State of the Beach/State Reports/NC/Water Quality

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North Carolina Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access108
Water Quality67
Beach Erosion10-
Erosion Response-7
Beach Fill7-
Shoreline Structures5 8
Beach Ecology5-
Surfing Areas38
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}

Water Quality Monitoring Program

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. In recent years, the total funding available for BEACH Act grants has been about $9.5 million. Funding beyond 2012 has been in jeopardy, since EPA's budget requests for this program in FY2013 and FY2014 were ZERO (money for testing in 2013 and 2014 was ultimately allocated as part of Continuing Resolutions to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there was also no money for beach testing in the FY2015 budget. Again, it was restored at the last minute as part of a Continuing Resolution. It is very discouraging to have to fight for this basic funding to protect the public's health at the beach every year. Thankfully, there is a growing movement to provide stable funding. Unfortunately, in 2017 the situation is even more dire. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. North Carolina was eligible for a $288,000 grant in fiscal year 2016. The state funds monitoring of Tier 2 and Tier 3 beaches (about half of the beaches) while the EPA grant pays for monitoring at Tier 1 beaches. The annual contribution from the state to the monitoring program is approximately $240,000.

The North Carolina Recreational Water Quality Program (PDF) was the subject of a February 25, 2010 presentation by J.D. Potts.

The following text regarding North Carolina's beach monitoring program was taken from NRDC's Testing the Waters report, June 2014 and/or prior NRDC reports. NRDC's report evaluates beach monitoring data relative to EPA's recommended Beach Action Value (BAV). The BAV is a more protective threshold than the national allowable bacteria levels used in previous years to trigger beach advisories. The EPA considers the BAV to be a "conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions."

NRDC ranked North Carolina 5th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). 4% of samples exceeded EPA's new BAV standards for designated beach areas in 2013.

Most of North Carolina's 240 public coastal beaches, which stretch along 320 miles of Atlantic waters, are located on barrier islands. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) administers the state's BEACH Act grant. North Carolina's swim season runs from April 1 to October 31. Monitoring occurs year-round but is less frequent during the off-season, and alerts and advisories are not issued during the off-season. Monitoring is conducted in the off-season so that bacteriological problems can be found and corrected before the swim season begins. Beachgoers can learn about beach advisories in North Carolina on the NCDENR website.

Sampling Practices: North Carolina's swim season runs from April 1 to October 31. Monitoring occurs year-round but is less frequent during the off-season, and alerts and advisories are not issued during the off-season. Monitoring is conducted in the off-season because it can allow the beach program to find and correct bacteriological problems before the swim season begins.

NCDENR conducts sampling and notification activities throughout the coastal waters of the state; these duties are not delegated to local authorities. Samples are collected in a variety of ways. Samples in ocean surf are taken 16 feet from the sampler's body using a telescopic golf ball retriever in knee-deep water, 6 to 12 inches below the surface. Approximately half of the samples are collected by boat, and these samples are taken in water that is 3 feet deep, 12 inches below the surface. Samples taken from piers must be taken in the most-used area, 6 to 12 inches below the water's surface.

North Carolina prioritizes its beaches for sampling on the basis of usage. Tier 1 includes beaches that are adjacent to resort areas, public accesses, and sailing camps and are used daily. All ocean beaches are considered Tier 1. Tier 2 beaches are in areas such as as the intracoastal waterway, tidal creeks, and exposed shoals. People frequent Tier 2 sites mostly on weekends and usually access them by watercraft. Tier 3 beaches are used an average of four times per month, or less frequently but intensively for special events, such as triathlons. North Carolina regularly monitors all of its beaches, including those in Tier 3.

Beaches with storm drains that extend to the water's edge are sampled 10 feet from either side of the drain, when practical. Beaches with storm drains that do not extend to the water's edge are sampled where the water flowing back down the beach from the previous wave meets the next incoming wave. States that deliberately sample near potential sources of pollution, such as storm drains, tend to have higher percent exceedance rates than states that do not. In Dare County, lateral sampling is performed after a storm to determine the extent of the bacteria plume from discharging storm drains. Lateral sampling is also done at some sites when the running monthly geometric mean water quality standard is exceeded in order to determine the extent of the contaminated area. NCDENR samples after storm events, sewage spills, dredge disposal, and floodwater pumping to confirm safe bacteria levels before lifting preemptive advisories. States that monitor more frequently after exceedances are found and after storm or pollution events will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and fewer total closing/advisory days than they would if their sampling frequency did not increase after an exceedance or a storm or pollution event.

