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Learn more about our currently funded water-resource projects and the researchers leading them. We support the work of graduate researchers as well as faculty.

Faculty Projects

WRRI-supported researchers explore a wide range of different topics in the water resources field, from emerging contaminants to flooding to stormwater management and more.

Novel Mass Spectrometry Approaches for the Identification of Pesticides and Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in North Carolina Drinking Water Sources

Researcher: Erin Baker, NC State
Co-Principal Investigators: Detlef Knappe and Catherine LePrevost, NC State
Focus Areas: PFAS in drinking water

This project will rapidly analyze the water quality of private wells using an innovative combination of liquid chromatography (LC), ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) and mass spectrometry (MS). The combination is meant to replace the time-sensitive sample preparation and chromatographic separation steps and will target emerging organic contaminants like PFAS, pesticides, and pesticide degradation byproducts, to benefit future evaluation of organic contaminants in water.

North Carolina drinking water sources are vulnerable to impacts from a unique set of emerging organic contaminants which include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), pesticides, and pesticide degradates. The impact of these contaminants on the private well community in NC remains understudied. In this proposal, we will use an innovative combination of liquid chromatography (LC), ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) and mass spectrometry (MS) to rapidly interrogate private well water quality. In our first aim, we will create a multidimensional LC-IMS-MS database for toxicants relevant to drinking water sources including pesticides, pesticide degradates, and PFAS. This database will enable the confident identification of known contaminants while also providing information on chemical subclasses for the tentative identification of unknown contaminants. In our second aim, we will create a rapid analytical method by combining automated solid phase extraction (SPE) with IMS-MS. This rapid platform will replace time-intensive sample preparation and chromatographic separation steps. Then in our third aim, we will apply the analytical method and database developed in our first two aims to conduct water quality analyses for up to 50 private wells in NC known to be impacted by pesticides and/or PFAS. Finally, for our fourth aim we will report back water quality results through individualized reports and community forums. As a part of this aim, we will also conduct semistructured interviews and administer questionnaires to better understand the participants’ experience throughout the project and gain information regarding the participants’ knowledge of drinking water, their attitudes toward the results, their beliefs about drinking water quality, as well as behavior change intentions after receiving water quality results. The proposed research will benefit the public in NC and across the country by generating a rapid analytical platform and database for the evaluation of organic contaminants in water. Additionally, we will gain valuable information on drinking water quality and the public’s view of its importance.

A Citizen Science Internship Program to Quantify Racial and Economic Disparities in Lead Levels in Drinking Water Across North Carolina

Researcher: Caren Cooper, NC State
Co-Principal Investigators: Emily Berglund and Valerie Ann Johnson, NC State
Focus Area: Citizen science, lead in drinking water

This project will create a Citizen Science internship program at Shaw University to extend the reach of the US EPA-funded project, Crowd the Tap. The purpose of the internship program is to employ students to carry out direct outreach to priority communities in NC that are dealing with leaded drinking water infrastructure, assist in meeting several of the proposed Lead and Copper Rule revisions, as well as fill in any data gaps to create a statistical model that can predict the household risk of lead.

Ninety-seven of the one hundred counties in North Carolina have at least one community water system with leaded infrastructure. Collectively, these systems serve 10 million people. In 20 counties, 80% or more of the water systems reported leaded infrastructure, serving a total of over one million North Carolinians. Unfortunately, water systems do not have records with sufficient detail to identify high risk areas at finer spatial scales. Furthermore, there is virtually no data, at any scale, about the privately owned portions of the water transportation systems, namely the private side of the service line and the household premise plumbing. This proposal addresses the problem of significant health risk posed by leaded drinking water infrastructure across NC. Water utilities cannot properly manage water lead levels without sufficient data about leaded premise plumbing and lead in tap water at households. Water consumers cannot make informed decisions without understanding their risk levels. The US EPA funded a project to create Crowd the Tap, a citizen science project in which households across the US can share information about their drinking water infrastructure to produce datasets that support decision-making tools. We propose a Citizen Science Internship program at Shaw University in which student interns function as ambassadors for Crowd the Tap, carrying out direct outreach (in accordance with COVID safety protocols) to priority communities in NC. With this project, we can help meet three of the six major Lead and Copper Rule proposed revisions, namely: identifying areas most impacted, replacing lead service lines, and improving risk communication. We can also fill data gaps for the NC DEQ Needs Assessment Report, NGO/CBO lead mitigation programs, identify potential environmental justice issues, and build and validate a statistical model to reliably predict household risk of lead.

