Embracing the technological potential of the Rappahannock

September 4, 2023

This article and photos are credited to Cathy Jett for the Free Lance-Star.

A world-class ecological research and education center envisioned for Fredericksburg could become “a game changer” for the Rappahannock River and the region.

That’s the dream of Henry “Buck” Cox, a retired environmental engineer and entrepreneur who grew up in Fredericksburg. He’s created a nonprofit called the RIVERE Center, hired staff, assembled an advisory board and tapped experts for advice. Efforts will begin soon to raise the $7 million to $12 million needed to make the center a reality on a site next to the old Embry Power Station on Caroline Street.

“We hope to put a shovel in the ground by the end of 2024,” Cox said. “We have a lot of hills to climb with the city first.”

RIVERE will focus on watershed research, conservation, education and ecoculture. Those were the recommendations of Wipfli, a consulting and accounting firm. It did a study of about 100 organizations that might be interested in working with the center and found there’s a need in the research community for real-time data about watersheds, said Lori Blanc, RIVERE’s environmental consultant.

Monitoring waterways for such things as phosphorus, nitrogen and sediments is increasingly important worldwide as population and industrialization growth strain demand for freshwater resources. Having readily available data can help researchers predict pollution impacts in various scenarios, which the public and government officials can then use for planning purposes.“

So, based on [Wipfli’s] advice, and then the input from potential collaborators, we decided to focus more narrowly on technology, emerging technologies that can be used to enhance water quality monitoring, education and outreach,” Blanc said. “But our focus is on technology, and that way we fit this little niche here in the area that has a lot of opportunity.”

Plans call for RIVERE to be located in a building that would be erected on about an acre of land donated by the Whelan family, which owns the vacant power station property. Part of the center would be leased as co-working and laboratory space to environmental companies, related government agencies and nonprofits that want to collaborate on national water research priorities. For example, such companies could include piloting and testing smart technology water sensors in the Rappahannock, which Cox says has been called a “Goldilocks” river.

“It’s not so big and complicated like the James that has hundreds of different contaminants and industrial runoffs,” said Cox. “The Rappahannock, by comparison, is a simple river. It’s not so small that if you try to demonstrate a treatment technique for the river that you can’t demonstrate success for that particular technique. If you used the James, it would be difficult to separate the problems.”

RIVERE could help with research on new sensor technologies through a collaboration with the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation and its Virginia Smart Community Testbed initiative in Stafford County. It’s also in touch with professors at Virginia Tech and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee who are working on developing low-cost phosphate sensors that could be deployed and tested in the Rappahannock.

“If it works, this kind of thing can start to bring technology companies into the area to manufacture these kinds of devices, test those devices on the Rappahannock and take them to market,” Cox said. “This is an area that really needs to be expanded because there are lots of needs for various types of sensors.”

RIVERE is also partnering with Virginia Tech’s Artificial Intelligence Assurance and Applications lab on possibilities for improving water quality data and data security. Any resulting data generated through the center would be publicly available for research globally and used to create virtual and augmented reality immersive learning experiences for the public and government officials so they can make better-informed decisions regionally.

“An example would be projecting 100 years from now, with projected growth rates upstream, what might that look like in terms of increased potential for flooding or increased potential for sedimentation, what that might look like in their backyard,” said Blanc. “It’s one thing to read about it or hear about it, but if you can have an immersive experience where you come in, and then you can see the changes over time, and you can walk around and you can engage with it? And then you can adjust and say, well, what if we don’t develop this area? What if we protect this area? Keep it forested? And how would that change what this part looks like down the road?”

Plans also call for the center to have both indoor and outdoor spaces for environmental education lead by Friends of the Rappahannock and ecoculture initiatives and outreach done in collaboration with the Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Patawomeck Tribal Center in Stafford County.

All this will take money, and Cox and his team will be reaching out to prospective donors and are considering applying for grants, including one from GO Virginia Region 6. GO Virginia is an initiative to foster private-sector growth and job creation through state incentives for regional collaboration between business, education, and government.

“If we get the right kind of horsepower behind this, we believe we can get to the halfway point,” said Cox. “That’s our objective. And then, after that, we could basically finance the center subject to us getting folks willing to sign up to [lease space].”