Faculty Seed Grant Projects

How does current management of water quality align with ecological health and human well-being? A preliminary study of Virginia


This pilot study was funded jointly by the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech and the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE).


Water quality (WQ) management directly affects ecosystem health and services, economic growth, and human wellbeing (HWB). However, linkages and conflicts among these concurrent goals are poorly understood, typically not quantified, and not necessarily explicit in discussions of WQ policy. Because WQ management is an integrative, socially negotiated process, the knowledge needed to guide it must be developed through social and ecological lenses.

Despite the common belief that WQ is important to HWB, most people are not closely engaged in managing their WQ, which can limit stakeholder cooperation in meeting management goals. Potential sources of discord between WQ experts (e.g., scientists and managers) and the communities they serve include: a) spatial mismatches among ecological conditions, socioeconomic conditions, and WQ management, b) differences between public perceptions of waterbodies and experts’ assessments, c) differences between publics’ versus managers’ goals for WQ, and d) inadequate communication. We hypothesize that reducing discordance among stakeholders and increasing transparency in decision-making will both increase public support for and engagement in surface water management, and more completely realize WQ goals.

The overall aim of the proposed effort is to explicitly identify potential sources of discord and synergistic opportunities for cooperation in order to develop strategies to better re-align WQ values of local communities with formal management by public agencies. Specifically, this effort will integrate available geo-referenced socioeconomic, human health, and biophysical WQ data to answer the following questions:

  1. To what extent is HWB spatially correlated with healthy waterbodies and how do such relations vary across regions and socio-cultural groups?
  2. What are local WQ managers’ perceptions of the greatest threats to waterbodies and to what extent are these perceptions supported by available data?
  3. What are local WQ managers’ beliefs about a) how to achieve WQ goals and b) common knowledge and desires of local publics relative to WQ?

The proposed work will simultaneously build proof-of-concept analytical strategies that can be broadly applied across the US, identify key regions or socio-cultural groups on which to focus future research, and provide preliminary data necessary for conducting a broader co-orientation study aimed at examining concordance in beliefs between WQ experts and local citizens in terms of WQ goals, conditions, and practices. Ultimately, these analyses can guide WQ managers to address shortcomings in public knowledge, communication, and cooperation in order to more efficiently and equitably meet WQ goals.

Our initial effort will focus on Virginia, not simply due to convenience, but because it encompasses much of the nation’s geographic variation in ecological, WQ, HWB, and socio-cultural demographic (SCD) conditions. Virginia watersheds range from mountainous to marine, pristine to degraded, urban to rural, and wealthy to poor. To meet our stated objectives, this study will: 1) Compile and map existing geo-referenced metrics on WQ, HWB, and socio-cultural demographics (SCD); 2) Quantify multiscale statistical relationships among WQ, HWB, and SCD in selected watersheds; 3) Survey WQ experts in areas where WQ, HWB, and SCD have been mapped; 4) Communicate preliminary findings to regional WQ managers and integrate their feedback; and 5) Develop proposals to expand this analytical approach across the US more broadly, with a focus on especially vulnerable socio-cultural groups.

Current statewide data on WQ, including biological and physicochemical metrics, are readily available from Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ; Dr. Larry Willis, personal communication). Similarly, current metrics of HWB and SCD (e.g., household income, race/ethnicity, age, cancer rates, birth-defect rates) are available from state and federal databases. Metrics for HWB and SCD will be selected, based on data availability and interpretability, to represent published assessment protocols (e.g., Summers et al. 2014. Sustainability 6, 3915-3935; doi:10.3390/su6063915). Developing and demonstrating a methodology to integrate data of widely differing scales (e.g., watershed, census tract, county) will be a valuable step to facilitate future broader-scale analyses.

Research products will include: 1) maps of geographic variation in WQ, HWB, and SCD, 2) correlation analysis of spatial relations among WQ, HWB, and SCD based on collective and individual metrics, 3) synthesis of geographic variation in WQ and HWB, as related to selected SCD groups, 4) threat assessment based on WQ managers across Virginia, and 5) correlation analysis between perceived WQ threats and selected geospatial factors. We expect results to be immediately publishable – particularly if they reveal significant linkages among WQ, HWB, and SCD. We will use our findings to inform broader-scale proposals by: 1) crafting a sampling scheme to investigate the hypotheses suggested by spatial correlations; and 2) completing a vulnerability assessment that provides preliminary data for a future co-orientation study.