North Carolina also monitors for Karenia brevis, a marine alga responsible for causing a harmful algal bloom often called a red tide. When a K. brevis bloom is detected off the east coast of Florida, satellite imagery is used to locate the Gulf Stream. When the Gulf Stream comes near the North Carolina coast, sampling for K. brevis begins. If nearshore K. brevis levels present a health concern, beach advisories will be issued, but as yet, such advisories have not been warranted.

Standards and Procedures: The NCDENR does not have the authority to close beaches; it issues alerts and advisories only. However, the state and county health directors do have the authority to close any body of water if necessary for the protection of public health. he public is notified of alerts and advisories through press releases, the NCDENR website, and other avenues. Signs are posted at the beach only for advisories. Also, advisory days are reported to EPA and included in this state summary, but alerts are not.

North Carolina uses the Enterolert® method for analysis instead of the membrane filtration method. Enterolert® produces bacterial counts in terms of most probable number (mpn) rather than colony forming units (cfu), but both of these values are intended to represent the number of viable organisms in a sample. From May 1 to September 30, North Carolina's water quality standards at its Tier 1 beaches are a single-sample maximum of 104 mpn/100 ml and a geometric mean of at least 5 of the most recent regularly spaced samples within a 30-day period of 35 mpn/100 ml. At Tier 2 beaches the standard is a single-sample maximum of 276 mpn/100 ml, and at Tier 3 beaches the standard is a single-sample maximum of 500 mpn/100 ml. The geometric mean standard is not applied to Tier 2 and Tier 3 beaches. During April and October, the standard for Tier 1 beaches is generally the same as the standard for Tier 2 beaches. However, the NCDENR generally opts to apply Tier 1 standards during those months if temperatures are warm enough for high recreational use.

North Carolina has an elaborate process for determining when to issue a notification, and the process varies according to tier.

  • Tier 1 beaches whose water quality exceeds standards more than just occasionally are sampled in triplicate, while other Tier 1 beaches have one sample taken per sampling event. For Tier 1 beaches that are sampled in triplicate, an advisory is issued without resampling when two out of three simultaneous samples exceed 104 mpn/100 ml. Between May 1 and September 30 at Tier 1 beaches that are not sampled in triplicate, an alert is issued for beaches when enterococcus levels are between 104 and 500 mpn/100 ml. A second sample is collected immediately when an alert is issued, and if levels in the resample exceed 104 mpn/100 ml, the alert converts to an advisory. It is rare for an alert at a Tier 1 beach to convert to an advisory, in part because alerts are rarely issued at these beaches, which have a history of good water quality. Resamples taken after an alert is issued almost never exceed standards. Alerts do not apply to beaches that are sampled in triplicate. An advisory is issued without a resample at Tier 1 beaches if a single sample is greater than 500 mpn/100 ml or if the geometric mean of at least five of the most recent regularly spaced samples taken over the space of 30 days exceeds 35 mpn/100 ml.
  • For Tier 2 beaches, an alert is issued if a sample is between 276 and 500 mpn/100 ml, and a resample is conducted. This alert converts to an advisory if the resample level exceeds 276 mpn/100 ml. An advisory is issued without a resample at Tier 2 beaches if a single sample is greater than 500 mpn/100 ml.
  • Alerts are not issued at Tier 3 beaches. Instead, Tier 3 beaches are resampled if fecal indicator bacteria levels are higher than 500 mpn/100 ml, and if the second sample is above that level, an advisory is issued.

The NCDENR observes fecal coliform results from the state's shellfish-growing waters in order to get an indication of water quality at nearby recreational sites, but fecal coliform results are not used to issue advisories or alerts.

During extreme rain events such as tropical storms and hurricanes, the NCDENR may issue blanket advisories that cover large regions or all of coastal North Carolina. This type of advisory is not reported to the EPA and does not appear in NRDC's data analysis. In addition, permanent signs are posted on either side of storm drain outfalls stating that swimming between the signs is not recommended and that waters may be contaminated by discharge from the outfall (NRDC data do not include this type of standing advisory). Otherwise, preemptive rainfall advisories (advisories issued after rain, before monitoring results are available) are not issued because, according to the state, monitoring data indicate that water quality at ocean beaches is not affected by rainfall except near storm drains. Preemptive advisories are issued after known sewage spills, or when dredged material from closed shellfishing waters is placed on ocean beaches.

The monitoring, evaluation and notification procedures for coastal recreational waters in North Carolina are explained in more detail in 15A NCAC 18A.3400 Coastal Recreational Waters Monitoring, Evaluation, and Notification, which was adopted by NCDENR effective February 1, 2004.

