Even in a coastal state that is also rich in inland waterways, lakes, and wetlands, the general population may not be aware of mounting challenges to the supply of clean water at affordable costs and to the health of aquatic environments. The challenges are not limited to Florida, and instead are occurring regionally, nationally, and internationally, and are expected to continue for the near future. Academic leaders at Saint Leo University decided to do something about this critical void through special education programming held over the course of several days at University Campus in central Florida.

By working with the Council of Independent Colleges, a national organization, Saint Leo's College of Arts and Sciences arranged for water sustainability expert and author Brian Richter to spend time lecturing and speaking with students, faculty, and even residents of neighboring communities. Richter is the author of Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability and spent decades at the Nature Conservancy, a prominent conservation organization. During his career, he has been able to develop scientific tools to support efforts to restore and protect rivers, and has consulted on water projects worldwide. He currently runs a consulting company, Sustainable Waters, and teaches at the University of Virginia.

Saint Leo located Richter to visit through the council's Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows program. Fellows are recognized professionals in their fields who agree to travel to college and university campuses for several days of teaching so that they can share their expertise with students and faculty in depth. "We have found that carefully planned Woodrow Wilson Fellow visits enhance the educational experience of our Saint Leo students at no additional tuition cost to them, and can be a benefit to community members nearby who are interested in what our visitors have to share," said Dr. Heather Parker, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Evening event opened to local community

Richter agreed to deliver an evening talk that was open to students from all disciplines as well as to residents from neighboring communities, and to meet with individual class sessions from across the liberal arts spectrum. Both experiences were well received; audiences particularly appreciated that the scientist clearly explained the multiple present and future challenges and also talked about why he is optimistic that solutions can be found.

Water shortages are already occurring in one-third of the planet's watersheds and aquifers, and are affecting half of the world's population, Richter said during his public talk. He likened the accelerating demands of a growing population to a consumer overdrawing a regular checking account and then starting to draw down from a savings account. There are profound costs that people all over the world are starting to feel from continuing such water-consumption habits, Richter said. In parts of the world, "there is no surplus water" to rely on.

When water supplies are overdrawn through a combination of heavy agricultural use, population growth, pollution, and insufficient conservation measures, river basins can actually draw up. Influences of climate change, for instance, larger and more intense wildfires, can further complicate the issues, depending on the region. In the fallout, freshwater species can be imperiled – fish kills can and have occurred in rivers when pollution levels rise and water levels fall, for instance. Some freshwater species have actually become extinct, he said.

Water-based recreational opportunities, like fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and swimming naturally slip away. Fewer people get to enjoy the calm and spiritual benefits from contact with aquatic environments. In some areas, current generations of farmers and ranchers in some areas have had to go out of business when regional water became too scare to support operations.

The search for solutions

There are not necessarily easy answers, he warned. Transporting more water to any given locale from a more distant source becomes too expensive to manage. Some places near oceans have tried drawing salt out of sea water to create more supply for drinking, cooking, and bathing, but the process requires expensive electricity, whose generation can create more carbon pollution, and produces waste in the form of brine water that needs to be managed, Richter said. Israel is one of the few places he has seen desalination used effectively, in combination with other methods, he explained.

Sustainable solutions that can be applied on a broad basis will require shifts beyond better and more comprehensive water conservation practices, he said. While conservation is essential, it cannot deliver enough savings, and we are actually going to have to use less. He also likes the idea of working with agricultural interests to forge water-usage agreements and crop-planning incentives that would reward growers for diminishing use and allow areas to redirect some water supply to restore natural reserves.

Richter said he has observed that the more local citizens are involved in decision-making on these matters, the more effective the solutions prove to be. Advances in energy generation will probably allow more solutions to emerge, he said, but stressed that creating water sustainability is not a chore for only the scientific and technological disciplines.

Class visits and career opportunities

Economic, ethical, and cultural perspectives have to be brought into the discussions, along with effective speaking, listening, and writing skills, to devise meaningful public policy on water, he said. He remains optimistic, after 30 or more years in the field, that younger generations are suited for this challenge.

Some members of the younger generation enrolled in classes ranging from environmental chemistry and ecology to ethics and nature writing got to interact with Richter during their course sessions. As Saint Leo classes generally have no more than 20 students (and many have fewer), the undergraduates were able to ask extended questions. Instructor Jacqueline Robbins said she was delighted that Richter gave her environmental chemistry students the leeway to bring up anything they wanted to discuss. Some asked about specific technologies and case studies, and some wanted to know about careers and internships. "It opened their eyes to the fact that this is a direction they could go in if they are interested," Robbins said of her science majors. Water-related testing, research, and policy positions will grow in number as society comes to grip with water-management questions, she said.

In a smaller science class devoted to the ecology of estuaries, Dr. William Ellis' nine students heard from Richter about the responsibility of scientists to share clearly with the public the scientific information underlying any topic. "It is an important part of what we do – it is not ancillary," said Ellis, who was glad to have the point reiterated.

Faculty were also happy to learn from and speak with a fellow interested in the same fields and concerns, and who meshed well the Saint Leo teaching style. "His way of communicating complex and far-reaching ideas is notably humane and gentle," said Dr. Karen Hannel, who chairs the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies and Experiential Learning. "When I spoke with him regarding indigenous approaches to natural resources, he shared a wealth of stories he'd gleaned from working with various Southwest tribes. It was such a pleasure to speak with an expert who, aside from being so learned and experienced, also gave me hope that the very serious environmental challenges we face can be met if we but only have the heart."