By Erika Lower
Halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg lies the Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Inger and Walter Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences, a sustainable research and education field station. On July 17, Virginia Sea Grant advisers got a tour of this partner facility.
“As the efforts to provide the public with a better understanding of the beauty, fragility, and innate complexity of our natural world have increased, the Rice Center has become a focal point for environmental research and teaching,” says Dr. Leonard Smock, Director of the VCU Rice Center who led the tour.
One reason why the VCU Rice Center has become an ecological hub is the Walter L. Rice Education Building, the first platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certificated building in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The LEED Green Building Rating System is a nationally-recognized program that promotes environmentally responsible, healthy, and sustainable places to live and work. With its geothermal heating and cooling, solar power generation, and advanced water recycling systems, the Walter L. Rice Education Building was recognized for the highest level of sustainability certified by the LEED program.
In addition to its green facilities, the Center’s location makes it perfectly suited for a number of ecological research projects. On-site studies include population surveys of threatened migratory birds and the federally endangered Atlantic sturgeon. The Audubon Society designated the surrounding landscape as the Lower James River Important Birding Area, home to the highest concentration of bald eagles in the eastern United States. Perhaps the most unique area on site is a restored wetland in the basin of the former Lake Charles, an artificial body of water created in the 1920s. In 2010, the lake’s dam was removed and the creek that had filled it was allowed to resume its natural course, resulting in the development of a wetland ecosystem that researchers will be able to track through its evolution.
The Rice Center is located on 494 acres of land along a historic section of the James River, a site which saw extensive use during the Colonial and Civil War eras. In 2000, Mrs. Inger Rice donated the land to VCU for its present use as a field station and environmental education center.