During the swimming season (April through October), the Recreational Water Quality Program Website is updated in the afternoons on a daily basis after the laboratory analysis is complete. Swimming advisories and maps of the current monitoring sites can also be viewed by visiting this site. News releases are issued concerning beach closures and water quality swimming advisories in North Carolina. Current and historical sampling data can be accessed via the Recreational Water Quality Monitoring Program Website.

A helpful fact sheet explaining the beach water quality monitoring program in North Carolina is The Facts: Recreational Water Quality Monitoring in North Carolina.

NCDENR has a nice fact sheet on stormwater outfall pipes and the signage they use for these locations.

NCDENR also issues widespread precautionary advisories in areas that receive excessive amounts of rain (from tropical storms, hurricanes, etc.) or because of waste water spills and storm water discharge to the beach.

When a storm drain is posted based on sampling, three signs are posted around it delineating the area in which NCDENR recommends that people avoid swimming - one at the pipe and then two to either side of it with arrows pointing inward. A new state rule requires that storm drains be permanently posted if they are actively discharging. One municipality, the town of Kill Devil Hills, proactively decided to permanently post their own signs on storm drains.[1]

Although not directly related to surf zone water quality, the Shellfish Sanitation and Recreational Water Quality Section of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries has a great new feature on their Website - Geographic Information System (GIS) maps showing the areas where high bacteria levels in shellfish have resulted in permanent shellfish closures. The red areas on these maps can also be interpreted as areas of general poor water quality. In addition to being able to view the GIS shellfish maps, Website visitors have access to written closure descriptions and links to Division of Marine Fisheries notices of temporary closures.

National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) has carried out many water quality research projects in North Carolina.

The Phytoplankton Monitoring Network (PMN) is a National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science program operating in ten coastal states with the ultimate goal of linking laboratory scientists to the general public. PMN's seven goals are:

  • To create a comprehensive list of harmful algal species inhabiting coastal marine waters
  • To monitor and maintain an extended survey area along coastal waters throughout the year
  • To isolate areas prone to harmful algal blooms (HABs) for further study by Marine Biotoxins researchers
  • To identify general trends, such as time and area, where HABs are more likely to occur
  • To promote increased awareness and education to the public, particularly students, on HABs
  • To increase the public's awareness of research conducted by federal and state workers on HABs
  • To create a working relationship with open communication between volunteers and researchers through PMN

Water Quality Contact

J.D. Potts
Environmental Supervisor (Recreational Water Quality)
Shellfish Sanitation and Recreational Water Quality
Division of Marine Fisheries
N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Phone: 252-726-6827

Erin Bryan-Millush
Environmental Specialist
Shellfish Sanitation and Recreational Water Quality
Division of Marine Fisheries
N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Phone: 252-726-6827

Patti Fowler
Section Chief
Shellfish Sanitation and Recreational Water Quality
Division of Marine Fisheries
N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Phone: 252-726-6827

Beach Closures

NRDC reported:

In 2013, North Carolina reported 240 coastal beaches, all of which were monitored. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 4% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml marine or estuarine water in a single sample. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and reported samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in North Carolina in 2013 were Waterway Park in Brunswick County (40%); Swanquarter Bay, end of docks on SR 1136 in Hyde County (38%); Dutchman Creek Park on Fish Factory Road near Southport in Brunswick County (35%); Fort Fisher, beach adjacent to NCWRC ramp in New Hanover County (32%); and New River, Wilson Park in Onslow County (30%).

For a bar chart showing a 5-year water quality trend, see NRDC's report.

In June 2013, U.S. EPA released its latest data about beach closings and advisories for the 2012 swimming season. Note that for some states the data is incomplete, making state-to-state or year-to-year comparisons difficult. Here's EPA's BEACH Report for North Carolina's 2012 Swimming Season. EPA also has a direct link to North Carolina beach data. EPA no longer publishes this report.

The United States Geological Survey maintains a Website, USGS Water Resources of North Carolina. This site is a valuable source of information including current projects; online reports, publications, and maps; real-time water conditions; and educational outreach material for teachers and students.

North Carolina Sea Grant is another source of information on water quality issues in North Carolina.

Storm Drains and Sewage Outfalls

Storm Drains

There are 26 storm drains on the coast of North Carolina. By county, they are distributed as follows: Dare (8), Carteret (5), New Hanover (12), and Brunswick (1).[2] The storm drains are mapped, with the data stored at the NC Shellfish Sanitation and Recreational Water Quality office in Morehead City. The data is available upon request.[3]

The storm drain count was slightly different in a article published on July 24, 2004. That article claimed that there were 35 drainpipes along the coast, but only 19 that actively discharge into the ocean (ten on Dare County beaches, six in Carteret County, and three at New Hanover County beaches).

