10 Ways You Can Protect Our Estuary

Author: Kelsey Ellis, APNEP Communications and Outreach Specialist

The Albemarle-Pamlico watershed has a land area of 28,000 square miles that stretches from central North Carolina and Virginia eastward to the coast. With such a large region, it’s sometimes easy to forget that regardless of whether you live in sight of the sounds or if the coast is hours away, the actions you take can have a positive impact on the health of the estuary. No matter where you live in the watershed, the creeks, streams, and rivers that flow nearby connect you to the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary downstream. With that in mind, we wanted to share 10 ways that you can help keep the waters of the estuary healthy for the animals, plants, and people that depend on it.

#1: Become a Citizen Scientist. It’s a big world out there, and scientists are depending on people like you to help them better understand how the plants, animals, weather, water quality, and many other aspects of the environment are changing over time. Most of these citizen science opportunities need nothing more than a cell phone and an internet connection to get started. Check out APNEP’s list of citizen science opportunities in the Albemarle-Pamlico region!

#2: Grow Native Plant Species. In addition to providing shelter and food for local birds, bees, and other critters, native plants are also less work for you. Since they’re adapted to your local climate, native plants are usually low-maintenance and need fewer chemicals like pesticides and herbicides. North Carolina Sea Grant maintains a comprehensive list of resources for coastal gardeners looking to plant native, while gardeners further upstream can check out the North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox.

#3: Use Responsible Boating Practices. When using motorized watercraft, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. Particularly throughout the coastal plain and estuary, underwater meadows of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) are a vital fish habitat that can be destroyed by boat propellers. We also encourage boaters to utilize North Carolina Clean Marina-certified marinas, which designates marinas that use practices that help to keep our waterways clean. Additionally, boaters should rinse off their watercraft when transporting them from one body of water to another – this keeps aquatic invasive plants from hitching a ride on their boat to another river or lake.

#4: Keep Use of Fertilizers to a Minimum. Pollution from excess nutrients is a pressing issue throughout the Albemarle-Pamlico watershed; the nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizers feeds plants on land but causes potentially harmful algal blooms in the water. Use fertilizers responsibly by:

  • Delaying application of fertilizers if it’s forecasted to rain later. If fertilizer isn’t given time to incorporate into soil and plants, a rainstorm will wash it off your lawn and into storm drains. This means not only increased nutrient pollution in our waterways, but wasted effort for you!
  • Use more native plants, which are well-adapted to your local climate and therefore require lower amounts of fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Instead of applying chemical fertilizers, return nitrogen to the soil by leaving grass clippings on your lawn to decompose. Alternatively, think about using organic or slow-release fertilizers.
  • Save yourself even more time and effort don’t apply fertilizers at all! Studies show that people fertilize in large part to keep up with their neighbors, not because they necessarily enjoy ‘perfect’ lawns themselves.

#5: Clean up your Pet Waste. If pet owners don’t pick up after their animals and dispose of their waste in the trash, the bacteria and parasites in animal poop can get into our waterways and make people sick. Although the contribution of each pet is small, collectively the impact of the millions of dogs in the United States adds up to a potentially significant source of water pollution.

#6: Inspect Your Septic System. On a similar note...for homeowners utilizing septic systems, it’s important to make sure you have those systems inspected periodically to ensure that they’re still working properly. In addition to releasing harmful bacteria and other illness-causing pathogens into waterways, leaks in septic systems contribute to nutrient pollution.

#7: Volunteer with Local Environmental Organizations. No matter if you’d prefer to help the Albemarle-Pamlico from the great outdoors or the comfort of your home, there are a myriad of ways to directly assist organizations in the Albemarle-Pamlico watershed that are working to protect the environment. APNEP maintains a map of organizations with ongoing needs for volunteers throughout our region

#8: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. We’ve all heard it before – reduce your use of disposable materials, reuse things when possible, and if you can’t reduce or reuse, recycle. Your choice to use a reusable water bottle, coffee mug, or lunch container adds up and reduces the trash in our landfills as well as the litter in our natural areas. Picking up litter that has made its way into our environment is another great way to contribute to a healthier estuary – check out the North Carolina Marine Debris Strategy to get an idea of how coastal organizations are collaborating to tackle the marine debris in their backyards.

#9: Conserve Water. Outside, utilize rain barrels to collect rainwater for watering your garden. Indoors, water-saving toilets and showerheads can make a big difference in your water usage (and water bill) over time, as can prioritizing purchasing water-saving dishwaters, washing machines, and other appliances. Look for the WaterSense label on products to ensure what you’re buying will conserve water and money!

#10: Get Outside and Explore. From its headwaters and urban centers including the Raleigh-Durham metro area and Virginia Beach, to the wild and windswept beaches of the Outer Banks, the landscape of the Albemarle-Pamlico watershed encompasses diverse ecosystems. To understand why these special places are worth protecting, get outside and explore the region’s unique history, culture, and natural beauty. Paddle through pocosin wetlands where black bears wander, climb up (and hang glide off) massive sand dunes, walk through twisted, salt-scoured maritime forests, or boat past towering cypress trees that rise out of the tea-colored water. Watch thousands of migrating birds settle onto a lake's surface on a cold winter morning, or fish in one of the region's wide, meandering rivers. Experience the Albemarle-Pamlico region, and understand for yourself why we need to protect it.