Performance Evaluation of Novel Resins in Flow-Through Columns for PFAS Removal from Drinking Water and Treated Wastewater

Researcher: Orlando Coronell, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill)
Co-Principal Investigator: Frank Albert Leibfarth, UNC-Chapel Hill
Focus Area: PFAS removal, drinking water

This project will focus on developing optimized PFAS removal technology by studying the relevance of ionic fluorogel (IF) resins as a possible effective method to remove PFAS from water. IF resins combine ionic and fluorous interactions to target and remove PFAS from water, selectively, over background contaminants.

Anthropogenic nutrient loading is a critical driver of water quality throughout North Carolina and much of the world. Nutrient loading has increased over the last century due to fertilization of crops and green spaces, as well as waste from humans, pets, and livestock. The most salient outcome of nutrient loading is increased eutrophication (organic matter
accumulation in surface waters), often leading to harmful algal blooms and hypoxia, which jeopardize water supplies and public recreation. As such, developing nutrient criteria and management strategies is a timely objective for state water resources managers. While sources of nutrients have been identified and many nutrient control measures have been proposed, there remains a need to quantitatively assess these sources and controls, particularly at the watershed scale. In this study, we propose a modern, data-driven approach to update our knowledge of the magnitudes of various sources and the effectiveness of various nutrient control strategies. The approach leverages large databases of water quality, hydro-meteorology, and watershed attributes, which have been developed by federal, state, and local governments over the last few decades. The approach will also leverage and advance a sophisticated “hybrid” watershed model that combines a mechanistic representation of nutrient fate and transport within a probabilistic (Bayesian) framework where prior knowledge of loading and transport rates is updated through data-driven inference, and where uncertainty is rigorously quantified. Our project will focus on the Falls and Jordan Lake watersheds of North Carolina, for which preliminary models and data are already available. Key objectives of the proposed research include (1) development of an integrated geospatial database on watershed development, (2) adaptation of the hybrid watershed model to assess watershed development practices, and (3) application of the model to assess future management scenarios. Expected outcomes include quantitative guidance for developing nutrient reduction goals and watershed management strategies.

Developing a Watershed Prioritization Index to Guide Restoration Initiatives in the Upper Little Tennessee River Basin

Researcher: Keith Gibbs, Western Carolina University
Co-Principal Investigators: Diane Styers and Thomas Martin, Western Carolina University
Focus Area: Watersheds

This project will focus on the Upper Little Tennessee River Basin and several subwatersheds in the basin to assess risks to water quality while trying to link land cover changes in the area to water quality and aquatic life. Subwatersheds will be ranked based on susceptibility to sedimentation, and the project’s results will be shared with partners to assist in future monitoring and restoration efforts of the river basin.

Our objectives are to: 1) analyze geospatial data across the Upper Little Tennessee River Basin to 2) rank subwatersheds for risks to water quality at multiple spatial scales and 3) link
land cover change over time to water quality and aquatic biota (RP Areas 1 and 4). We will extract land cover percentages and landscape features at multiple spatial scales to categorize attributes and rank subwatersheds from least to most susceptible to sedimentation. Sedimentation will be quantified and water quality will be monitored in a subset of subwatersheds (≥3 per category) to verify and validate geospatially-derived prioritization rankings. Water quality data loggers will be deployed at each sample site to continuously measure temperature and turbidity over the duration of the study. Historical fish and macroinvertebrate assemblage data will be compiled and georeferenced to identify gaps in knowledge and target supplemental sampling efforts. Fish and macroinvertebrate assemblages will be sampled following standardized protocols for comparison to historical records. Results will be shared with partners to assist prioritization of future monitoring and restoration efforts. Our findings will be openly accessible through personal, university, and partner websites. Geospatial data will be used to produce an interactive story map for community outreach and education.

