A sunset view over the James River.
Co-hosted by VCU, the River Management Society’s 2021 River Management Symposium, to be held April 12-15, will help shine a national spotlight on Richmond and Virginia’s diverse waterways.

Virtual symposium co-hosted by VCU to shine national spotlight on Virginia’s waterways

Rescheduled from 2020, the River Management Society’s biennial event will celebrate the recovery and adaptive use of local and statewide rivers, streams and creeks.

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An upcoming virtual symposium held in partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University will help shine a national spotlight on Richmond and Virginia’s diverse waterways.

The River Management Society’s 2021 River Management Symposium, to be held April 12-15, aims to bring together representatives from the public, academic and private sectors to network and share insight into the successful stewardship of rivers, creeks and streams in North America and around the world. 

Under the theme “Mountain Creeks to Metro Canals,” the symposium will also retroactively mark the 50th anniversary of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Virginia Scenic River Program and its role in shaping protective efforts of the commonwealth’s most notable and significant waterways — including the James River, a symbol of Richmond and Virginia’s conservation and recreation efforts.

“We are extremely proud to have had the opportunity to offer the Mountain Creeks to Metro Canals River Management Symposium,” said Risa Shimoda, executive director of the River Management Society. “The program highlights issues which, though in some cases universal, draw from the unique story illustrated by the degree to which Richmond and the region have turned toward the James River for social revitalization, economic development and action to restore water quality to this southernmost watershed of the regionally critical Chesapeake region.”

Pedestrians cross the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge over the James River while a raft passes underneath.
The revitalization of the James River as a destination for social and recreational use will be a cornerstone of this year's symposium activities said River Management Society executive director Risa Shimoda. (Kevin Morley)

Originally to be held in person at VCU’s Monroe Park Campus in May 2020, the biennial event was delayed until 2021 and moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[The symposium] is a place where the rubber can meet the road or paddle can meet the water, if you will, in terms of how you’re interacting with people who are in charge of managing these rivers,” said James Vonesh, Ph.D., assistant director of VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies in VCU Life Sciences and a co-host of the symposium. 

“There’s an opportunity for communication across what might have otherwise been sort of traditional disciplinary boundaries, where the scientists are talking to scientists and the managers are talking to the managers,” Vonesh said.

Alongside VCU and the River Management Society, the symposium is co-hosted by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, among other partners.

Speakers addressing the symposium will include Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and VCU Vice Provost for Life Sciences and Research Rob Tombes, Ph.D.

A (virtual) visit to the River City

First held in the 1990s, the River Management Society symposium program provides a unique forum for river professionals to listen, learn from and establish connections with those they would likely never encounter collegially elsewhere, Shimoda said. Over the course of this year’s four-day event, participants can attend lectures, workshops and demonstrations from over 60 speakers covering diverse topics including rural and urban rivers, visual resource management and policy and practice considerations. 

While attendees will not be in Richmond, Vonesh believes the symposium’s online setting allows for greater flexibility for participants to experience the spirit of the originally planned event. “I think that we have done a really good job of creating an event that still really showcases Richmond and VCU, and in some ways, brings them here virtually even if we weren’t able to bring them here physically,” Vonesh said. 

“We are thrilled to help them know both our hosts and colleagues in RVA and the tremendous river scientists, rangers and fluvial geomorphologists from all parts,” Shimoda added.

VCU and VCU-affiliated researchers will be participating in, and leading, symposium activities, including a workshop demonstration of drone technology by Will Shuart from VCU Rice Rivers Center and a keynote session co-presented by Ralph Hambrick, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and a member of the Falls of the James Scenic River Advisory Committee.

2021 SYMPOSIUM PREVIEW Drone Mapping and GIS Workshop

“One of the things that VCU does really well in this space of rivers and higher ed is this collection of pieces that makes it one of the best places in the country to explore river studies,” Vonesh said. “We’ve got an environmental studies program, biology program, the VCU Rice Rivers Center (in Charles City County), and the Monroe Park Campus, which is kind of upstream from the (James River) falls zone while Rice is on the coastal zone.”

Through partnerships with Richmond Region Tourism, the National Park Service and other local groups, attendees will be able to engage in various Richmond-themed activities. They include virtual Google Maps-style tours of downtown Richmond and local creeks and rivers, a visit with spawning fish on the lower tidal James, and a video presentation on the James River bateaux and their historical importance to the economic development of the surrounding river basin.

“Our hope is that our partnership with the Richmond Region Tourism and those sessions [means] people will be enticed to come to the area and see all we have to offer,” said Lynn Crump, an environmental programs planner with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the administrator of the Virginia Scenic Rivers Program.

Partnership benefits

Part of the reason Richmond was selected as the symposium host is the successful partnership between VCU and the River Management Society in providing researchers, policymakers and students with valuable possibilities for growth and development. 

Over the past few years, Vonesh and others have worked with society staff and affiliated researchers on initiatives including the River Studies and Leadership Certificate program at VCU and the National Science Foundation-supported River-based ImmersiVe Education & Research (RiVER) Field Studies Network. In recognition of his efforts, Vonesh received the Outstanding Contribution to the River Management Society Award in May 2020. 

“Dr. Vonesh has indeed been a tremendous ally,” Shimoda said. “His strengths include his penchant for event planning and effervescence to both creatively envision and tackle nuts and bolts processes, simultaneously.”

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Vonesh, who serves as principal investigator of the RiVER Network and is the adviser for the certificate program, notes that initiatives such as those are meant to get students into the field not just to gain competency in a particular area but also to support faculty/professional research activities in a thoughtful way. Using the Virginia Scenic Rivers Program as an example, Crump notes how the partnership with Vonesh and Center for Environmental Studies students is of great benefit to the program’s success by training students to become stewards and promoters of the program while providing scientific research and analysis opportunities.

While the in-person symposium last year was delayed, a virtual mini-symposium co-hosted by VCU Center for Environmental Studies was held last May to support eight students who had planned to present their research findings. Vonesh said it was important to provide students the opportunity to share the result of their hard work while they were still part of their respective degree programs and allow them to finish a requirement for the certificate program.

Vonesh’s focus on providing students with the experience and training they need has not gone unnoticed.

“[Vonesh] saw an opportunity to align an extra amenity to students’ achievements and his unique program’s graduates have now gone on to find river jobs and further develop their professional networks around the country,” Shimoda said.