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Professors and Students Offer New Hope For Shenandoah River

From: Office of Public Affairs

In May 2003, several JMU professors and students formed the core of the first annual expedition known as The Shenandoah Sojourn. "It was an attempt to build a community around water," says Tom Benzing, professor of environmental toxicology in JMU's integrated science and technology department, and the science leader of what was surely the wettest group of rafters ever to float down the Shenandoah River's South Fork.

"During our week on the river, we got a lot of good press when we visited historical sites and talked with industries, farmers, community leaders," he says. "We succeeded in engaging people in discussions about their watershed; and really, that's just as important as the scientific data that's required to understand water quality."

Water quality has emerged as a major global concern of the 21st century; but locally—where all water quality begins—the Shenandoah River is legendary for its pristine waters. A widely beloved myth holds that the river's name is a derivation of an American Indian word meaning "clear-eyed daughter of the stars."

A famous old folk song of uncertain origin hauntingly (if perhaps erroneously) evokes the river and the harmonious blend of the small farm, small town landscapes it has shaped. That naturalness and scenic beauty have for a century helped attract students to Madison and then left alumni with memories for a lifetime.

During that first Shenandoah Sojourn, the incessant rain that forced the rafters to bail for their lives also swelled the river into a muscular arm so mighty it seemed beyond human powers of wrestling. When the rain stopped long enough to allow a campfire, a dozen bedraggled Sojourners celebrated the beauty, history and apparent resilience of a river seemingly undaunted by centuries of assault.

A year later, the fish started dying.

"The Shenandoah Valley," Benzing pointed out after the nostalgia of the first Sojourn had faded, "actually has almost every kind of environmental problem from acid rain to industrial discharges to agricultural runoff to rapid development. It all ends up in the river, which makes for a great outdoor lab. I'm always looking for ways to connect my students to real settings where a real audience is interested," says Benzing.

The watershed as lab is a strong current running through JMU science departments. At least a dozen professors routinely send students dipping into local waters where they learn to use water-testing equipment, analyze the results and research potential solutions to a wide range of problems. Since the fish kills began even more professors have become interested in watershed research.