U.S. Water News Online
NEW BERN, N.C. -- It's been five years since drastic new
rules were established to reduce the flow of nitrogen into the Neuse
River and scientists say the river is much cleaner as a result.
The state Environmental Management Commission adopted the rules to
reduce the level of nitrogen from sewage and fertilizer after massive
fish kills in 1990s.
The goal was to cut the levels 30 percent by this year in the
248-mile river that runs from Falls Lake north of Raleigh to Pamlico
Sound. It serves as both a drinking water source and way to carry
away treated wastewater from nearly 400 treatment plants.
Researchers identified nitrogen as the cause of an explosion of
harmful algae blooms that use up dissolved oxygen and led to the fish
The rules required sewage plant operators to control what they
dumped into the river and forced farmers to control how much
fertilizer ran off their fields into creeks and streams.
The rules also required developers to leave buffers along streams
and creeks. Similar protections have since been put in place for the
Tar-Pamlico River basin.
Ken Reckhow, director of the University of North Carolina Water
Resources Research Institute, said there had been a downward trend in
nitrogen concentrations in the river since 1997.
Reckhow said it was hard to pinpoint what caused the decline in
nitrogen. Besides improvements in wastewater treatment plants and the
buffers, there have been major hurricanes that flushed the river
``They are all candidates, and they all may contribute,'' Reckhow
There are about 1 million acres of farmland in the river basin,
where farmers in 17 counties report an average 37 percent reduction
in nitrogen fertilizer. Subtracting the number of acres that went out
of production, the reduction is about to 31 percent.
In some counties, including Wake, Orange, and Johnston, farmers
reduced nitrogen use by more than 40 percent. Only two counties,
Granville and Pitt, have not met the goal.
Farm nitrogen use may have decreased because of market demands
that made farmers switch from corn to cotton, a crop that uses less
``We must recognize that crop shift has played a role in reduction
of nitrogen,'' said Natalie Jones, Neuse River Basin coordinator for
the state Division of Soil and Water Conservation.
Despite the changes that have helped the river, there are constant
challenges from rapid development along its route.
Some communities along the river such as Johnston County have
tried innovative approaches to reduce nitrogen being dumped into the
river, such as a piping treated wastewater to irrigate a golf course.
Ken York, the county's project coordinator, said rapid growth
justified the $7 million cost of the project, paid for partly by a
Clean Water Trust Fund grant.
JoAnn Burkholder, director of the Center for Applied Aquatic
Ecology at N.C. State University, said drought contributed to
apparent lower nitrogen levels because there wasn't as much runoff in
the years 2000 through 2002.
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