Partnerships that Make Sense

North Carolina municipal and industrial dischargers work together to coordinate and enhance watershed monitoring and management

As environmental pressures increase and water resources come under greater stress, wastewater dischargers across North Carolina have joined as coalitions to conduct watershed monitoring and increase their roles in water management.

One such coalition is the Middle Cape Fear River Basin Association (MCFRBA). It includes 18 industrial and municipal dischargers that together monitor 35 stations monthly in a 2,036-square-mile area of the basin.

Before the association was formed, these dischargers were required by their NPDES permits to monitor water bodies upstream and downstream of their outfall pipes. They submitted the data to the North Carolina Division of Water Quality (DWQ), and the division and the dischargers used it to evaluate the impact of individual wastewater discharges on receiving streams and rivers.

Today, MCFRBA is one of six coalitions across the state (Figure 1) that is part of the DWQ’s Monitoring Coalition Program. They have collected a total of more than 500,000 data points since the program began in 1994. The information provides a more comprehensive view of developing water-quality issues and sensitive watersheds.

Making it better

Chad Ham, environmental programs manager with the Fayetteville Public Works Commission (PWC) notes that there were questions about the data being collected by individual entities. “The association came out of the concern that the ambient data from the dischargers was not good-quality data,” says Ham, who is also MCFRBA chairman. The coalition’s founding members agreed that if the data was to be collected and used, then it should be reliable.

The individual data sets also gave little information on the quality of the watersheds as a whole. The Cape Fear basin, like many across the state, faces increasing pressures from population growth and development, droughts, and agriculture, not to mention tighter regulations. Uncoordinated monitoring by individual dischargers gave little insight that would help meet challenges created by:

  • Nonpoint sources such as stormwater and septic systems.
  • Hurricanes and other natural phenomenon.
  • Cumulative effects of multiple impacts.

Each of the six coalitions now conduct surface water monitoring within a specific watershed in exchange for members’ exemption from individual permitted in-stream monitoring requirements. Influent and effluent monitoring requirements remain in force.

Altogether, the groups monitor 268 stations monthly for dissolved oxygen, nutrients, bacteria, and other parameters, providing valuable information on the quality of the waters.

Monitoring stations are selected jointly by the coalitions and DWQ with a focus on the watershed rather than the impacts of individual discharges.

Stations are placed strategically to monitor for specific issues, such as nutrient loads, agricultural impacts and overall watershed conditions. To make the best use of all available resources, the monitoring networks are planned in conjunction with DWQ physical/chemical and biological monitoring stations, and with U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges.

Pursuing quality

Both the coalitions and DWQ take active roles in data quality control and assurance. All sampling and analyses are performed by division-certified laboratories in accordance to the program’s monitoring guidance document. The coalitions and DWQ audit the laboratories independently. Ten percent of coalition monitoring stations overlap with those from DWQ’s Ambient Monitoring System enabling evaluation of data from both programs.

The improvements in watershed coverage and data quality assure members and DWQ that the data the coalitions collect is reliable and representative of the watershed. It also gives both groups confidence to use the data for watershed management.

Members find coalition data useful for evaluating their own wastewater facilities and for strategic planning. For example, the Fayetteville PWC has used MCFRBA data to learn more about the river’s primary tributaries and to better target grants for water-quality improvements.

The coalitions themselves have used their data to evaluate the effectiveness of watershed management practices. These include nutrient reduction actions being taken by the Lower Neuse Basin Association (LNBA).

The coalitions also partner with academic and federal researchers. For example, members of the Lower Cape Fear River Program (LCFRP) have supported university research into the watershed’s benthic macroinvertebrate and fish communities. The LNBA works with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Neuse River Estuary Modeling and Monitoring Project (ModMon) to better understand nutrients within the Neuse basin.

Meanwhile, the DWQ uses coalition data to assess streams and rivers, develop basin plans, determine facility permit limits, and model impaired water bodies, and USGS researchers have used coalition data to study municipal water systems and analyze agricultural impacts.

Building networks

Members find that increased knowledge of the watersheds is only one advantage of the coalitions. They speak of the networking benefits of working with neighbors and state officials on common issues, such as nutrient strategies, watershed restorations, and Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for impaired water bodies.

For example, the Lower Cape Fear group gives members a forum for working with DWQ to develop a TMDL for the Cape Fear estuary, which has been impaired for low dissolved oxygen levels since 1998. Data collected by the monitoring program was used in modeling the system, and members have taken active roles on stakeholder committees.

Shawn O’Connor, environment, health and safety specialist with Global Nuclear Fuels, credits the program with helping members understand the TMDL process and other Lower Cape Fear issues. He says the program keeps his company informed of happenings within the watershed, and that aids in planning and decision-making. “I learn a lot about what is going on in the regulatory and environmental communities,” he says.

Jeff Jones, senior engineer with Salisbury-Rowan Utilities, agrees. Salisbury has been a member of the Yadkin/Pee Dee River Basin Association since its founding in 1996. Jones also credits the association with helping to build relationships between members.

“There are some issues that could be divided into the upper and the lower Yadkin basin,” he says. “The association pulls the members together as a group. I doubt I would know the people from Monroe or Union County without the association.”

Good networking

Coalitions also facilitate relationships between members and DWQ through regular meetings and increased communication. “It helps to be able to ask questions in a more informal setting,” says Jones. Ham agrees: “It is very positive to have the state sitting at the table.”

Coalition membership does require investments. The organization and maintenance of the coalitions can be time-consuming, and the dischargers must pay membership fees. For some, membership costs more than the in-stream monitoring required in their permits. Ham notes that Fayetteville PWC pays a “bit more” for its membership in the MCFRBA.

On the other hand, the City of Salisbury has seen a cost savings since it joined the Yadkin/Pee Dee group. Jones attributes that to an economy of scale, since the same commercial laboratory collects and analyses all samples from the coalition’s 71 monitoring stations.

Whatever the individual costs, members believe the benefits are worth it. In O’Connor’s words, “We live here. This is our river. For a reasonable investment, we can gather a lot of information about the river.”

For more information on the Coalition Monitoring Program, including the location of monitoring stations and the parameters monitored, visit

About the author

Jennie R. Atkins, Ph.D., is a coalition coordinator in the Environmental Sciences Section with the North Carolina Division of Water Quality, based in Raleigh.


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