There are several planned projects to re-route storm drains to eliminate direct ocean discharge. The state budget directed the Department of Transportation (DOT) to spend as much as $15 million in the 2004-2005 year on projects using innovative technologies to filter stormwater from state-maintained drainpipes. Two such stormwater projects are ones at the towns of Nags Head and Kure Beach. The Nags Head project involves solving a drainage problem at Whalebone Junction and removing a drainpipe. The town acquired an 11-acre tract of land that may be used to re-direct stormwater runoff. The town of Kure Beach has asked the Clean Water Management Trust Fund for $8.7 million to remove 18 ocean drainpipes and reroute the stormwater to about 20 acres of march to filter out pollutants before the water reaches the Cape Fear River. The Trust Fund directors have deferred action on the project pending an agreement for DOT assistance.

As mentioned above, the town of Kure Beach considered diverting runoff from the pipes to a wetlands area on land owned by the U.S. Army as a buffer zone between the population and the neighboring Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point. Estimates for that plan proved too costly. So, in February 2006, the Town’s Public Works Department installed an underground alternative to the old outfall pipes near L. and M. Avenues along the oceanfront. The alternative uses underground chambers to hold rainwater and allow it to filter through the ground instead of simply draining into the ocean. After a summer of testing, the system has worked as planned with positive results. The system was designed by the NC State University Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering and paid for by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). The new design is part of a pilot program to help mitigate or eliminate the discharge of storm water across the beachfront and into the ocean.

More recently, researchers from North Carolina State University designed and built dune filtration systems under dunes in Kure Beach. A three-year study found that the dune systems reduced the concentration of bacteria in stormwater runoff by 96 percent. The systems consist of large, open-bottomed chambers that effectively divert the stormwater into dunes, which serve as giant sand filters. Read more. The paper, "Long-term study of dune infiltration systems to treat coastal stormwater runoff for fecal bacteria," is published in the March 2013 issue of Ecological Engineering.

An article published in Coastal Review Online on November 23, 2015 discussed the success in reducing stormwater runoff flows and pollution by installing and modifying bioswales along selected streets in Oak Island. Preliminary estimates indicate that the volume of stormwater kept from streaming down a series of town streets and ultimately into waterways around the island has been reduced by about 77 percent.

Scientists at the North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute in Manteo and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have embarking on a study that focuses on nine ocean outfalls from Baum Street in Kill Devil Hills to Old Oregon Inlet Road in Nags Head. The work is part of a pilot project paid for by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The state provided $15 million for the 2006-2007 fiscal year to the DENR to investigate and clean up pollution from stormwater ocean outfalls. The engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol will use the information from the study to design solutions. Due in part to lack of rain during 2007, Phase I of the study has continued past the scheduled June 2008 completion. Researchers would like to collect more data from significant storm events to better understand watershed-specific trends and patterns of pollution delivery. Phase I data will be used to set up Phase II. In Phase II, after application of best management practices (BMPs), a comprehensive monitoring project will occur for all nine outfalls.

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources is doing a comprehensive water quality and quantity study of eight (8) state-maintained (NCDOT) ocean outfalls in Dare County. Johnny Martin of Moffatt & Nichol is the study manager for this study and the water quality data is being collected and analyzed by the Coastal Studies Institute (East Carolina University) and the Institute of Marine Sciences (UNC-CH). This first phase of this study, which will include the cost of installing one or two sponge filter inserts and which has a total cost of approximately $1,400,000, was scheduled to be completed in June of 2008, monitoring will continue after that date. The goal is to determine if there is a problem with the quality of water being discharged from these outfalls and, if so, what measures (BMPs) need to be implemented to solve any problems.

An article published on October 2, 2015 in Coastal Review Online discussed some of the findings of the draft report, called the Ocean Outfall Master Plan. The final report is expected around the end of 2015. “The … results from monitoring of outfalls from this study, conducted over a wide range of storm events, clearly indicate that Enterococcus sp. levels along beaches impacted by outfall discharge consistently exceed water quality standards throughout and well after a storm event,” the document said. “Furthermore, the impact of the Enterococcus sp. contamination appears to extend to distances in exceedance of 100 meters up and down the beach from outfall pipes.” The report lauded the town of Nags Head for the septic-tank initiative it launched in recent years that involves voluntary citizen participation in inspection and maintenance of septic tanks in town. So far, Kill Devil Hills has not adopted a similar program. But town manager Debora Diaz said she has made the board of commissioners aware of the draft plan.

