People in a red canoe on a river in the middle of two cliffs.
After attending the national River Management Symposium in San Antonio, a class of VCU students canoed the Boquillas Canyon section of the Rio Grande to learn about the river’s biology, history, ecology and geology. (Photo by James Vonesh.)

River management west of the 100th Meridian: VCU students visit Texas to attend a conference, explore the Rio Grande via canoe

The students gained valuable river management career experience, as well an immersive experience on one of the most iconic and imperiled western rivers.

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Traveling east along I-10 you cross the 100th meridian as you near San Antonio in the Texas hill country and the arid west begins. Rainfall declines and arable land gives way, and by the time you reach the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, the Chihuahuan desert vegetation of ocotillo, creosote, mesquite, leatherstem, tree cholla, twisted-leaf yucca, devilshead and hedgehog cactus, and blind prickly pear feel about as far away from the moist piedmont and coastal plain deciduous forest of Virginia as you can get. As current headlines about interstate and international water conflicts in the American Southwest highlight, the rules of water are different west of the 100th meridian and that has a profound impact on freshwater resource management and our river ecosystems. In late February and early March, Virginia Commonwealth University River Studies and Leadership students took a road trip and river expedition to West Texas to learn about this firsthand and to compare it with their experiences on Mid-Atlantic rivers.

The road trip had two main elements.

The first was to drive to San Antonio to attend the biennial national River Management Symposium themed “Reimagine River Access.” Students attended talks and participated in workshops on river issues with river managers, advocates, stewards, academics and students from across the U.S. The students also presented their own research and scholarship on topics such as collaborating with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to support the assessment of rivers for the State Scenic Rivers Program, developing a process to monitor recreational and commercial usage of the James River in Richmond, and the efficacy and ways to strengthen student involvement in river management and leadership.

Six students standing behind three students kneeling in a room. Behind them are infographic boards.
VCU students at the national River Management Symposium presented their own scholarship and made valuable connections with river management professionals. (Photo by James Vonesh.)

Following the conference, the VCU students piled back in the van for another seven hours to Big Bend National Park where they spent spring break canoeing the national Wild and Scenic Boquillas Canyon section of the Rio Grande and learning about the river’s biology, history, ecology and geology.

Grace Lumsden-Cook, a VCU graduate student who attended the trip, called it a “once in a lifetime experience.”

“None of us had seen an ecosystem like the one in Big Bend along the Rio Grande,” Lumsden-Cook said. “Seeing all of the unique flora and fauna that is only present in that area was very special. Moreover, seeing all of my fellow classmates fall in love with learning about this ecosystem has to be the most fulfilling aspect for me.”

Making critical professional connections

James Vonesh, Ph.D., assistant director and professor in the Center for Environmental Studies in VCU Life Sciences, organized the trip. Vonesh developed the visit to the River Management Symposium as a one-credit course, ENVS 591: River Management Seminar, in which the students learned a variety of skills framed around maximizing the benefits of attending a professional conference as well as sampled a broad range of river topics. Students were required to develop goal statements for the meeting, a personal elevator pitch self-introduction, turn in daily plans for and keep notes on the sessions they attended, and they had to research the types of careers of the people attending conference. They had to make a list of those they would like to meet and had to follow through and contact at least one conference professional in an area of their interest and conduct a professional informational interview. In addition, they practiced, presented and received feedback on their own scholarship presentations. After the meeting they developed a “next steps” plan of action to follow up on their conference connections and accomplishments.

At the symposium, several students made contacts with professionals and were encouraged to apply for jobs. One student, Dagan Hunt, who volunteers to support freshwater mussel conservation at the Harrison Lake Federal Fish hatchery near the VCU Rice Center, received a private tour of the A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery with Patrick Ireland, a biologist with Texas District Fisheries, to learn about scientific research in captive propagation of endangered mussels and other freshwater species.

“The overall size of our student contingent, the quality of their presentations, and their positive impact at the meeting overall highlighted that VCU is currently the leading River Studies and Leadership Certificate Program in the nation,” Vonesh said. “Connections our graduates made will lead to (or already have) career opportunities across the country.”

Lucy Bolin, an urban and regional studies/planning student in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, attended the trip. The symposium, she said, was an invaluable experience. She presented a poster about a VCU class, Wilderness Policy and Practice, in which she is a teacher’s assistant and in which the students are working with the James River Park System to help update their visitor use management tools.

