Coastal Plain Ecological Flows Evaluation

trees growing in the water

APNEP's Ecological Flows Action Team contracted with Dr. Michael O'Driscoll and colleagues of the Coastal Water Resources Center at East Carolina University to identify and collect ecological flow data for the Albemarle-Pamlico region's coastal plain, an area where established methods of determining ecological flow are limited. An ecological flow is defined as the volume of stream flow needed to maintain a healthy aquatic ecosystem. Understanding ecological flows helps ensure that aquatic ecosystems, and the human communities that depend on those ecosystems, receive enough water to remain functional and healthy. The overall goal of this project is to find, organize, and review currently available ecological flow data, which can then assist with analysis of ecological flows in the region and identify data gaps. 

"I think that especially in the coastal plain, it's important to study ecological flows because of all the population growth upstream in the Raleigh-Durham area," explains ECU lab technician Caitlin Skibiel, who worked on the project with Dr. O'Driscoll.  "It's all really interconnected." Growing populations use more water, removing it from waterways and lowering that waterway's flow volume, which can then decrease water availability downstream. Downstream water quality can also be affected, depending how the water is used for before it is returned to the system.

Within North Carolina's and Virginia's coastal plain, Dr. O'Driscoll's research group is also concerned about low water flow increasing the effects of saltwater intrusion, where brackish or saltwater from the estuary reaches further upstream than it has historically. This saltier water can negatively impact freshwater ecosystems and cause issues for community water supplies.

Dr. O'Driscoll and graduate students from both ECU and Duke University assisted with compiling data for "Existing Data for Evaluating Coastal Plain Ecological Flows in the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary Region," which included identifying sources of surface and groundwater flow within the coastal plain of the APNEP region. The Team's plan is to coordinate this data with real-time and historical hydrologic discharge and water level, water quality, geomorphological, and meterological data, and subsequentlay centralize it in a data storage and analysis platform. The data will be analyzed in order to recommend: which river basins the Ecological Flows Team should focus on first, how to fill existing gaps in data, and applications to address further needs.

Read the 2018 Assessment

APNEP Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) actions addressed:

  • E2.2: Develop and maintain an online resource that clearly conveys regional information in support of ecosystem-based management.
  • A3.3: Develop and refine ecological flow requirements for each major river.
  • D3.1: Develop and implement a strategy to improve decision-maker's understanding of the costs and benefits of environmental protection, restoration, planning, and monitoring.