Sewage Outfalls

There are no ocean sewage outfalls in North Carolina.[4] Sewage treatment plants in North Carolina typically discharge to rivers which discharge to the ocean. Sewage outfall maps and data are scheduled to be available online by April 2004.[5]

In late 2004, a sewage treatment plant serving the Coast Guard base at Cape Hatteras had to be moved to the west side of an access road that serves the plant and a housing project, due to erosion of the dunes that protected the facility.

A large (estimated 3 million gallons) sewer spill occurred into Hewletts Creek in New Hanover County in July 2005. A blanket advisory was issued by N.C. Division of Water Quality covering all of Hewletts Creek and all marsh tidal creeks adjacent to Hewletts Creek, an area of approximately four square miles. City officials estimated that the spill killed 500 fish. Testing in the middle of Hewletts Creek the day after the spill showed 270,000 colonies of fecal coliform per 100 milliliters, as compared to a swimming standard of 200 colonies per 100 milliliters. Sampling at the same location on subsequent days showed 21,000 colonies two days after the spill and 220 colonies three days after the spill.

An editorial in the Wilmington Star on July 22, 2005 criticized Wilmington officials for not taking action to correct a history of sewer spills even after being warned by state officials in 2004 that their sewer system was among 25 "problematic" systems.

Testing of sediments nearly two weeks after the Hewletts Creek spill found bacteria levels that ranged from three to 30 times normal levels.

Unbelievably, there was ANOTHER sewer spill into Hewlett's Creek (and onto Shipyard Boulevard and Pine Valley Drive) in September 2005. As with the July spill, the city didn't know sewage was flowing until someone reported it. But this time, the city announced the 750,000-gallon spill within an hour and made efforts to notify city residents. The spill was stopped after a clamp was installed on a 24-inch-diameter sewer pipe. And ANOTHER sewage spill sent an estimated 15,000 gallons of wastewater into Cape Fear River in October 2005. In late February 2006 reported that there had been another sewage leak in Wilmington affecting Hewlett's Creek and that a total of about 4 million gallons of raw sewage had leaked into area waterways in the preceding year from about two dozen different spills.

The City of Wilmington was fined $51,492 in August 2005 for the Hewletts Creek spill. At the same time, Elizabeth City was fined $65,415 for a 5.6 million gallon sewage spill into Knobb's Creek in the Pasquotank River watershed that occurred on May 3, 2005. Although these fines are reportedly the two lagest such fines in state history, they equate to only about 1.2 to 1.7 cents per gallon of sewage spilled. And after whining from the Elizabeth City, The North Carolina Division of Water Quality reduced the fine for the Knobbs Creek spill by nearly $10,000.

The state Division of Water Quality has stated that it has logged more than 500 wastewater releases in New Hanover County since 1997.

In May 2007 the U.S. EPA sent a letter to the city of Wilmington stating that the city had violated the Clean Water Act with at least 103 sewer spills that had reached public waters since late 2001. Also in May 2007, state regulators sent a letter to the city of Wilmington saying that Wilmington, New Hanover County and Wrightsville Beach should stop issuing building permits until the sewer issues "can be adequately resolved."

In September 2007 it was announced that the State Environmental Management Commission had approved Wilmington's plans to fix the sewer system. The city agreed to fix the line by June 2008 or face fines. As soon as the work is completed, the state will lift a moratorium on new building permits and sewer extentions. For more information on this issue, contact Surfrider Foundation's Cape Fear Chapter.

In Durham, there were 24 reported sewer spills between July 1, 2004 and June 30, 2005. This compares to 35 spills totaling nearly 500,000 gallons in 2003-2004. Statewide, North Carolina had more than 2500 sewer spills in 2004, according to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Blockages of sewer lines due to grease from both residential and commercial areas accounted for a large percentage of the spills.

On December 3, 2002 state coastal regulators issued a permit to Currituck County to install ocean discharge pipes for a reverse osmosis water treatment plant. The Division of Coastal Management previously had denied the county a Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) permit because the discharge pipes would be installed underground seaward of the first line of stable natural vegetation. State rules largely prohibit the placement of structures seaward of the vegetation line along the oceanfront. The county then petitioned the state Coastal Resources Commission for a variance. The CRC granted the variance at its October meeting, clearing the way for the county to obtain a CAMA permit. Conditions on the permit require Currituck County to obtain a final National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from the state Division of Water Quality before installing the pipes.

