Neuse River Basin Wired for Sound Water

A short distance from the dam where Falls Lake empties into the Neuse River, a box of sensors glides up and down between the surface and the lakebed, collecting water-quality data around the clock. The real-time monitoring is the latest in a series of NC State projects that have wired the Neuse from headwaters to coastal estuary to protect the river and those who use it.

Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, director of NC State’s Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology (CAAE), began the effort in the early 1990s, checking for “hot spots” in the estuary that marked excessive nutrient pollution and harmful algal blooms. “The constant monitoring helped us find the causes of fish kills and assess how different management strategies affected pollution loads,” she says. It also spawned an educational outreach program, with CAAE researchers taking hundreds of eighth-graders into the estuary over the past few years for hands-on science experiments. Students aboard the RV Humphries, a 50-foot former Coast Guard auxiliary ship donated to the center, collect and analyze water samples and learn about the effects of pollution on water quality.

In the Neuse River, the RiverNet program checks water quality between Raleigh and New Bern. State lawmakers created the program in 1999 at the urging of Dr. Bill Showers, a professor in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, to monitor nutrients in the river. A network of sensors samples the water continuously and sends readings back to NC State. Showers says the Web site that posts the latest data is a popular tool for science teachers and fishermen to check on river conditions. “Without real-time monitoring,” he says, “you can miss the tremendous flux in nitrogen levels and seriously underestimate the amount of pollution flowing into
the estuary.”

“If we want to protect our water quality, we need to minimize the nutrients and other pollutants in Falls Lake and the Neuse River and estuary.”

Burkholder, a professor of plant biology, has studied Falls Lake since 2002 and notes that continued development has led to an increase of nutrient-laden runoff in the watershed for the lake, which serves as Raleigh’s primary reservoir. Her monitors—one is located next to the city’s water intake pipes—show growing levels of cyanobacteria (right) in the lake. The plant-like bacteria, sometimes called blue-green algae, can produce chemicals that cause liver damage or gastrointestinal illness in humans. Burkholder shares her data with managers of Raleigh’s water system, so they know when to use carbon filters to remove elevated levels of cyanobacteria from the water and when they can get by without the expensive filters. “This serves as an early-warning system to help protect the water supply,” she says. “If we want to protect our water quality, we need to minimize the nutrients and other pollutants in Falls Lake and the Neuse River and estuary.”


Drs. Heike Winter Sederoff and Joann Burkholder, above left to right, sample water in Falls Lake to catalog the microorganisms living in Raleigh’s primary reservoir. Real-time monitoring of the lake alerts researchers to dangerous levels of cyanobacteria, below, which can cause illnesses if not removed from drinking water.

NC State’s Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology “floating classroom” takes students into the Neuse River estuary for hands-on water-quality experiments.