A woman standing to the right of a poster with an infographic on it.
VCU graduate student Megan Black presented a poster at the national River Management Symposium. (Photo by James Vonesh.)

“My poster shared the mutual benefits of university/park system collaboration and the outcomes for each partner,” Bolin said. “Professionals were curious about the class and the visitor management challenges our park faces — several shared similar initiatives or took away a new idea for monitoring.”

In 2017, VCU launched the River Studies and Leadership Certificate Program, which is offered in partnership with the River Management Society and is designed for undergraduate and graduate students who aspire to join the next generation of river professionals. VCU was the first institution east of the Mississippi River to join and has since grown to become one of the county’s largest programs.

The students also contributed to a workshop that brought together the society's regional officers and the students and professors to develop regionally specific action plans to strengthen the river certificate program.

A ‘wild and scenic’ field course

Nearly all the students are in the VCU River Studies and Leadership Certificate program and had also just completed in the fall the VCU Scenic Resources course with Vonesh, in which students assess Virginia rivers to for consideration to be added to Virginia’s Scenic Rivers Program. Three of them also previously participated in Footprints on the James this past summer an experiential VCU course in which students traverse the James River over the summer via kayaks, batteau, canoes and rafts to learn about the river’s natural history and biodiversity, its role in Virginia’s development and how its historic and modern-day use impacts its quality, flora and fauna. Thus, all had recently participated in field courses on Virginia rivers.

However, Vonesh said, “having only experience with rivers in the water rich East is like only knowing half the story. To have a fuller sense of the issues facing rivers across the country and internationally, it is important for our river certificate students to be exposed to western rivers and western water policy. The serendipitous timing of the RMS Symposium in San Antonio and the VCU spring break created a unique opportunity to connect these students to the Rio Grande.”

The immersive spring break trip at Big Bend National Park was also developed as a one-credit upper-level course, ENVS 591 seminar ENVS 591 Rio Grande Seminar, in which students explored the river using primary literature, field guides, government reports, multimedia and in person. Students initially camped at the Rio Grande Village campground on the banks of the river and a stone’s throw from Mexico. Wild pig-like javelina, coyotes, and roadrunners frequented the campsite nested among the small Mesquite trees and the class hiked in the Chisos Mountains, Chihuahuan desert and along the river to learn the vegetation characteristics of these different ecosystems.

“At night the near full moon dominated Big Bend’s famous dark sky and was so bright you didn’t need a flashlight,” Vonesh said.

A photo of tents in a canyon.
The camping and canoeing expedition in Big Bend National Park was developed as a one-credit VCU environmental studies course. (Photo by James Vonesh.)

The students then set off on a three-night, four day expedition through the remote river canyon wilderness of the Boquillas Canyon of the Rio Grande, a national Wild and Scenic River section, paddling the 35 miles from Rio Grande Village to the ghost town and closed border crossing at La Linda. Along the way, they examined how river flow shaped sediment deposition and native and non-native plant communities and explored narrow side canyons.

The expedition, Bolin said, was the trip’s “cherry on top.”

“[It was a] chance to learn about a unique river that is so different from the James and then to experience it up close and personal was super rewarding,” she said. “A highlight for me was the night we all shared a piece of art or a poem reflecting upon our time together on the Rio Grande. I loved seeing everyone's sketches and thoughtful, creative musings about the natural history of the river and our experience paddling it.”

The course was a collaboration with VCU’s Outdoor Adventure Program, which is part of Recreation and Well-Being in the Division of Student Affairs. OAP supported the trip’s logistics and also used the trip as a student training opportunity. It was led by OAP professional staff and VCU environmental studies instructor Christina Spohn, who oversaw two new student trip leaders in training from VCU’s Student Outdoor Leadership Experience program.

Both of the trip’s experiences — attending the River Management Symposium and canoeing the Rio Grande — provided invaluable river management and leadership career experience for the students, Vonesh said.

“The course and experience helped connect our graduating students with career opportunities related to managing rivers and lands well beyond our region,” he said. “To be qualified for jobs beyond the water rich Southeast [region], our students must have some understanding of how rivers in the West work and are managed differently than rivers here in our region. This course gave them foundational knowledge of western geography, hydrology, ecology, water infrastructure and water policy and also a firsthand immersive experience on one of the most iconic and imperiled western rivers — the Rio Grande.”