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Post by Jon Duncan

duncan_jonJon Duncan is a research assistant professor at the UNC Institute for the Environment.

One of the special things about conducting research at a highly regarded public university like Carolina is the opportunity to engage in work with a practical application that informs policy decisions.  UNC’s commitment to engaged research has afforded me the chance to work on several timely water quality projects that will help shape how state and local officials manage North Carolina’s water resources.

Ensuring that these research projects result in outcomes that benefit communities and regions of North Carolina requires a collaborative approach that often includes partnerships with state agencies, local governments, industry representatives, and environmental organizations.

A few examples of the water quality research projects I’ve worked on at the Institute where that collaborative approach has been critical to the success of the outcome includes:

River Basin Restoration

Beginning in 2014 UNC Institute for the Environment faculty members worked in partnership with the Nicholas School of Environment at Duke University to assist North Carolina’s Division of Mitigation Services on a stream restoration project. Researchers at the two universities were asked to develop new methods for prioritizing river basin restoration across the state.

Following outreach to key stakeholders, including restoration providers and environmental advocates, we began an in-depth data analysis using hydrology, fish habitat, and water quality models.  These models are able to identify those places within the watershed where stream restoration could achieve the best results for the entire watershed.

This type of holistic approach requires not just focusing on the impaired section of a creek or stream, but understanding the factors throughout the watershed that are contributing to the impairment and how best to address them.  With this approach we were able to work with state officials to identify priorities for restoration.

Nutrient Reduction

Utilizing the same holistic approach to watershed management, I’ve been working on a U.S. Department of Agriculture funded project focusing on supporting conservation efforts of grain farms in eastern North Carolina.  The project is part of a larger collaboration between Smithfield Foods and Environmental Defense Fund to improve conservation practices of farmers and increase the sustainability of the food supply chain.

My specific role in this larger project involves geospatial analysis and leveraging U.S. Geologic Survey water quality models to assess how infield and edge of field practices could impact the water quality in nearby streams and creeks.  Project partners plan to use the results to work with farmers and resource managers to employ nutrient reducing measures across North Carolina’s inner coastal plain.

I’m also part of the group of faculty here at Carolina and NC State that has been tasked by the General Assembly to study the nutrient pollution in Jordan Lake and develop mitigation strategies.  Jordan Lake is a valuable resource for the Research Triangle, serving not only an important ecological and recreational function, but a source of drinking water for 300,000 citizens in the region.

As part of this study I’ll be working with researchers on a new water quality monitoring project throughout the Jordan watershed to develop a more accurate understanding of the sources and locations of the nutrient pollution impacting the lake.  This new water quality monitoring will inform the findings and recommendations of the UNC Study which is required to submit a final report back to the General Assembly in December of 2018.


This map outlines the Jordan Lake watershed and current sampling sites. Map courtesy of John Lovette.

Whether it be deploying water sampling equipment in the Jordan Lake watershed or identifying streams in the coastal plain for restoration, each of these water quality projects noted above demonstrates how Carolina’s research is helping to improve and protect North Carolina’s water quality.

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