Recently Funded Projects

Additional projects are currently funded by the Urban Water Consortium and the Stormwater Group.

Faculty Projects

  • The role of environmental buffers in potable water use | Olya Keen, UNC-Charlotte
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    With a large percentage of US population residing in arid areas, indirect potable water reuse is becoming a wide-spread practice. Among the pioneering states are California and Colorado, where drinking water treatment plants acknowledge the contribution of treated wastewater effluent to their source water and purposefully include this source in their water supply planning. On the other hand, many areas that have no necessity to include reuse water in the potable supplies still practice the unacknowledged, or so called “de facto” potable water reuse when a drinking water treatment plant is located downstream of a wastewater treatment plant. Due to general public opposition to direct potable reuse, an environmental buffer (river, aquifer or reservoir) is frequently in place to mitigate the “toilet-to-tap” perception. The goal of this study is to evaluate the effectiveness of the environmental buffers for water quality improvement. Samples will be collected from potable water reuse systems (acknowledged or de facto) that utilize a variety of environmental buffers: wetlands, groundwater recharge, riverbank filtration, river and reservoir/lake. Multiple contaminant classes will be analyzed (salts, metals, pharmaceuticals, antibiotic resistance genes, pesticides/herbicides, nutrients, microorganisms, suspended solids and organic carbon) to determine whether the environmental buffers reduce or increase the contaminant load at the drinking water treatment facility. It is anticipated that while some of the contaminants may get attenuated in the environment (nutrients), some may get reintroduced (pesticides and herbicides, suspended solids, microorganisms), potentially resulting in a higher cost of treatment with an environmental buffer than without it. Additionally, environmental buffers allow contact between trace antibiotics in wastewater effluent and microorganisms – a phenomenon linked to development of antibacterial resistance in the environment. Environmental buffer may also allow some attenuation of emerging contaminants, and different pathways will be evaluated: photolysis, adsorption and biodegradation. A best management practice recommendation will be proposed as a result of this research that would include the pros and cons of environmental buffers, the effectiveness of different types of buffers for attenuation of various contaminant classes, and estimated difference in the water reuse treatment cost with and without different types of environmental buffers.


  • Tracing groundwater contamination near and away from coal ash ponds in North Carolina | Avner Vengosh, Duke University
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    Recent discovery of elevated hexavalent chromium and vanadium concentrations in drinking water wells near coal ash ponds has triggered public concerns about the possible migration of coal ash contaminants to aquifer systems adjacent to coal ash-holding ponds in NC. Previous studies have demonstrated that coal ash effluents contain elevated levels of contaminants, and their migration to the environment could increase human health and environmental risks. This proposed study seeks to evaluate the occurrence of toxic contaminants in drinking water wells near and away from coal ash ponds in two focal sites in Salisbury and Belmont, NC, evaluate possible migration of coal ash effluents to the underlying aquifers, and establish reliable geochemical and isotopic criteria combined with hydrogeological data for distinction between naturally occurring and anthropogenic contamination specifically derived from coal ash ponds leaking. The proposed project consists of (1) generating a new geochemical and isotopic database of about 150 drinking water wells near and away from coal ash ponds in Salisbury and Belmont; (2) drilling new monitoring wells for characterization of the hydrogeology, groundwater gradients, and the quality of shallow groundwater adjacent to coal ash ponds; and integrating new and existing water quality databases for drinking water wells, shallow groundwater underlying coal ash ponds, and baseline datasets in The overall objectives of this study are (1) to provide a scientific evaluation of the occurrence and origin of toxic elements such as hexavalent chromium and vanadium in drinking water wells and associated risks to homeowners in affected areas in NC, and (2) determine if coal ash contaminants are indeed migrating to the aquifers near coal ash ponds. The proposed study is based on a wide spectrum of analytical tools including hydrogeology, water quality with high precision detection of hexavalent chromium and vanadium, aquatic geochemistry, and multiple isotopic tracers including oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, boron, lithium, and strontium isotopes. We have already identified drinking water wells and established communication with homeowners in the two research areas, followed by conducting preliminary sampling and establishing an initial dataset of water quality in the two research sites in order to demonstrate our capability to conduct this study. The outcome of this proposed study will be highly beneficial for homeowners who use private wells as their major drinking water source in areas near and away coal ash ponds, as well as state officials for helping to evaluate the human health risks associated with the water quality and in particularly the highly toxic hexavalent chromium in aquifers of North Carolina.