Fecal Contamination Source Tracking and Forecasting to Support Recreational and Cultural Development in the Black River Watershed

Researcher: Angela Harris, North Carolina State University (NC State)
Co-Principal Investigators: Ryan Emanuel and Daniel Obenour, NC State
Focus Area: Fecal contamination, E. coli, watershed

This project focuses on the Great Coharie River in Eastern North Carolina, working with Coharie Tribe leaders and community members to support the development of long-term water quality monitoring plans and decision-making for using the river. By sampling from four sites along the river in different seasons and conditions, the project will develop forecast models to predict river contamination by nutrients, E. coli and fecal contamination.

The Great Coharie River (AKA Great Coharie Creek) is a culturally and environmentally significant water body in Eastern North Carolina. The river has exhibited elevated levels of nutrients and microbial contamination, including after extreme flooding events, and groups that rely on the river, particularly the Coharie Tribe, are eager to develop a more complete understanding of the temporal and spatial dynamics of water quality to ensure human safety for cultural and recreational activities on the river. We propose to conduct high temporal resolution sampling at 4 sites along the river during different seasons and rainfall conditions. Water samples will be analyzed for nutrients, E. coli (fecal indicator bacteria) and source-specific molecular markers of fecal contamination (e.g., human, swine, and poultry). Novel forecast models will be developed to predict contamination as a function of environmental covariates (e.g., temperature, rainfall, discharge). Working with Coharie Tribe leaders and other community members and applying insights from this research, we will support the development of long-term monitoring plans and decision-making tools for protecting and using the river.

Enabling Rural Water Utilities to Create, Transfer Information and Use Digital Service Area Boundaries

Researcher: Lauren Patterson, Duke University
Co-Principal Investigators: Kyle Onda and Ashley Ward, Duke University
Focus Area: Rural water utilities

This project will assist water and wastewater utilities to create and sustain digital service area boundaries by developing an open-source and free technology called A Boundary Update Tool for Utility Services (ABOUT-US), which will enable utilities – especially those limited in resources – to fulfill reporting requirements and provide the State with regional and statewide planning support. In addition, this project will work with rural utilities to develop online tools that link climate, sociodemographic, environmental and other critical data to better equip utilities to meet their needs and enhance their capacity for emergency, mitigation and resilience planning.

This project will enable water and wastewater utilities to create and maintain digital service area boundaries through the development of an open-source, free technology called A Boundary Update Tool for Utility Services (ABOUT-US). The project will also develop online tools that spatially link climate, sociodemographic, environmental, and other pertinent data with the digital service area boundaries to better equip and enable utilities to (1) meet regulatory reporting requirements; (2) pursue external funding for infrastructure improvements; (3) improve emergency preparedness, mitigation, and resilience planning; and (4) enhance decision-making. The creation of ABOUT-US (Year 1 deliverable), in combination with additional online tools (Year 2 deliverable) has the ability to increase equity by lowering the digital divide for small systems through the use of free, open-source tools, as well as supporting regional and statewide planning. Tool development will be user-centered to ensure widespread adoption. On completion, the State of North Carolina will administer and maintain ABOUT-US for continued use. At the project’s end, ABOUT-US will (1) allow utilities, particularly those with limited resources, to quickly answer commonly asked questions and fulfill reporting requirements, and (2) provide the State with up-to-date data to support regional and statewide planning. ABOUT-US will be open-sourced and replicable in other states and sectors.

