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Nature's Lab: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Woman with brown hair and black mask on doing research

WRITTEN BY: MIKENNA PIEROTTI

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WVU researchers take aim at making one of West Virginia’s biggest resources safer for all.

THE WATERS

West Virginia is rich in water resources. As planetary climate shifts, the state is poised to get wetter. And in many ways, that can be a good thing.

“With abundant rivers and streams enabling a host of outdoor scenic and recreational activities — these factors can provide a high quality of life for current and future resi- dents and vacationers,” said Joan Centrella, director of West Virginia University’s Bridge Science and Technology Policy, Leadership and Communications Initiative. “They also draw economic growth through investments, jobs and revenue.”

Rooted in WVU’s land-grant mission, Bridge’s purpose is multifaceted, but centrally aimed at “increasing the ways that WVU can bring its strengths to bear on critical issues of science and technology policy,” Centrella said. “In our work, we identify challenges and opportunities facing West Virginia and provide a bridge between the science and technology expertise of faculty and staff and West Virginia’s national, state and local policymakers.” In other words, Bridge translates the science and technology that could help address West Virginia’s biggest challenges (like those with water) into policy recommendations (potential new laws, funding, etc.) for lawmakers.

THE TROUBLE

West Virginia’s waters are Bridge’s first big project. “We chose water for two, interrelated reasons: because there are numerous researchers across campus working in this area and because of its central importance in the state,” Centrella said.

Water in West Virginia is positioned to become a major economic boom, but it has a dark side. A 2019 report re- leased by three environmental groups (the Natural Resourc- es Defense Council, coming clean and Environmental Justice Health Alliance) found 36 of the state’s 55 counties among the worst in the nation for violations of federal law that pro- tects drinking water quality. Acid mine drainage, inadequate sewage and wastewater systems, increased flooding, aging and undersized infrastructure (like dams) “not only lower the quality of life for West Virginians, but also discourage new residents from moving here, deter potential investors and impede economic development and growth.”

THE BRIDGE

When it comes to water resources, finding answers to the state’s challenges had to start with the best and brightest minds at WVU — and it was Centrella’s job to round them up. “This effort involves numerous researchers across campus, each focusing on different aspects of the topic. The Bridge Initiative team facilitates the process and sup- ports the researchers throughout the study.” 

Researchers like Emily Garner, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, were vital to the process. Because public policy is vital to the work Garner has done on drinking water and wastewater, she was eager to join Bridge and help see the project to completion. “My research focuses on developing tools to detect contamination in water resources and identifying strategies to minimize human exposure,” she said. “Access to high-quality drinking water and adequate resources to treat wastewater are critical for community health and economic prosperity, especially in rural communities.”

Garner’s work includes looking at how drinking water degrades as it travels from a treatment plant to a consum- er’s tap, detecting COVID-19 by looking at viral signatures in wastewater and tracking fecal pollution in surface water resources like rivers and streams.

Specifically, Garner’s research led to a recommendation that policymakers propose that USDA-funded programs support and educate rural communities on water-related economic development opportunities and management of drinking water and wastewater.

Garner heavily involves students in both water quality research and communicating to the public and policymakers. Even her undergrads have presented findings to legislators and their staff at the State Capitol.

She also sees value in having students out in the field. With their enthusiasm and on-the-job training, students have the power to make a real difference in these communities, she said. “It is also a critical need in the face of the current national shortage of workers in the water sector that we work to develop strong pipelines for training people to work in water-related jobs in West Virginia. Having a skilled work- force in these water jobs is essential for ensuring access to clean water across the state.”

Centrella is hopeful about how Bridge can help connect science and policy far into the future. For her, this initiative is about more than developing a single policymaker guide or set of recommendations. It’s about bringing faculty, staff and students from across the University “and having them work together, learn from each other, gain experience and build
a working group that is greater than what they could have achieved individually.” It’s also about reaching the people of West Virginia, “so our work can be relevant and helpful to their needs — bringing the power of the University to bear on crucial aspects of life in West Virginia.”