The Chowan Algae Problem

As highlighted last year, the Chowan River has an Algae problem. Excess nutrients provide the key ingredient that, when combined with summer heat help fuel harmful algal blooms.

NC Sea Grant program is now funding research into the Chowan and the potential for continued harmful algal blooms. As stated by John Fear in a press release from NC Sea Grant, the research is timely because “water quality issues in this region are re-emerging after decades of calm. This work will help us understand how the algae toxins in the water respond to nutrient inputs and are translated into airborne molecules.” Wind currents can then transport airborne toxins inland from the waterfront.

This research was also highlighted last week in the news

With summer heat intensifying, it will be interesting to follow the results of this research.

Looking Forward

2020 has not started off well.  The global Pandemic has sickened and killed many and put a hard stop on the economy.  Our environmental continues, however, in modified form. We’re developing plans for our current projects at home and looking forward to when we can return to more fieldwork and outreach.  Until then, here’s a recent picture of a project where we’re in the regulatory approval stage for commencing work.  We’re looking forward to restoring this site and other impacted ones to help create a healthier waterways and places for State residents to enjoy.


Water Supply Revenueshed for Jordan Lake

Watershed management is essential in the protection of water resources.  How about revenuesheds?  That’s one of the messages in a report released from UNC’s NC Policy Collaboratory on measures needed to improve water quality Jordan Lake.  The revenueshed concept emphasizes that users of the resource should fund the resource’s protection.  Specific to Jordan Lake, the report recommends the following:

“Those jurisdictions with a water allocation from Jordan Lake should be charged a new water allocation fee to create additional revenue for water quality improvement projects throughout the entire watershed. This additional fee will ensure that upstream communities in the Jordan Lake watershed are joined by beneficiaries of the lake in maintaining a healthy lake.”

UNC Collaboratory Final Report to the North Carolina General Assembly, December 2019

If recommendations from UNC get adopted, look for user communities to fund more of both the monitoring and clean-up efforts for the Lake.  

Revenuesheds, do not, however, require polluters of the resource to clean up their act. So, while the revenueshed concept has its merits, it must be balanced with policies and measures that reduce pollution sources throughout the watershed.  Therefore, actions and funding are needed both in the watershed and from the revenueshed to help improve water quality in this important water resource for hundreds of thousands in our state.

Impaired Water Trends

  • Nutrient related water quality impairm

At the November 2019 Environmental Management Commission Meeting, NC DEQ presented their Annual Basinwide Water Management Plan report highlighting threats and efforts to manage our state’s water resources. 

Regarding nutrients, there were a number of concerning items reported:

  • Nutrient related water quality impairments increased about 15% in 2018 when compared with 2016.
  • In 2018, DWR investigated 37 algal blooms. Of those, 19 blooms (51%) were categorized as Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) (cyanobacteria dominant) occurring across the state in in the Neuse, Cape Fear, Chowan, Pasquotank, Tar-Pamlico and Little Tennessee River basins.
  • As of June, so far in 2019 DWR collected 17 episodic bloom samples.  Of those, 12 blooms (70%) were categorized as HABs.
  • Overall, there were 204 routine samples collected from lakes and reservoirs in the Cape Fear River Basin in 2018. Of those, 140 (69%) met the algal bloom density criterion (greater than 10,000 cells/mL as described above) with 108 (77%) of those being categorized as HABs.

Nutrients aside, the news was not all bad.  The report highlights that in 2018 “DWR removed 35 stream segments (AU’s) from the 303(d) list for a total of 41 metal delistings.”

Findings from the report indicate that efforts to reduce nutrient pollution in North Carolina need to continue and even be enhanced.  Current efforts to readopt its nutrient management rules, while needed, should be expanded to look at nutrient pollution as a statewide problem that needs action.

Chowan Bloom

As the temperatures cool, the likelihood of algae blooms and associated water quality problems diminishes. Flowing through the sparsely populated northeast North Carolina, the Chowan River needs a break from being plagued by several blooms that raised health alerts from the State this summer.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) provides guidance on the probability of adverse health effects due to cyanobacteria exposure.  WHO cautions that moderate probability of adverse health effects with 100,000 cyanobacterial cells/ml. The prolonged bloom in the Chowan had cell counts 15 times that amount! 

Clearly nutrient related water quality problems exist in the river. The severity of this bloom has put the river on the NC DEQ’s radar and the state will need to undertake pollution control protection for this sickened ecosystem.

