Virginia Water Center interns forge ahead to research environmental justice in the face of COVID-19

By David Fleming

virginia techWith the coronavirus presenting unique challenges for all students, Nizhoni Tallas and Ross Cooper of the College of Natural Resources and Environment have had to adjust to working remotely as interns at the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, housed at Virginia Tech. By connecting with faculty and staff virtually, the two students are completing projects that explore the ways that water informs issues of environmental justice.

The internship program, which began in spring 2016 and is partially donor-funded, aims to provide undergraduate students across the university the chance to focus on a specific research question or outreach project related to water and to further the water center’s mandate to disseminate new information about water issues pertinent to Virginia.

“Our students can design the internship to align with their interests,” explained Stephen Schoenholtz, director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center and a professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “Some students are interested in the biophysical side of water, such as water quality or dynamics, while others prefer to focus on the policy and human dimensions aspects of water. We allow our interns to design what they want to accomplish over the course of the semester, and we provide a structured framework to help them accomplish their goals.”

Understanding water challenges faced by Virginia tribal communities

For junior natural resources conservation major Nizhoni Tallas, a member of the Diné tribe who grew up in northeastern Arizona, the water center internship has given her the chance to reach out to tribal communities across Virginia.

“I’ve been getting in contact with Virginia tribal communities and talking to members about some of the water issues within their communities and how they see water in relation to their culture and traditions,” Tallas said. “My objective is to create a booklet of these communities to help build a connection between those groups and the students and faculty here at Virginia Tech.”

Tallas, who received a 2019 Udall Scholarship in tribal policy, has most recently been talking with members of the Monacan Indian Nation, one of six tribes in Virginia that received federal recognition by the U.S. Senate in January 2018.

“Historically, the Monacan people had villages near the James River,” she said. “They still get water resources from the river, and it holds cultural significance for the tribe. They are concerned about nearby counties trying to pump water from the river and want to understand what the environmental impacts will be on the resource.”

Tallas stressed the importance of incorporating voices from across Virginia’s tribal communities into broader discussions of water use and resource management in the state.

“Getting community voices in this project is important because it’s not widely known what challenges the different tribal communities are facing,” she said. “The best way to find out what’s happening is by talking to community members and the chiefs who are working directly on these challenges.”

Bringing water issues to Capitol Hill and cleanup strategies to municipalities

A highlight for water center interns is the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C., to meet with other water researchers and policymakers while participating in the annual meeting of water institute leaders from across America.

“Going to Washington has been a highlight for all of our interns,” Schoenholtz said. “In addition to meeting water institute directors, they’ve had the chance to visit congressional offices and really get a sense of how decisions on water policy are made.”

For Ross Cooper, a senior studying water: resources, policy, and management, the trip to Capitol Hill in February was something of a homecoming: he grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and had interned at the Library of Congress during the summer between high school and college.

“To come back to the Hill as someone nearing a bachelor’s degree in water was a great experience,” Cooper said. “Nizhoni and I were the only two interns at the meeting of water center leaders, so we were able to talk with them about our research and make some useful connections.”

Cooper’s internship project focuses on bodies of water that are deemed polluted according to water quality standards and the ways that socioeconomic measures could potentially influence cleanup strategies.

“Total Maximum Daily Loads are a regulation under the Clean Water Act,” Cooper explained. “They’re basically watershed improvement plans, or plans to help bodies of water meet their designated uses. My project is looking at the disparities in income and environmental quality within the James River Basin.”

Cooper says that he didn’t feel a strong connection to the environment growing up, but a high school AP Environmental Science course motivated him to consider a career in water.

“Growing up in Northern Virginia, I lacked a genuine connection with the environment. That changed when I started taking AP Environmental Science. I knew that I wanted to do something with water within environmental science, and I looked around and saw that Virginia Tech had a water program.”

After graduation, Cooper hopes to work with Virginia municipalities or in the nonprofit sector for a few years before starting graduate school.

Giving students a seat at the table

Schoenholtz stresses that internship opportunities like the ones provided by the water center are crucial to giving students a bridge from the formal lessons of the classroom to how students can enact meaningful change as they pursue careers.

“We talk about a lot of things in our classes here in Blacksburg,” Schoenholtz noted, “but to leave campus and go to Capitol Hill and see how the concepts they’ve learned about are informing policy, that is where the study really becomes relevant. And our interns are participants in those discussions: they can talk to congressional staffers and test out how to get their messages across to an audience.”

For Tallas, who would someday like to work with tribal communities to utilize traditional ecological knowledge to manage natural resources, the opportunity to have a seat at the table is crucial.

“Getting within those spaces is important,” Tallas noted. “I’ve been in spaces with highly influential people before, but having the chance to speak to representatives who have the power to make changes or bring an issue to Congress is an important opportunity.”

Students interested in applying for internships with the Virginia Water Resources Research Center can find more information here.


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