The world’s attention is turning to water. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan; the chemical contamination of West Virginia’s Elk River; devastating droughts and floods; saltwater inundation into East Coast aquifers — across the nation, awareness of water as a critical, increasingly limited resource is seeping into the public consciousness.
With an eye toward the future of water, Stephen Schoenholtz, professor of forest hydrology and soils in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech, has been named president-elect of the National Institutes for Water Resources. Schoenholtz will take over for current NIWR president Richard Cruse, director of the Iowa Water Center, starting Oct. 1, 2016.
The National Institutes for Water Resources is the entity that guides the nation’s 54 Water Resources Research Institutes and Centers, one in each state and U.S. territory. Together, they pursue the shared mission to support water research, train the next generation of water scientists, and extend applied research to stakeholders, including public officials, to help inform policy and solve regional and national water problems.
Schoenholtz, who has served as director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center since 2006, also coordinates Virginia Tech’s undergraduate water: resources, policy, and management degree, which launched in fall 2015. Drawing upon the resources of five colleges and based in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, the interdisciplinary degree is the first of its kind in the nation. Schoenholtz sees the timing as both challenging and ideal.
A water degree would have been unheard of a decade ago, he said, but the topic of water resources is now on the table.
“The excitement and energy of my colleagues working hard and solving complex water challenges, being around young people who are studying with the energy and enthusiasm to go at it and tackle problems — that makes me optimistic about our water future,” said Schoenholtz.
“The recognition of water’s importance is ramping up. Droughts, for example, affect everybody, whether you live in those areas or not. Everyone pays more money for the food that’s produced in California during a drought.”
Despite greater attention paid to the urgency of water conservation, protection, and management, however, funding to support research, education, and outreach addressing critical water issues continues to be limited.
“It’s not flowing,” Schoenholtz said of complicated federal funding. “On the other hand, employment opportunities for graduates with training in water-resources science, engineering, policy, and management are excellent, reflecting the broad recognition of the need to sustainably manage our water resources.”
Water is a unique resource, Schoenholtz said, and valuing it accurately while recognizing it as a human right is the complex key to its conservation and protection.
“There are alternatives for everything else,” he explained. “For energy, you can use fossil fuels, the sun, wind, or burn wood. If we run out of a preferred food, we can alter our diets. But there’s no substitute for water. You can’t go elsewhere.”
Schoenholtz earned bachelor’s degrees in forest science and biology at The Pennsylvania State University and a master’s and doctorate in forest soil science at Virginia Tech.