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Still a Lot to Learn About NC Rivers

Freshwater study is up and running

Story Highlights
  • The statewide freshwater study is split into two parts: a review of what is already out there followed by an extensive flows and resilience analysis.
  • The study will help North Carolina prioritize land acquisition to protect its rivers and drinking water.

The idea for a statewide freshwater analysis came from Roanoke River Project Director Chuck Peoples. The Roanoke is one river that will be studied.

Although the Conservancy has protected nearly 700,000 acres in North Carolina, including a number of river basins, our scientific understanding of these complex systems is not complete, making it difficult to predict future change. To fill in the gaps, TNC’s former Science Director Cat Burns started a freshwater research project to answer essential questions about how these basins function today and the ways in which they may change in the future.

Collectively, TNC's conservation team made a decision to support her work and pursue the freshwater study.

The initial phase of the study was funded with a $120,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. “The first part of the assessment was to conduct a literature review,” explains Burns. “We needed to see what’s already been done.”

Martin Doyle, who is a professor of River Science and Policy at Duke University, is working with the Conservancy on the study. He says that North Carolina isn’t unusual in its lack of freshwater information. TNC intern Molly Bishop scoured through thousands of published reports from a variety of sources last summer.

“There was lots of great information,” Burns explains. “But there were significant gaps. Instead of limiting our study to a literature review, we decided to go ahead and try to fill some of those gaps by conducting original analyses. There was a lot of information about distribution of species and communities of conservation interest across the state. What we didn’t have was statewide information about the condition of the places these species were living, the surrounding land use and how that is impacting water quality, and how altered stream flow and movement of aquatic organisms are affected by things like dams or road crossings.”

The first assessment of patterns of freshwater diversity, condition and priorities was finalized this spring. The next step of the research is twofold – a flows analysis, which will look at how the natural flow in river basins has been altered by things such as dams, and a resilience study that will explore how freshwater will retain its essential processes and structure in the face of disturbances such as climate change. After hearing Burns discuss the need for the resiliency study, Chapter Trustee Malcolm Brown funded that work.

Doyle and TNC’s new Director of Science, Becca Benner, are supervising post-doc Kimberly Meitzen on the flows work. Doyle says hiring Meitzen is one good benefit of working jointly with the Conservancy. “The link with TNC enables me to recruit and attract a different caliber of post-doc,” he says. “Landing a TNC job is better than getting a job as a Duke professor in a lot of ways.”

Meitzen is working on flows analysis of four of North Carolina’s 17 river basins. The analysis will couple stream flow data from the U.S. Geological Survey river gauges and sophisticated watershed models with aquatic biological data to quantify flow-ecology relationships. The basins selected to be studied will represent diverse areas across the whole state – including the mountains, piedmont and the coastal plain, Meitzen explains. “We can apply information we learn from each of these areas and extrapolate it to other similar environments across the state.” Meitzen’s work will explore the river flows different species need to thrive.

Doyle says with the information coming from the Conservancy, because of its pragmatic approach to conservation that focuses on solutions rather than confrontation, it is likely to be well received by those in Raleigh working on a recent legislative mandate dealing with water resource management. “The Nature Conservancy has a very good track record of being a good stakeholder,” he explains.

The freshwater study will also make a difference in the lives of the 9.6 million people who call North Carolina home. “If you have a healthy stream ecosystem, then it is generally a safe assumption to say that you have better water quality for humans,” explains Meitzen.

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