NC State Awash in Freshwater Research

Washing across North Carolina, from tiny streams that trickle down the western mountains to the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers that roll through the eastern half of the state, water has been vital to the state’s growth for centuries. It has served as inland transportation and trade routes, sustained crops and livestock, and powered textile mills, furniture plants, and biotech labs. Because of water’s key role in North Carolina’s agricultural and industrial heritage, NC State has been heavily involved in water-related research for years.

“Our water quality research used to be primarily focused on agricultural and rural issues,” says Dr. Jean Spooner, a professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. “But stormwater runoff and pollution issues became even more important after the Clean Water Act became law.” As director of NC State’s Soil and Water Environmental Technology Center (SWETC) and leader of the Water Quality Group on campus, Spooner recognizes the scope of water research at the University as well as anyone.

SWETC and the Water Quality Group combine research with extension to develop and implement technologies statewide to maintain clean drinking water, control erosion and stormwater, restore streams and wetlands, and manage watersheds. Environmental engineers, soil scientists, economists, sociologists, public policy experts, landscape architects, forestry experts, and other researchers from across the University have teamed up on many projects, Spooner says. “An interdisciplinary approach,” she says, “is key to moving NC State forward and maintaining our leadership in water-quality issues.”

NC State also brings other resources to bear in water research, such as North Carolina’s State Climate Office in the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences and the National Weather Service Regional Forecast Office on NC State’s Centennial Campus. Both provide critical data and analysis in studying events like the record-setting drought of 2007-08. The Water Resources Research Institute channels federal and state funding to water-related research and conducts conferences, workshops, and seminars to transfer the resulting technology to communities.

“Water is a subject that really leverages the science and engineering expertise NC State is known for,” Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Studies Terri Lomax says. “Increasingly, solving significant problems related to water requires our experts from across NC State.” Discussions have begun to use that foundation to build a regional consortium that would handle major research projects, Lomax says. “We’re trying to coalesce our resources into one group that can tackle the big issues of regional and national importance from several angles.”

This issue of RESULTS highlights some of NC State’s top water-related research programs.