Team awarded $1.5 million to study watershed resiliency

An ECU research team will use a grant of nearly $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation to combine science and economic policy to support eastern North Carolina’s environment, farmers and rural communities.

The four-year study aims to determine how environmental changes modify nutrient pollution in the Tar-Pamlico River Basin. The study also examines how local, state and federal nutrient management policies influence water quality now and in a saltier, wetter future.

Associate professor of biology Ariane Peralta leads the team, which includes faculty from ECU’s biology, anthropology, coastal studies, economics and engineering departments. Peralta said one of  the main focuses of the study will be predictinghow future environmental changes, such as sea level rise, will influence how microorganisms process nitrogen on farm fields and lead to increased nutrient pollution levels downstream.

During the next 15 years, scientists expect North Carolina’s sea level to rise by 6 inches, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The grant team will collect soil samples from farm fields and adjacent wetland areas to measure how increasing concentrations of saltwater will affect microbial processing of nitrogen.

These experiments will show researchers how soil microbes respond to increased salt levels and how water quality functions are expected to change.

“We want to know what the microbes in our soil are doing when they’re exposed to greater salt levels,” Peralta said. “Will greater levels of salt interrupt the processes microbes use to transform nitrate and ammonium from fertilizers into nitrogen gas? We want to know how salt modifies soil microbes on croplands and alters pollution levels in eastern North Carolina waterways.”

In addition to studying how environmental hazards affect environmental conditions, the research team will use surveys to better understand how policies and incentive programs can increase the use of best management practices in the region.

These practices, which may include transitioning land used for farming to fallow land to allow for nutrient recovery or changing crop production type, may be more likely to be used when they provide an economic or societal benefit for the farmer. The study features two dozen undergraduate and graduate students and will also provide data to K-12 classrooms throughout the state. The project begins in March and runs through 2025.