As with many coastal states, storm water runoff is a significant source of nonpoint source pollution in North Carolina. However, the state has limited resources to conduct storm water permit compliance inspections within its twenty coastal counties. Therefore, in 2004, the Coastal Nonpoint Program collaborated with the Division of Water Quality permitting staff to conduct a storm water permit compliance study within four southern coastal counties in order to gain a better understanding of what the main issues are regarding storm water permit compliance. The study was intended to enable them to more effectively focus their limited compliance resources and identify gaps where addition education and outreach efforts or policy changes may be needed. North Carolina used Coastal Nonpoint Program and state funds to create a common inspection datasheet, develop a tracking database, and hire a staff person to conduct the inspections. Over a one year period, the staff person made over 500 site inspections to assess storm water permit compliance. The sites were randomly selected from over 3,600 storm water permits issued between 1998-2002. Approximately half of the permits examined represented low-density developments and the other half represented high-density. In North Carolina, low-density development thresholds vary from 12-30% impervious surface depending on the classification of the receiving stream. If low density design criteria cannot be met, then high density development requires the installation of structural best management practices to collect and treat storm water runoff from the project.

The study found that high density sites had a higher rate of maintenance violations (32.5%) compared to low-density sites (14.5%). Both development densities had minimal impervious surface violations (~4.5%). As might be expected, the study also found that low-density projects, while having a smaller percentage of impervious surface cover, were typically four times larger than their high-density counterparts. Thus, on a per capita basis, low-density developments added considerably more total impervious surface coverage to the landscape compared to high-density projects. The impervious surface impacts from low-density projects underscore the importance of long-term compliance review for these developments. Currently, North Carolina only requires storm water permits for high-density projects be renewed periodically.

As a result of the survey, the state has taken over 80 compliance actions to improve storm water management. The findings are also being used to drive other policy decisions. To improve communication with permittees, especially in regard to maintenance expectations, the State is exploring automating their Design Certification process. Currently the state requires the permittee to certify in writing that the project has been constructed in accordance with the approved storm water management plan. However, because the system is currently not automated, it has been difficult for the state to track and follow up on the certifications. An automatic tracking system would facilitate this.

North Carolina is also considering developing maintenance manuals and maintenance checklists to issue with all permits. In addition, the study findings, combined with other information, were used to evaluate the effectiveness of North Carolina’s coastal storm water regulations in protecting coastal waters. The evaluation showed that the regulations are not providing the protection needed and efforts are underway to revise the regulations governing new development. For additional information, contact Gloria Putnam at

In July 2004 the NC General Assembly passed a stormwater bill supported by developers and local governments and opposed by most environmental groups. The bill requires stormwater permits in urbanized areas, but in areas that are about to develop rapidly, permits are not required. Lawmakers called the final stormwater bill a temporay fix and promised to review legislation in 2005 to fill in gaps in coverage.

The state Division of Water Quality recommended a number of changes after a study in 2005 found current rules didn't do enough to protect water quality. Under the proposed rules, development within half a mile from draining into shellfish waters could be no more than 12 percent impervious surface, rather than the current 25 percent. In other places, the limit on impervious surface would be changed from 30 percent to 24 percent. Also under the new regulations, wetlands would be excluded when calculating those percentages. Bigger areas would be allowed, however, if storm water controls such as man-made wetlands or rain gardens were used. Other proposed changes include reducing the amount of land that can be disturbed in development from one acre to 10,000 square feet.

In response, Currituck and Dare counties and the towns of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk and Southern Shores passed resolutions objecting to draft rules. As of fall 2007, Manteo was the lone Dare County town to support the proposed changes. Duck had not passed a resolution one way or the other. The changes have already been made in Brunswick, New Hanover and Onslow Counties.

New stormwater rules were adopted by the Environmental Management Commission in January 2008, were then passed by the N.C. Rules Review Commission, were taken up during the General Assembly’s short session in May 2008 and were signed by Gov. Mike Easley in August 2008. The rules are designed to protect shellfishing (SA) waters and do so by making development regulations more restrictive, particularly areas that are within a half-mile of SA waters. Components of the rules include reducing the low-density threshold for implementing stormwater controls to manage runoff from a one-year, 24-hour storm for areas within that half-mile area from 25 percent to 12 percent. For areas outside that half-mile, the low-density threshold is 24 percent and must control the first 1.5 inches of rainfall. Vegetative setbacks or buffers from waterways were increased from 30 to 50 feet, and wetlands can not be used in the equation to determine how much impervious surface can be placed on a development. The rules apply to any nonresidential development impacting 10,000 square feet or more and residential developments impacting 1 acre or more. Residential development greater than 10,000 square feet but less than 1 acre in the 20 counties do not need a stormwater permit, but Best Management Practices (BMPs), such as using rain barrels and pervious material for driveways and roads to control stormwater, are necessary. More NCDENR stormwater info.