Urban Water Consortium Funded Faculty

Heat-Activated Persulfate Regeneration of Ion Exchange Resins for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substance Treatment

Researcher: Mei Sun, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC-Charlotte)
Focus Areas: PFAS removal

This project aims to develop chemical treatment methods to destruct PFAS in resins. Some water treatment plants use ion exchange resins to remove PFAS from contaminated drinking water, but the exhausted resins rich in PFAS may become a new contamination source. Successful implementation of the project will enable PFAS removal from drinking water, reduce waste disposal expense of water utilities, lower the risks of transferring PFAS contamination from one environmental compartment to another, and ultimately protect human health and the environment.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are contaminants of concern in North Carolina. Ion exchange (IX) is effective in separating PFAS from contaminated drinking water, but incapable of chemically breaking down the contaminants. Thus, waste streams from IX, including spent resins and regenerant, contain high levels of PFAS and are challenging to be disposed of safely. The proposed project addresses this problem by strategically combining IX and resin regeneration via heat-activated persulfate oxidation (HAPO). We hypothesize that in this treatment train, PFAS can be separated from contaminated water and subsequently mineralized for safe and feasible waste management. While preliminary data suggests this is achievable, more information is needed to fill important knowledge gaps and demonstrate the practicability of this treatment train. The project objectives are to evaluate the effectiveness of HAPO for PFAS mineralization and resin regeneration, and assess the feasibility of the treatment train for water treatment practice. Four tasks are planned accordingly: (1) confirm and optimize PFAS mineralization during resin regeneration by HAPO; (2) evaluate the effects of HAPO regeneration on resin functionality and integrity; (3) evaluate matric effects on PFAS removal by the treatment train; and (4) evaluate the removal of mixed PFAS from drinking water. Success implementation of this work will enable removing PFAS from drinking water, reduce waste disposal expense of water utilities, lower the
risks of transferring PFAS contamination from one environmental compartment to another, and ultimately protect human health and the environment. Information gained from this project may also shed the light on applications of similar treatment trains, such as regeneration of the IX resins using other chemical reactions capable of destructing PFAS, chemical regeneration of other sorbents for PFAS removal, or using the treatment train to treat other contaminants of concern.

Stormwater Consortium Funded Faculty

Data-Driven Analytics Tools to Support Prioritized Management of Stormwater Infrastructure

Researcher: Nicole Barclay, UNC-Charlotte
Co-Principal Investigator: Michael Smith, UNC-Charlotte
Focus Area: Stormwater infrastructure

This project will focus on the aging stormwater infrastructure problem troubling communities across the state of North Carolina, by developing novel data-driven models to be used for predicting the conditions and increased risks facing stormwater infrastructure. Outcomes from this project will be used to improve decision-making regarding asset management of stormwater infrastructure, to effectively allocate and prioritize resources for adequate repair and replacement of deteriorating infrastructure.

This WRRI project addresses the critical problem of aging stormwater infrastructure facing communities across North Carolina, bringing an increased risk of flooding and road washouts to municipalities constrained by tightening budgets and time. This project develops novel data-driven models for predicting stormwater infrastructure conditions and identifies at-risk pipelines and culverts. Project objectives are: 1) estimate current conditions based on measured data and infrastructure characterization, 2) design models to predict conditions via data analytics, 3) train and validate the models by evaluating each model and verifying results, and 4) identify at-risk pipelines and culverts within the study area. Methods include established approaches in machine learning. Outcomes are expected to significantly improve decisions for stormwater infrastructure asset management and contribute to timely, cost-effective resource allocation prioritization for repair and replacement. Results will be disseminated by journal articles, conference publications, and technical talks. The project includes training for two graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Graduate Projects

Assessment of Pesticide Stability in Water and Analysis of Pesticide Degradates in Private Wells in North Carolina

Researcher: Nancy Alexander, NC State
Advisor: Detlef Knappe, NC State
Focus Area: Pesticides

Pesticides are widely used in North Carolina. Many pesticides are designed to degrade in the environment through processes such as hydrolysis, the chemical breakdown of a compound when it reacts with water. Pesticide degradation products, or degradates, may be found in water as frequently as the corresponding parent pesticides and, in some cases, degradates are more toxic and/or occur at higher concentrations than the parent pesticides. Therefore, it is imperative that researchers understand how quickly commonly used pesticides degrade and identify their degradates. In her research, Alexander will assess the stability of 10 pesticides commonly used in North Carolina, identify hydrolysis products and subsequently investigate their occurrence in private wells in three North Carolina counties.