  • Nathan Hall, UNC-Chapel Hill | How, where, when, and why: Defining Eutrophication Related Trends in Water Quality for the Middle and Lower Cape Fear River Basin
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    Over the past decade, the Cape Fear River, NC has experienced symptoms of eutrophication that threaten its value as a vital natural resource for recreation, aquatic habitat, and water supply. While there is a perception that water quality is deteriorating and that increased anthropogenic nutrient loading is likely responsible, very few trend analyses for eutrophication-related water quality parameters have been conducted. This project will leverage an expansive, multi-decade water quality dataset collected by NCDENR, the Middle Cape Fear River Basin Association, and the Lower Cape Fear River Project. Statistically robust trend analyses will be conducted at nineteen sites distributed throughout the middle and lower Cape Fear basin for concentrations and fluxes of eutrophication related water quality parameters including nutrients, chlorophyll a, dissolved oxygen, pH, total suspended sediments, and water clarity. The objectives are to determine how conditions have changed, where in the basin, and when in the data records are changes most apparent. Additionally, a recently developed weighted regression modeling approach will be used to determine shifts in seasonality and shifts in relationships of water quality constituents with flow. Such shifts in combination with information on anthropogenic activities in the watershed (i.e. changes in point/non-point sources) will be used to identify likely reasons why water quality has changed. Information gained will provide a broad ecosystem-level characterization of human and climatic influences on water quality over the past 2-4 decades. Determining where water quality is deteriorating or improving, and why will help prioritize management plans and allow for targeted management responses to specific sources of pollution. This information will be greatly needed as NCDENR updates the Cape Fear River Basinwide Water Quality Plan. By establishing historic baseline conditions and water quality trajectories, the project will be of immediate benefit to recently initiated efforts to develop realistic and achievable nutrient targets under the Nutrient Criteria Development Plan. A two day workshop will teach the recently developed modeling technique to NCDENR staff, stakeholder groups, and fellow researchers for use throughout NC surface waters.

Student Projects

  • Racial Disparities in Access to Clean Water in North Carolina: Communicating Health Risk to Private Well Owners | Frank Stillo, UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Assessing Resilience among Vulnerable Populations Impacted by Flooding in Eastern North Carolina: A Mixed-Methods Approach | Jasmine Hayes, East Carolina University
  • Distribution and Concentrations of Antibiotics in Rural Wells and Streams | Austin Gray, UNC-Greensboro
  • Decontamination of Heavy Metals in North Carolina Groundwater Using Manganese Oxide Nanofibers | Yaewon Park, NC State
  • Nutrient Dynamics of the Lumbee River Basin post-Hurricane Matthew: Closing the data availability gap for basin residents | Justine Neville, NC State
  • The Impacts of Multiple Environmental Stressors on Fish Populations Native to Estuaries along the Eastern Shore of the United States | Casey Lindberg, Duke University
  • Managing Nitrogen Removal Capacity in a Stormwater Wetland | Regina Bledsoe, East Carolina University
  • Understanding how land use characteristics affect the prevalence of antibiotic resistant, virulent E. coli and host-specific markers in watersheds with and without swine CAFOs | Elizabeth Christenson, UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Field testing of mesocosm-scale derived nitrate removal models to verify water quality improvement potential of restored coastal forested wetlands | Jack Kurki-Fox, NC State
  • Computational Development of Composite Packed-Bed Nanofiltration for High-throughput Desalination | James Peerless, NC State
  • Kirsten Studer, UNC-Chapel Hill | Howard Weinberg, Faculty Sponsor | Impact of Hospital and Patient Discharges on North Carolina Surface and Drinking Water Quality as Measured by Iodinated Contrast Agents

Past Projects & Research Results

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 NCSU Technical Reports Repository.