A person holding a plaque posed in front of the James River and Downtown Richmond.
James Vonesh, an associate professor and assistant director of the Center for Environmental Studies, says the award recognizes that "there is a lot of great stuff going on at VCU in an around river studies." (Photo contributed by James Vonesh)

Vonesh receives River Management Society’s outstanding contribution award

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The River Management Society has named Virginia Commonwealth University professor James Vonesh, Ph.D., the recipient of its Outstanding Contribution to the River Management Society Award.

The award recognizes contributions at the national or regional level to the nonprofit organization that supports professionals who study, protect and manage North America’s rivers.

Vonesh, assistant director of the Center for Environmental Studies in VCU Life Sciences, is a member of the organization and is the adviser for the River Studies and Leadership Certificate at VCU. The program, offered by a cohort of 10 universities in partnership with the River Management Society, combines learning about river science, geographic information systems, policy and river field experience with a chosen emphasis in one of three areas: river science; river-based policy; or river-based education, recreation and tourism.

“I am thrilled to receive the Outstanding Contribution to the River Management Society Award,” Vonesh said. “There is a lot of great stuff going on at VCU in and around river studies. We want to get the word out and attract students interested in rivers to join our efforts.”

Under Vonesh’s guidance, VCU became the first participating institution east of the Mississippi River in 2017, and has grown to become the largest of the participating programs. Nine students have completed the certificate program at VCU, 10 are currently in the program, and nine others are pursuing classroom, internship and presentation requirements.

“[Vonesh] has contributed significantly to the [River Management Society] as a leader in the River Studies and Leadership Certificate program by embracing strategic possibilities, welcoming inclusive collaboration, leading by example and celebrating success with a large dose of modest confidence and a twinkle of curiosity in his eye,” the organization said in its announcement. “His work has accelerated the inclusion of students as we meet, get to know and benefit from tomorrow’s river leaders, whether scientists or river managers, or both.”

The organization noted that VCU’s delegation of students and instructors “commanded a noticeable presence” at the 2018 River Management Symposium and will play an important role leading and volunteering at the upcoming 2020/2021 River Management Training Symposium, “Mountain Creeks to Metro Canals,” that will be held next May at VCU. Vonesh is a co-chair of the symposium, a partnership among VCU, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the River Management Society.

The symposium was originally slated to be held this spring, but was delayed because of COVID-19. A virtual symposium was held in May to support the students who had planned to present research at the conference.

Vonesh also has led the development of the “River-based ImmersiVe Education & Research (RIVER) Field Studies Network,” which seeks to launch a national group of universities offering immersive, hands-on river programs through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

“We have James to thank for establishing a strong [River Studies and Leadership Certificate] presence in the East; the opportunity to be part of the national consortium of river-based university programs and a superb River Management Symposium co-chair,” the organization said in its announcement.

Rivers, Vonesh said, provide vital ecosystem services: They provide fresh water and food and serve as foundations for our economy, communities and culture. Richmond, on the James River, is a great example of this.

“For all of our reliance on the ‘ecosystem services’ rivers provide, our rivers are in peril. More than 40% of the 3.5 million miles of rivers and streams in the U.S.A. are in poor condition, primarily from dams, water diversions, pollution and degradation of the surrounding lands. And rivers are expected to be among the most sensitive ecosystems to changing climate,” Vonesh said.

“VCU is taking a lead in addressing these challenges,” he said. “As a large research university located in a state capitol on the banks of the biologically, economically and culturally significant James River, VCU is uniquely positioned to lead the way forward in river studies and is committed to helping create a brighter future for our nation’s rivers through scientific research and the training of a new generation of young leaders.”