Assessing Temporal Variability of Antibiotic-Resistant E. Coli in Surface Water Near Animal Feeding Operations

Researcher: Tanvir Pasha, NC State
Advisor: Angela Harris, NC State
Focus Area: E. coli in surface water

Pasha’s study will examine the presence of antibiotic-resistant E .coli in surface water across the Cape Fear and Neuse River Basin, using the IDEXX Quanti-tray method, in areas where poultry and swine confined animal feeding operations are densely built and reported as vulnerable to extreme weather events. Using microbial source tracking marker LA 35 and Pig2Bac through the digital droplet polymerase chain reaction method – which is a method for studying variations in gene sequences – Pasha will be attempting to identify the sources of poultry and swine fecal contamination. He also aims to establish if there is a correlation between that contamination and the presence of antibiotic-resistant genes after extreme weather events.

Understanding the Flood Mitigation Benefits of Buyouts:
A Hydrologic Assessment of Property Acquisition in North Carolina Watersheds

Researcher: Hunter Quintal, UNC-Chapel Hill
Advisor: Antonia Sebastian, UNC-Chapel Hill
Focus Area: Flooding

Hunter’s proposed research will address several of the pressing challenges facing communities in the 21st century that have been highlighted by WRRI including how to incorporate natural infrastructure into flood mitigation planning; the flood risk challenges posed by shifting climate and land use conditions; and the social, physical, and hydrological dynamics that undermine (or enhance) resilient communities. Using a computer model to accomplish this research, Quintal can determine the depth of floodwaters at a specific location, track the intensity of future storms, and predict the potential impacts that these characteristics have when it comes to the effects on a locale’s built infrastructure and natural environment. 

High Resolution Mass Spectrometry (HRMS) as a Diagnostic Tool to Assist Groundwater Monitoring Recommendations from Local Health Departments to Private Well Users

Researcher: Hayden Rudd, NC State
Advisor: Elizabeth Nichols, NC State
Focus Area: Private wells

Rudd’s project will explore using high-resolution mass spectrometry to analyze private wells in Wake County. Her project will evaluate the greater sensitivity of this analytical approach to screen broadly for organic chemicals of concern and to assist county managers with recommendations for specific water tests for private well users. Rudd will be researching in collaboration with Wake County.

Degradation of Antibiotic Resistance Genes Using Hydroxyl Radical and Sulphate Radical

Researcher: Adeola Sorinolu, UNC-Charlotte
Advisor: Mariya Munir, UNC-Charlotte
Focus Area: Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance (AR) is a global public health issue that challenges therapeutic potential against pathogens of humans and animals. The environment has been implicated in the wide spread of AR in clinical settings. Sorinolu’s project focuses on innovative processes for the removal of antibiotic-resistance genes (ARGs) during water and wastewater treatment. Her study seeks to promote an understanding of the factors that influence ARG degradation.

Viability of Fungal Bioremediation for Treatment of Persistent Pesticides in North Carolina Waters

Researcher: Leah Weaver, NC State
Advisor: Tarek Aziz, NC State
Focus Area: Emerging contaminants in water

White-rot wood decay fungi show promise as a potential treatment to remove emerging contaminants from water. Using the fungus Phanerochaete chrysosporium, Weaver will investigate the enzymatic systems involved in the degradation of a class of common pesticides, neonicotinoids, in order to design and optimize a fungal bioreactor. She will use the results of these experiments to inform an agent-based model, which will be employed through The Engineering Place at NC State – an education and resource center that helps K-12 students, parents and teachers understand engineering – as a STEM education tool.

Urban Water Consortium Co-Funded Students

Targeted Field Study of Antibiotics and Antibiotic Resistance Genes in North Carolina Wastewater Impacted Watersheds

Researcher: Sara Kamanmalek, UNC-Charlotte
Advisor: Jacelyn Rice-Boayue, UNC-Charlotte
Focus Area: Anitbiotic resistance

At low concentrations, antibiotics may pose a constant selection pressure on bacterial populations, where bacteria generate antibiotic resistance to survive. Kamanmalek’s study incorporates multiple potential sources of antibiotics in a geographic information system (GIS) framework to identify watersheds most impacted. Once identified, Kamanmalek will perform a field analysis to evaluate antibiotic and antibiotic-resistance gene (ARG) concentrations at sites modeled as the most and least impacted. She will then develop a web tool to make the analysis available. She hopes the outcomes of the field investigation and resulting web tool can support future efforts in prioritizing advanced treatment processes and monitoring impacted watersheds, to minimize the effects of antibiotics and ARGs on ecological health.

