Southern Regional Water Program

Research, Extension & Education Water Quality Programs through the Land Grant University System

Watershed Management in North Carolina

Wherever you are, you are in a watershed. Every stream, reservoir, lake, and estuary has one. Some of the water that falls on the land as rain, sleet, and snow evaporates. The rest drains into streams, rivers, and lakes, or soaks into the ground. A watershed is the land that contributes water to a particular body of water, such as a lake or stream. Ridges of higher ground generally separate one watershed from another. Rain falling on one side of the ridge flows toward the low point of one watershed, while rain on the other side flows toward the low point of a different watershed.


Most watersheds encompass many land uses (farms, homes, industries, forests, mines). Each land use has an impact on water quality. Even in uninhabited watersheds, natural sources of pollution exist. These include sediment from stream-bank erosion, bacteria and nutrients from wildlife, and chemicals deposited by rainfall.

Ground water lies under the surface of the land in aquifers--underground areas that hold large quantities of water in the spaces between rocks and particles of soil. The source of ground water in each aquifer is the rain (or sleet or snow) that falls in the recharge area of the aquifer, or centuries-old stored water. If recharge occurs, the recharge area is the land area through which water percolates into an aquifer. Underground recharge areas and watershed areas do not always coincide.

Conditions in Your Watershed

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) post information on North Carolina’s watershed health, impaired water bodies (those that are too polluted to maintain their designated, beneficial uses) and Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) on their websites.

In addition, basinwide water quality plans are prepared by the NC Division of Water Quality (DWQ) for each of the seventeen major river basins in the state. Although plans are prepared by the DWQ, their implementation and the protection of water quality entails the coordinated efforts of many agencies, local governments and stakeholder groups in the state.

Resources and Programs

North Carolina State University (NCSU) education and Extension programs are available to the public to address watershed management concerns. These programs also may be designed to provide water quality information to specific audiences such as youth, farmers and other rural citizens, small businesses and other audiences.

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension provides educational programs designed to provide watershed management assistance. Programs developed by NCSU in Raleigh and NC A&T State University in Greensboro are being used in every county to provide water quality information to homeowners, youth, farmers, communities, businesses, and news media.

Extension Outreach

Outreach education enables the research developed at colleges and universities and from other sources throughout the world to be interpreted and delivered to citizens. Some of the major Extension education programs addressing watershed management are:

The NC Home*A*Syst and Farm*A*Syst programs have provided water quality information to more than 3,000 homeowners, farmers, and other residents. The program is reaching out to other government agencies and businesses to inform the public of the need for good water quality. By providing self-assessment sheets, the citizens of North Carolina are able to evaluate their pollution risks on their property. The topics cover well protection, septic tank maintenance, stormwater management, and lawn care.

Extension personnel provide information on natural channel design applications for stream restoration at the NC Stream Restoration Institute. The goal of the Stream Restoration Institute is to improve water quality and aquatic ecology through research, demonstration projects, and education of the public. As a project is undertaken, Extension personnel conduct public meetings and media campaigns to inform the general public, elected officials, community leaders, and school children about the project and water quality in general. In addition, project personnel make many one-to-one visits to stakeholders in the watershed to inform them of project activities and address any questions or concerns they may have.

The North Carolina Master Gardener program conducted by North Carolina Cooperative Extension trains gardening enthusiasts to use appropriate amounts of pesticides and fertilizers on lawns and gardens to reduce runoff of pesticides and fertilizers while enhancing productivity.

Scientific Research

Scientific research is the basis for development of new technologies to improve watershed management. Researchers at Land Grant Universities work to develop these new technologies and evaluate their benefits. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NCSU conducts research programs and projects in all aspects of water quality. A comprehensive list and description of NCSU research categorized by river basins in NC is available.

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service is cooperating with other agencies in a variety of watershed projects spanning all three physiographic regions of the state. The purpose of these projects is threefold: 1) document and characterize water quality at a watershed scale; 2) identify nonpoint sources of pollution; and, 3) evaluate the effectiveness of best management practices used to prevent or treat nonpoint source pollution. Each project consists of pre- and post-best management practice (BMP) water quality monitoring, BMP implementation, and a variety of educational programs. Special emphasis is placed on the use of natural systems to treat nonpoint source pollution. Some examples follow: bed.gif

The East Prong Roaring River Stream Restoration Project is a collaborative effort between the NC Wetlands Restoration Program, NC Division of Parks and Recreation, and the NC Stream Restoration Institute. The project includes nearly 2 miles of stream restoration within the boundaries of the Stone Mountain State Park.

fish.gifThe goals of the Mitchell River Watershed Project are to permanently protect the headwater areas and riparian buffers. Project components include: stream bank restoration and installation of BMPs to improve water quality and aquatic habitat, long-term physical and biological monitoring, and the development of tools for evaluating project success.

The objectives of the Watauga River Watershed Project include: 1) through land acquisition and conservation easements, to protect riparian areas and wetlands that are not degraded, 2) to improve water quality and wildlife habitat by restoring degraded streams to their natural stable form, and 3) to evaluate the effectiveness of stream restoration techniques and provide community outreach and education.

grass.gifField and modeling studies at NCSU examine reconverting wetlands converted to agricultural fields in an effort to develop guidelines for restoring wetland hydrologic function to drained agricultural fields. Two field sites were instrumented and monitored to evaluate the effectiveness of the restoration techniques used.

College and University Education

Youth and continuing adult education are critical to develop new talent and human resources to address the water quality issues of the future. Educational curricula in watershed management are available within several departments at NCSU. The Water Quality Program has compiled a list of water-related courses offered at NCSU.

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