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Training the Next Generation of Watershed Managers to Fight Drought

Posted by Scott Elliott, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Conservation
Jul 14, 2015
Student interns from the California State University System working on a watershed management project
Student interns from the California State University System work on a watershed management project. A NIFA-administered grant has funded nearly 220 interns who worked more than 77,000 hours on projects that provide them real-world experience so they will be better prepared for careers in natural resources. (Photo courtesy of Michele Penilla)

With drought reaching historic proportions in Western states, America needs people with both knowledge and experience in water management to help ensure that forests and working lands stay ahead of the effects of climate change.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is partnering with land-grant universities, minority-serving institutions, federal agencies, and other organizations to get qualified students out of their classrooms and into the field where they can pick up real, hands-on experience in natural resource protection.

The California State University Water Resources and Policy Initiative program’s Water Resources Institute at California State University at San Bernardino (CSUSB) has placed more than 50 students per year from their system into the hands of experienced scientists and industry professionals where they develop skills and problem-solving abilities from a watershed management perspective.  NIFA has provided more than $1,625,000 since 2011 to support the program.  CSUSB is a Hispanic-serving institution.

“Over the past four years, 219 student interns from throughout the California State University system have gained valuable work-related experience on real-world projects that benefit communities and all programs within USDA,” said Dr. Jeffrey Thompson, CSUSB associate provost for research.  “Because most of our students come from under-represented ethnicities, they add to the diversity of our workforce and serve as role models for new students entering college programs.”

The interns—whose educational backgrounds ranged from geology to environmental science, from business to civil engineering, from plant science to animal science, and more—spent several months with program partner agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, Agricultural Research Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, California Fish and Game, Tuolomne River Trust, and Ventura Coastkeeper.  Their projects included lake geochemical and sediment analysis, research and implementation of sustainable green architecture for stormwater management, analysis of nitrous oxide emissions from aquatic systems, and developing and growing crops that use low water.

Students spent a total of 77,340 hours working on water projects that address the needs of the community.  In all, 194 undergraduate students worked 360 hours in the program and 25 graduate students worked 300 hours.  Participants receive an hourly wage while they work and Hispanic/Latino students are also eligible to apply for $40,000 scholarships to further their doctorate-level degrees in a natural resources or water-related discipline.  The program provides enough practical experience to prepare about 80 percent of participants for careers in natural resources with USDA agencies.

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.

Category/Topic: Conservation