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How are we doing? – Water quality outlook mixed

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(Editor’s note: The N.C. Progress Board, a group created by state lawmakers to track trends in North Carolina and set goals for the state, issued its first report in December 2001.

(Each week, the Philanthropy Journal will spotlight an issue examined in the report. The goals, targets and analysis below are those of the Progress Board.)

GOAL: In 2020, North Carolina’s air and water will be of the highest quality.

TARGETS: North Carolina’s water bodies will fully support their designated uses by 2020. 

That includes 500 miles of streams (one-fifth of the total), 13,600 acres of lakes (43 percent of the total) and 14,000 acres of estuaries (one-fifth of the total) now impaired.

INTERIM TARGETS: No major fish kills in the Pamlico Sound in 2010. 

Attain 30 percent nitrogen reduction in Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers as required by legislation and Environmental Management Commission, by 2002 and 2007, respectively.

Protect riparian buffers in all 17 river basins by 2010.

Improve and expand water quality monitoring.

North Carolina surface waters — rivers, streams and lakes — are classified to identify their best uses: aquatic life/secondary recreation, primary recreation, fish consumption, water supply, shellfish harvesting. 

In the 1980s, the state began evaluating water quality to determine whether water bodies were supporting their designated uses.

Based on a review of the state’s biennial reports to the EPA, there is evidence that water quality has improved over the past 12 years. 

Some waters, however, have declined measurably in quality, creating major challenges for the state in maintaining and improving water quality:

The most crucial challenge over the next 20 years is “nonpoint-source pollution,” or pollution that runs off impervious surfaces, such as streets and shopping centers, or from disturbed land, such as farms and construction sites. 

An increase of sediment in water can reduce fish populations and municipal water supplies’ storage capacity.

“Point-source pollution,” or pollution stemming from industrial and municipal wastewater discharges, has declined over the past two decades through more stringent water quality requirements. 

While the permitted wastewater flow from point sources has increased during the past 20 years, the amount of harmful oxygen-demanding waste going into the rivers has decreased significantly.

Another problem is mercury, a known health threat to humans that gets into waters and streams through emissions from coal-fired power plants and other sources.

In water, bacteria convert mercury to the highly toxic methylmercury, which is absorbed readily by fish. 

MEASURES: Percent of streams, lakes and estuaries assessed as fully supporting their designated uses.

According to Water Quality Progress in North Carolina 1998-1999 305(b) Report:  Of the total 38,000 miles of streams, 29 percent are monitored.

Of these, 83 percent are fully supporting their designated uses, 14 percent are partially supporting their designated uses, and three percent are not supporting their designated uses.

Of the state’s 1,500 lakes, 98 percent of the lake acres fully support their designated uses, two percent are partially supporting, and less than 1 percent are not supporting.

Of the 3,122 square miles of tidal saltwater estuaries and sounds, 96 percent fully support their designated uses and four percent are partially supporting.

TARGETS: 100 percent of North Carolinians will have access to safe drinking water meeting national and state standards by 2020.

All North Carolina counties will have and enforce local well construction standards by 2010.

Fifty-five percent of citizens in the state get their drinking water from surface water, with the remainder using well water.

The Water Supply Watershed Protection program, designed to prevent pollution of surface drinking water supplies, is in place in 271 communities.

The Wellhead Protection program, designed to protect public drinking water supplies using ground water, is in place in 38 public water supply systems across the state.

MEASURES: Percent of population with access to drinking water meeting national and state standards.

Public systems — b
ased on both surface water and well water — provide drinking water to 5.7 million North Carolina residents, or 71 percent of the state’s population. 

All but a few of the public water systems meet drinking water quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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