Northern Exposure

Algal Bloom Lake Hopatcong, NJ (Source NJ DEP)

North Carolina is no stranger to algal blooms. Hot summers, runoff from agricultural and urban lands combine with shallow, slow moving estuaries create conditions that cause harmful algal blooms (HABs). While common in our State, its becoming more common in areas to our north. Minnesota, Lake Michigan, and the Chesapeake Bay are all experienced in dealing with HABs.

A story from New Jersey illustrates how warmer summers are helping fuel the occurrence of HABs in areas to our north. Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey’s largest freshwater Lake and a popular summertime retreat experienced a severe bloom prompting the State’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to shut down the Lake for recreational use around the July 4th Holiday.  Their press release read:

“DEP is recommending that local health authorities close all public swimming beaches along the lake due to the widespread nature of the bloom…avoid all contact with water from Lake Hopatcong until further notice. People also should not eat fish caught in the lake or allow pets to come in contact with lake water or drink the water.”

This is certainly what no State wants to have happen to their recreational waters.  Indeed, North Carolina is in the final steps of a years long process to shore up its nutrient strategies to reduce the occurrences of HABs.  These efforts are desperately needed to curb a problem which is becoming more pervasive.

North River Farms

In 1999, the largest coastal restoration project in NC began with funding from the State’s Clean Water Management Program to purchase nearly 2000 acres of farm land in Carteret County for the purpose of restoring wetlands that were drained to become North River Farms.  After 11 phases of restoration over 20 years, the State’s largest coastal restoration project is entering a new phase where we get to monitor and maintain what’s been done. 

The N.C. Coastal Federation has overseen the work to return farmland back to forested, freshwater and tidal wetlands and the project has expanded to 6000 acres.  With the restoration activities wrapping up, the Federation envisions being able to provide tours to showcase this re-imagined landscape. 

Benefits of the project include increased habitat to support species diversity, improved water quality, groundwater recharge, and supporting shellfish populations and increased opportunities for shellfishing.  As one of the premier restoration projects in the country, a visit to the site would be worthwhile.

Scrubbing and Skimming

New Methods for Combating Algal Blooms

Skimming – A recent story on the Corps of Engineers use of algal skimmers in Florida to help combat toxic algal blooms reminded me of North Carolina’s own efforts to combat algal blooms. In Florida, the Lake Okeechobee skimming process uses “dissolved air flotation” to bring algae to the surface and remove it from the water column.  The process has been used effectively in wastewater treatment where the systems are contained better able to engineer but it is a relatively new approach to combating harmful algal blooms in the natural environment.

Scrubbing – A slightly different “in-line” removal process was tried in North Carolina to use scrubbing of algae. Durham partnered with HydroMentia to test the effectiveness of algae scrubbing on Falls Lake waters. In the pilot study, HydroMentia found the method had a positive effect at removing nitrogen and phosphorus, the fuel driving algal blooms (See their report  While technologies such as these may not be cheap, they may be part of the solution to the nutrient pollution challenges facing NC.

Upstream Benefits

The Falls Lake Nutrient Strategy put in place by NC DEQ in 2010 provides more than just drinking water protections for Falls Lake. Communities in the Falls watershed such as Durham benefit from the rule protections, too.  Durham’s drinking water supply comes from Lake Michie and Little River Reservoir, both located in the Falls Watershed.  This spring, local news reported that algae blooms in these waterbodies are fowling the taste and smell of water for city residents.  A cause of these algae blooms is excess nutrients in the water body combined with warming temperatures. 

The rules put in place to protect Falls Lake also benefit upstream water quality.  They address lowering nutrient pollution from sewage treatment plants, reducing polluted runoff from new development and farms while protecting streamside forests.  While implemented for Falls Lake, upstream lakes like Michie and Little River also benefit from these protections.

Due to a legislative mandate, the State Division of Water Resources is currently revising all its nutrient strategy rules.  In doing so, it’s important to realize that, while the rules target a lake or estuary, they benefit communities throughout the watershed.  


A necessary step in the environmental mitigation process is to secure long-term stewardship of the project site.  Among the responsibilities of the steward is to visit and inspect mitigation sites to make sure that the terms of the easement are being honored.  For the Neville Farms site, the stewardship responsibility of the site was arranged with Unique Places to Save (UP2S).  UP2S has a strong presence in the area near the farm, has worked on similar projects, and looks to foster relationships with landowners to develop shared goals. All these reasons made them a good fit for working with us.

UP2S signage posted to help mark the easement boundary.