humans) in the bay. Finally, Atlantic sturgeon researchers at the Rice Center are actively engaged in the development of a new Chesapeake Bay management plan for this federally endangered species.

Rice Center scientists are also having an impact outside of Virginia. Drs. Steve McIninch and Len Smock led a recently completed multi-year study of the impacts of flow regulation by a hydroelectric dam on the Roanoke River in North Carolina. The study focused on determining the impacts of short-term releases of large volumes of water during the production of electricity on fish and other organisms in the river. The results of the study are aiding Dominion, which operates the power station, in developing a report to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for relicensing of the station to continue producing energy.

In another ongoing project, our scientists are collaborating with researchers from the University of Messina in Sicily and the University of Cordoba in Spain on a project designed to provide a river management plan for the Alcantera River, which flows through the heartland of Sicily. The plan will be used by Sicilian environmental managers as they strive to protect this important water resource in a rapidly developing watershed with many economic and political pressures on its use and preservation.

Only in existence for a decade, the VCU Rice Center is clearly making its mark in environmental research and in the application of that research. The value of scientific research is to better our understanding of our environment and to apply that understanding to develop policies on the use of our abundant natural resources. As the VCU Rice Center engages in additional research efforts, increases its research collaborations and extends its geographic reach, our research will guide the development and implementation of new, more effective environmental policies that will have far reaching environmental, social and economic implications.