Cooperatove Conservation Project

Tar-Pamlico Basin Agricultural Management Strategy Reduces Instream Nutrients

Tar-Pamlico Basin Agricultural Management Strategy Reduces Instream Nutrients

Location: Southeastern Region: North Carolina

Project Summary: Row crops and animal operations led to excessive nutrients in the estuary. It was added to the state’s 303(d) list for chlorophyll a.
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Area farmers installed water table control structures like the one shown here to address excess nutrients.
Resource Challenge

In the mid-1980s, the Pamlico River estuary saw an increase in problems that pointed to excessive levels of nutrients in the water—harmful algal blooms, low oxygen levels, increased numbers of fish kills, and other symptoms of stress and disease. The Pamlico River forms the estuarine portion of the Tar-Pamlico River Basin. The basin is one of three main feeders to the nation’s second largest estuary, the Albemarle-Pamlico sound system.

 The Pamlico River estuary was eventually placed on the 303(d) list for chlorophyll a, driven by excess nutrient concentrations contributed by agricultural runoff and point sources. In response, the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission designated the Tar-Pamlico River Basin as “Nutrient Sensitive Waters” and called for a strategy to reduce nutrient inputs from around the basin. The strategy’s first phase, which ran from 1990 through 1994, produced an innovative pointsource/nonpoint source trading program that allows point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities, to achieve reductions in nutrient loading in more cost-effective ways. The second phase established a plan to reduce nitrogen by 30 percent (from 1991 levels) and hold phosphorus loadings to 1991 levels based on estuarine conditions by 2006.

 In addition to point sources, Phase II called on nonpoint sources to contribute to meeting these goals and established a set of nonpoint source rules addressing agriculture, urban stormwater, and fertilizer management across all land uses and calling for riparian buffer protection. Between1991 and 2003, farmers installed water control structures to treat 32,200 acres of cropland and buffers to treat 72,000 acres and planted scavenger crops on 81,500 acres. In addition, many farmers reduced fertilizer use and implemented conservation tilling practices to help meet the goal. The third phase of the nutrient strategy is under development.













Examples of Key Partners

Partners involved in the effort were North Carolina Division of Water Quality, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, North Carolina Division of Soil and Water Conservation, North Carolina Cooperative Extension, USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, North Carolina Department of Agriculture, North Carolina Farm Bureau, North Carolina State University, and agricultural community and commodity groups.  The North Carolina Environment Management Commission brought together stakeholder groups of affected parties and provided the participants with a chance to express differing viewpoints. Stakeholders involved in the process included environmental groups, municipalities, developers, businesses, and the public. The North Carolina Agriculture Cos Share Program, administered by the Division of Soil and Water Conservation, contributed$12.5 million between 1992 and 2003. Another DSWC-administered program, the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, has obligated approximately $33.1 million in the Tar-Pamlico River Basin since 1998. Between1995 and 2003, approximately $2,670,000in Clean Water Act section 319 expenditures were directed toward nonpoint source projects in the Tar-Pamlico Basin. As part of the Phase I Agreement, the area’s Point Source Association both contributed funds and acquired a section 104(b)(3) grant for agricultural BMP implementation. The combined total of their contributions was $850,000 in nutrient reducing BMPs in the basin.

Results and Accomplishments
 Agriculture met its 30 percent nitrogen reduction goal ahead of schedule. In fact, data from 2003 indicate a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen losses compared to 1991, mostly from decreasing fertilization rates. Progress is further reflected by samples taken at the Pamlico estuary’s head showing an 18 percent instream reduction in nitrogen and a 33 percent instream decrease in phosphorus between 1991 and 2004. The installation of best management practices (BMPs) in the watershed has prevented more than 396,000 tons of soil from being washed away by erosion.

The pointsource/nonpoint source trading program was the first of its kind in North Carolina. In addition to formal trades, the concept has stimulated informal collaborations among sources working to reduce nutrient loads more affordably by working together.

Project Contact
Chrystal Bartlett
Stormwater Awareness & Outreach Coordinator
N.C. Department of Environment & Natural Resources - Public Affairs
1601 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-1601
Rich Gannon
Supervisor, Nonpoint Source Planning Unit
NC-DENR, Division of Water Quality
1617 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-1617
919-733-5083 x356

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