Researchers, Officials Discuss Runoff Study

Rachel Carson Reserve is visible across Taylor’s Creek from the town docks in downtown Beaufort. The affects of Beaufort stormwater on the reserve site was the focus of a recent study. Photo: File

CARTERET COUNTY — A multiyear, collaborative research project to study how polluted runoff affects the Rachel Carson Reserve in Beaufort has led to a push for a broad coastal partnership to better address stormwater-related issues.

The Stormwater Decision Maker Summit held March 3 at the University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences, or UNC IMS, in Morehead City was a venue for researchers to share what they learned from the study on Beaufort’s water quality, hear from representatives of different towns and counties about how they’ve addressed stormwater issues and concerns, and discuss forming a community of practice that would focus on coastal stormwater issues, according to information about the event.

UNC IMS professor Rachel Noble, who facilitated the summit, led the collaborative research project that began November 2016 and wrapped up October 2019. She broached early in the summit the idea of a community of practice, suggesting such coordination to representatives of coastal town governments, state and nongovernmental agencies in attendance.

Noble told participants that as they’ve worked with and talked with folks across eastern North Carolina, “We’ve kind of continuously identified the need to gather people together and to begin to talk more broadly about regional and cross-collaborative issues.”

The research project was funded with $749,823 from the National Estuarine Research Reserve System Science Collaborative. The Rachel Carson Reserve is one of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve System, or NERRS, sites. Collaborative research projects are a collaborative process that results in research, data, tools or other products that will inform decision making related to a reserve management need, according to NERRS.

Project partners included Rachel Carson Reserve, Beaufort and UNC IMS. The project also brought together coastal decision makers, community members and students and teachers in hands-on education on stormwater runoff and its effects.

Liz DeMattia, director of the community science initiative at Duke University Marine Lab, worked on the project and presented during the summit.

“The stormwater summit was an amazing opportunity for local and state governments, nonprofits, researchers and educators to come together to share knowledge and best practices for addressing stormwater issues in our coastal communities,” DeMattia said after the event.

She said that learning about what works and what doesn’t from folks who work on stormwater projects and policies was educational.

“Our hope is that we build upon the connections made at this summit to create a community of practice where stormwater stakeholders all across our state work together, learn together and create stormwater programs, projects and policies that improve water quality on our coast,” she said.

Communities of practice, also called “learning networks,” are informal partnerships where members work to solve problems common to all of them.

Mike Piehler, UNC Institute for the Environment director and Marine Sciences and Environmental Sciences and Engineering professor, said that for the project, “We were trying to understand the impacts of Beaufort stormwater on the National Estuarine Research Reserve across Taylor’s Creek,” how this environmental challenge affects the environmental asset, what are the positive and negative feedback, and what are the clear problems that need to be addressed

Piehler said that the goal was to then try and use general models to solve the problems everywhere, which he said wasn’t possible.

“So, what instead we did was get great information about the problem in Beaufort,” he said, noting that site-specific information is almost always required to effectively address stormwater problems.

Despite the challenges, Piehler said the team accomplished most of what it had planned. He responded in a follow-up email that the project sought to understand how coastal stormwater affects adjacent natural systems. Research examined the effects of nutrients, sediments and pathogens.

“Because natural coastal systems require some nutrients and sediments, management is a bit more complicated,” Piehler said. “We found pathogen concentrations, which warranted concern and may have been from sources other than stormwater, such as failing sewer systems.”

Researchers found that nutrients and sediments were being absorbed by natural systems, such as salt marshes and oyster reefs.

“Stormwater management is a tremendous challenge and this project moved us forward through a fully engaged partnership connecting researchers, educators and end users,” he said.

Piehler explained during the summit that the idea of collaborative science “is that from the get-go, you engage the stakeholders who have the problems. You’re identifying the problems as you go and you’re trying to develop actionable information from science to help move forward decision making in these areas, and we feel really good about having done that in this case.”

Piehler added that outreach and education for the project was multifaceted and included working with Beaufort Middle School students. Graduate students at Duke and UNC started a program called ScIREN to generate lesson plans for teachers that complement the curriculum.

He reminded the audience that these small coastal towns were developed at a time when sea levels were lower and when perspectives on things like stormwater were different.

“It’s a balance between the danger of flooding and the nuisance of flooding,” he said.

Managing stormwater is a persistent, long-term challenge that will become more difficult as sea levels rise. In the short term, levels frequently rise during storms, he said.

“It has also been a giant challenge trying to move water efficiently and effectively on the flat surface in an area where water level is rising,” he said, referring to the coastal geology.

Rebecca Ellin, program manager for the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve in the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Coastal Management, said during a Q&A session that one of the goals of the collaborative is to bring together science and stakeholders to see how that science can inform decisions on the ground. She said that while those at the reserve have access to the data and products, how would other users be able to find out the research results and other project results?

Piehler responded that the idea of the summit was to talk about the collaborative process and have the work live beyond the research projects but those who are interested will have access to the information.

The information presented wasn’t ready for immediate public release, researchers said, but will eventually be provided via the UNC IMS website.

About the Author

Jennifer Allen

Born and raised in Swansboro, Jennifer Allen graduated from Appalachian State University in 2002 and picked up a second degree from UNC-Charlotte the following year. She joined the staff of the Carteret County News-Times in Morehead City in 2005 and completed her master's at UNC-Wilmington in 2008. Jenn spent nine years writing and editing at the News-Times before joining the staff at the Town of Beaufort in 2014, where she served as public information officer and town clerk. On June 1, 2017, Jenn came aboard as assistant editor for Coastal Review Online. She has also written for Our State Magazine and other regional and statewide publications. She lives in Morehead City with her fiancé and their pups, Z, Gus and Willa.