The Division of Water Quality's online Document Management System is a repository of files on development projects, which include buffer impacts, stream determinations and mitigation, as well as certifications and stormwater management plans that are required under Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act. The types of documents available include site plans, monitoring records, inspection reports, photos and approval letters and notations from agency staff that review projects. To search documents, contact or call 919-807-6363 for a user ID and password, and then click on the link above to log in.

N.C. Coastal Federation’s annual 2008 State of the Coast Report focused on the effects that polluted runoff, now the largest source of water pollution on the coast, has had on the state’s most-sensitive waters.

The mission of North Carolina's Ecosystem Enhancement Program is to "restore, enhance, preserve and protect the functions associated with wetlands, streams and riparian areas, including but not limited to those necessary for the restoration, maintenance and protection of water quality and riparian habitats throughout North Carolina." The program has a long list of preservation success stories.

The North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund works across the state to help identify, design and help pay for land and water acquisition projects. It helps provide buffers, set aside natural areas and preserve wetlands that help filter runoff and keep surface and groundwater clean.

The North Carolina Public Interest Research Group (NCPIRG) has released a report, Polluted Runoff in North Carolina: The effect of polluted runoff on North Carolina's waters (November 2005). The report details the harm caused by polluted runoff, analyzes North Carolina’s current regulations, and examines the need for more protective regulations.

Water 2030 (scroll down to 'Clean Water') was a statewide water resources initiative launched in March 2004 to ensure that North Carolinians in every part of the state have access to ample supplies of clean water. The initiative produced extensive information on the state's long-term water supply and public infrastructure and will actively engage leaders and citizens in discussions about North Carolina's water future. The "Water 2030" report recommends that the General Assembly should approve a $1 billion bond referendum to help the state's poorest regions upgrade their aging water and sewer systems. The report also recommends that the Legislature create a permanent revenue source to pay for water, sewer and stormwater runoff system needs.

No Discharge Areas

A no-discharge zone prohibits boaters from dumping any waste – even if it’s treated by an onboard sanitation system – within designated waters. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined there are enough waste-pumping stations in New Hanover County (nine marinas with approved pumps and waste disposal systems) to support banning boaters from discharging their waste into the area’s coastal waters. The proposed no-discharge zone would cover the entire coast of New Hanover County, out to three nautical miles, plus the Intracoastal Waterway and all the tidal creeks that drain to it. Since New Hanover County would be the first such zone along the North Carolina coast, the state is starting a pilot program by January 2010, with the law going into effect in July 2010, after the no-discharge zone is expected to be approved.

On a related note, the General Assembly passed a law in 2009 that would require marinas in a no-discharge zone to have pump out services and keep appropriate records. Boaters would also have to maintain a record of their pump outs

Water Quality Contact (Runoff and Outfalls)

Shellfish Sanitation Section, Marine Fisheries Building
Post Office Box 769
Morehead City, NC 28557-0769
Telephone: (252) 726-6827
Fax: (252) 726-8475

Also see location information for DWR Water Quality Programs.

Perception of Causes

A study was set to begin early in 2004 through Coastal Studies Institute (CSI) at the University of North Carolina on areas with repeated postings. This is a joint project between Shellfish Sanitation Section, CSI and other partners. The study will be testing some of storm drain outfalls using bacterial source tracking methodology. Dr. Nancy White, the director of the CSI, is the contact for the study. She can be reached at

Many of North Carolina's beach areas are relatively undeveloped and have little impervious surfaces which tend to promote stormwater runoff. The ocean beaches are on narrow barrier islands which equate to small drainage areas. As a result, the majority of advisories are issued on rivers and sounds instead of ocean beaches. Most advisories are lifted after 24 hours.

With 8.9 million swine, North Carolina is the second-largest pork producer in the nation. The farms produce large amounts of manure and urine, which are flushed from barns into open-air waste ponds and later applied to fields as fertilizer. The lagoons have polluted waterways when they flooded and angered neighbors concerned about their health. Read more about this in a National Geographic article from October 2014. From the article:

"According to a 2008 GAO estimate, hogs in five eastern North Carolina counties produced 15.5 million tons of manure in one year. To handle all that waste, farmers in North Carolina use a standard practice called the lagoon and spray field system. They flush feces and urine from barns into open-air pits called lagoons, which turn the color of Pepto-Bismol when pink-colored bacteria colonize the waste. To keep the lagoons from overflowing, farmers spray liquid manure on their fields nearby. The result, says Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is this: "The eastern part of North Carolina is covered with shit.""

