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These four VCU students aim to help navigate the future of the nation’s rivers

The inaugural recipients of the River Studies and Leadership Certificate at VCU will go on to work in river sciences, policy, management, recreation and education.

Rachael Moffatt, an environmental studies major graduating this month, is one of the first four s...
Rachael Moffatt, an environmental studies major graduating this month, is one of the first four students to complete the River Studies and Leadership Certificate program at VCU. (Photo contributed by James Vonesh, Ph.D.)

Growing up in Richmond, Reid Anderson spent his childhood on and around the James River. Now at Virginia Commonwealth University, Anderson is pursuing a master’s degree in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and researching fish ecology in the lower James.

So when he heard that VCU was launching a new certificate to prepare future leaders with an understanding of the fundamentals of river sciences, river-related policy and management, and river-based recreation and education, he quickly signed up.

River Studies and Leadership Certificate program student Reid Anderson presented his research, "Spatial and temporal distributions of larval clupeid fishes in a tidal freshwater system," at the River Management Society's 2018 symposium in Vancouver. (Courtesy photo)
River Studies and Leadership Certificate program student Reid Anderson presented his research, "Spatial and temporal distributions of larval clupeid fishes in a tidal freshwater system," at the River Management Society's 2018 symposium in Vancouver. (Courtesy photo)

“I thought it would be an excellent way for me to connect my passion for rivers with my research,” he said.

Anderson, who graduates in December, is among the four VCU students in the inaugural cohort of the River Studies and Leadership Certificate program.

Offered in partnership with the River Management Society, the program is designed for undergraduate and graduate students who aspire to join the next generation of river professionals.

“Why have a river studies program? Well, one of our most essential natural resources are our fresh waters and river management is an important piece of managing our freshwater resources,” said James Vonesh, Ph.D., an associate professor and assistant director of the Center for Environmental Studies in VCU Life Sciences, who was involved in bringing the program to VCU. “At the same time, rivers are culturally important. They’re places of scenic beauty, they’re places of recreation, they support remarkable biodiversity. So part of it is thinking about: How do we manage river landscapes in a way that’s sustainable?”

Eight colleges and universities offer the certificate: Colorado Mesa University, Minnesota State University at Mankato, Northern Arizona University, Prescott College, Sierra Nevada College, University of Utah, VCU and Western Washington University. VCU was the first school east of the Mississippi River to join the consortium

The curriculum varies in focus from school to school, though each program requires completion of one course from each of four core areas: geographic information systems, river safety, river science and river policy. It also requires two additional courses in the student’s area of specialization: river science, river-based policy and management, or river-based recreation, education and tourism. The student then completes a river-related capstone or professional experience.

“To me, the [River Studies and Leadership Certificate] experience was a very enriching one,” Anderson said. “It allowed me to take coursework that I would have not otherwise known about and also better connected me with the river community here in Richmond. These connections have opened up numerous doors for me to expand my recreation around rivers across the country.”

As part of the program, students either present at the biennial River Management Society symposium or publish an article in the RMS Journal.

VCU student and faculty at the River Management Society Symposium in Vancouver, along with Lynn Crump of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's Scenic Rivers program and a guest instructor for VCU's environmental sciences course on scenic resources. (Photo by Meredith Meeks)
VCU student and faculty at the River Management Society Symposium in Vancouver, along with Lynn Crump of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's Scenic Rivers program and a guest instructor for VCU's environmental sciences course on scenic resources. (Photo by Meredith Meeks)

VCU will partner with the River Management Society and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Scenic Rivers Program to host the symposium in 2020. VCU students in the River Studies and Leadership Certificate program are helping to organize it.

“2020 is the 50th anniversary of the Virginia Scenic Rivers Program,” Vonesh said.

“The sessions will be on campus, right after graduation in 2020. We planned it to go right up to the 2020 Dominion [Energy] Riverrock. We’re going to attract river professionals — science, management and policy professionals — from all over the country who will come and experience Richmond and experience VCU.”

At this year’s symposium in Vancouver, British Columbia, four VCU students and three faculty members delivered presentations.

Taylor Woods, who is also part of VCU’s first cohort of the certificate program, gave a presentation, “A new avenue for fish functional traits?” that proposed a new approach to understanding how fish interact.

“Such efforts will be especially relevant for conservation of freshwater fishes under climate change. As species’ ranges shift due to changes in stream temperature, species which currently don’t co-occur may come into coexistence and interact,” Woods said in her presentation. “Therefore, methods to understand and predict these novel interactions will be important for management efforts, especially for topics such as managed relocation, which require careful consideration of the biotic environment.”

Woods received a master’s degree in environmental sciences over the summer and is now pursuing a doctorate. Thomas Franco, another student in the certificate program, received a degree in biology in August. Franco conducted research comparing biodiversity in rock pools in the James and Potomac rivers.

Thomas Franco, who received a degree in biology in August, was among the first graduates of the certificate program. Franco conducted research comparing biodiversity in river rock pools in the James and Potomac Rivers. (Courtesy photo)
Thomas Franco, who received a degree in biology in August, was among the first graduates of the certificate program. Franco conducted research comparing biodiversity in river rock pools in the James and Potomac Rivers. (Courtesy photo)

While in Vancouver, Anderson, who also presented his research, visited the Condit Dam removal site on Washington state’s White Salmon River, one of the largest dam removal projects in the United States.

“It was very eye-opening to hear from the experiences of an employee of the company that owned the dam (PacifiCorp) along with members from the White Salmon community, and relate what they had to say to similar issues of dam removal along the East Coast,” he said.

Rachael Moffatt, who is graduating in December, decided to pursue the River Studies and Leadership Certificate because she wanted to distinguish her environmental studies degree, and also because she loves rivers.

“I was immediately attracted to the certificate because it required a swiftwater safety course, and I was excited by the idea of getting class credit to take a whitewater safety course,” she said. “I soon realized that it was a perfect fit for me to get more feedback and guidance from professors, make my degree more specialized, and focus my studies to cater to my future goals.”

For her capstone project, Moffatt served as a water quality intern for the James River Park System, a role in which she coordinated the association’s 66 trained citizen-scientist volunteers — known as the “RiverRats” — who collect river condition data on water temperature, turbidity, river height and bacteria.

After graduation, Moffatt will return to work for the James River Park System. In the future, she hopes to work as a river ranger or guide in Idaho or Colorado.  

“I feel that this certificate has elevated my experience at VCU and made me a more compelling candidate for potential employers,” she said.

Last summer, Moffatt took part in a series of classes, “The River of No Return: The Lower Salmon River Experience,” a collaboration of the VCU Outdoor Adventure Program, the Center for Environmental Studies in VCU Life Sciences, and the Department of Biology. The experiential course series, which was tied to the River Studies and Leadership Certificate program, involved camping, backpacking and paddling in the wilderness of Idaho’s Lower Salmon River.

Looking ahead, Vonesh hopes that students pursuing the certificate at other schools will be able to take part in VCU courses like the Lower Salmon River Experience, while VCU students will be able to take similarly innovative courses at those schools.

“[It could] then become something more than any one participating university can do on its own,” Vonesh said.