Co-Treatment of Food Processing Wastewater with Municipal Treated Wastewater

Researcher: Jonae’ Wood, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T)
Advisor: Niroj Aryal, NC A&T
Focus Area: Wastewater

The main objective of Wood’s experiment is to simultaneously treat the nitrogen-rich municipal treated wastewater with the carbon-rich food processing wastewater to get carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas, according to the redox (carbon oxidation, anammox and denitrification) reactions. Wood will evaluate of the most effective retention time and the ratio of wastewaters that will remove the most pollutants using a sequencing batch reactor, a type of wastewater treatment that allows wastewater to be treated and discharged for use.

Stormwater Consortium Co-Funded Students

Validating Positive Openness Raster Data for Indicating Locations of Streambed Incision and Streambank Erosion in the Mine Creek Watershed, Raleigh, N.C.

Researcher: Layla El-Khoury, NC State
Advisor: Barbara Doll, NC State
Focus Area: Watersheds and streambank erosion

El-Khoury’s funded project utilizes USGS geospatial data to try to identify eroding streams in the Mine Creek watershed located in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her goal is to determine if a particular data subset, called the positive openness geospatial layer, can help to identify and prioritize locations for restoration prior to conducting field assessments. If effective, this approach could aid local, state and federal water resource managers. This work compliments the larger study of her master’s thesis research, which is focused on comparing and validating methods for quantifying and predicting streambank erosion.

Unraveling the Effects of Grain Size and Moisture Content on the Linearity of Cohesive Soil Erosion: Implications for Predicting Streambank Retreat

Researcher: Alexis Swanson, NC State
Advisor: Celso Castro-Bolinaga, NC State
Focus Area: Erosion and stormwater

With excessive erosion of sediment resulting in detrimental effects on streams and rivers, accurate calculations of boundary shear stress – the force applied by flowing liquid to its boundary – are critical to controlling erosion and managing stormwater. Swanson is investigating whether the current assumptions about how to calculate erosion are correct or need to be re-evaluated. She is looking at the commonly used equation for measuring excess shear stress, which assumes stress is linear. Swanson’s project investigates this linearity assumption through a series of Jet Erosion Test (JET) laboratory experiments, where soil moisture content and grain size distribution are controlled. The goal of her project is to examine the relationship between applied boundary shear stress and erosion rates, as well as investigate how soil physical properties affect this relationship.

Recent Projects

Read about projects WRRI researchers completed in the past three years.

Projects Archive

WRRI has funded research since the 1960s. A complete list of projects and associated results and report information can be found below. Research reports are housed and accessible through the NC State Technical Reports Repository.

  • General tips:
    • You can search across the entire Water Resources Research Institute series of publications, or you can click on an individual collection and search within that collection
    • You can search by author, date, title, keyword, and in some cases, by project number.
    • To find publications for projects funded by the UWC or SWG, enter “Urban+Water+Consortium” or “Stormwater+Group” into the search fields.
    • The “Search For” field will search for keywords in the entire publication, as well as search the title.
    • If you aren’t sure what you’re looking for, you can browse publications by title, date, and author.
  • For research reports:
    • Sometimes the lead author on a report may be different than the lead PI on the original project.
    • The report publication year on the repository usually will not correspond to the year that the project was initially funded.
    • Sometimes the publication title differs from the original project title.
  • Collections include:
    • Research Reports – Researchers supported by WRRI, UWC, and SWG funding are required to submit a final report upon completion of their research. Reports for WRRI projects date back to 1967.
    • WRRI Newsletters – WRRI publishes a quarterly newsletter that highlights water research around the state, legislative updates, and water-related event. This collection contains newsletters dating back to 1996.
    • Annual Programs – From 1990-2006, WRRI published an annual program, which was a detailed summary of WRRI’s research priorities, funded projects, and project findings for the previous year.