In a separate study, USGS scientists took water samples from 54 agricultural sites to find the differences between those with and without concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). They found that 58 percent of the watersheds with CAFOs had water quality that reflected the presence of swine or poultry farms. Read more here. And, oh yeah, pig waste may be implicated in the feminization of male fish.

In June 2016 a first-of-its-kind interactive map revealing the locations of more than 6,500 concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs, across the state of North Carolina was released by Waterkeeper Alliance, North Carolina Riverkeeper organizations and Environmental Working Group (EWG). In addition to swine and cattle CAFOs, the project documents the locations of more than 3,900 poultry operations, which up until now have been shielded from the people of North Carolina. The maps, which EWG and Waterkeeper Alliance researchers spent more than three years making, provide a never-before-seen aerial view of the CAFOs blanketing the state. This includes the manure lagoons from swine operations, detailing how close they are to streams, rivers and other public water sources.

With the help of $17.3 million from the hog producers, North Carolina State University researchers have identified five systems that won't damage the environment as much as the existing waste disposal method. Unfortunately, the existing alternatives appear to cost two to five times as much as the lagoon and spray-field methods. The developers of two technologies have been given time to refine their processes and try to cut costs. The additional research, which should be finished by late summer 2006, is being financed by a $1.2 million state grant.

Under an agreement, once North Carolina State University researchers identified the alternatives, Smithfield Foods Inc. and Premium Standard Farms Inc. were to switch to the new disposal system within three years, if it was economically feasible. An economic advisory panel deadlocked on a definition of feasible, but the majority of its members endorsed the idea that farmers should accept at least some increased cost, even if it meant decreasing the number of hogs in the state by 12 percent. But the farmers decided economic feasibility means no increased cost of doing business. The pact did not seek to close farms or reduce the number of hogs in North Carolina, they said.

Meanwhile, this August 2015 article in Bloomberg Businessweek criticized USEPA for not revising their waste disposal regulations to address the problem. From the article:

In 2010, after being sued by the Waterkeeper Alliance and other environmental groups, the EPA pledged to reconsider a rule issued during the George W. Bush administration exempting feedlots from having to disclose hazardous emissions to the agency and the public. Five years later, the EPA hasn’t done anything about it. On July 13 agency lawyers went back to court and said the regulations wouldn’t be changed after all.

Water quality assessment data, including the state's 303 (d) list of impaired waterbodies and the latest Integrated Report can be found here.

Public Education

North Carolina uses brochures, fact sheets, websites, signs, maps and public meetings with health departments, county commissioners and town councils, local government officials, tourism interests, children's summer camp operators, environmental groups and the general public to educate the public about water quality issues and their role in water quality improvement.[6]

DWR Water Quality Programs has a nice water U know! website that has information on a wide variety of water topics.

In 2007 alone, DCM conducted workshops on Sea Level Rise, Coastal Development Rule Updates for Marine Contractors, Barrier Island Development Issues, Septic Systems for Realtors, Clean Marinas, and Coastal Explorations. People were also educated using reserve site field trips, Estuary Live broadcasts and other educational activities conducted by the staff of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve. The Spring 2007 Estuary Live broadcast alone reached more than 1,800 participants.

Also in 2007, DCM revitalized the North Carolina Clean Marina Program by hiring the first dedicated staff member to implement the program. Thanks to her efforts, five new clean marinas were certified in 2007, and two workshops for marina owners were held in early December. The Clean Marina program is a voluntary program designed to show that marina operators can help safeguard the environment by using management and operations techniques that go above and beyond regulatory requirements.

There is a tremendous amount of good information for residents and businesses regarding stormwater pollution at

The website for the Stormwater Engineering Group at NC State University/NC A&T University Cooperative Extension provides access a large number of useful stormwater-related publications under their Urban Waterways series.

With leadership from the State's Coastal Nonpoint Program coordinator, partners from across North Carolina state agencies and programs came together to fund a water quality planner position. This position, part of the Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO) Network, is providing targeted education and assistance to coastal communities by performing land use plan reviews, conducting meetings with local government land use planners and commissions, organizing workshops, and obtaining grants for community level smart growth projects. Through recognition of shared goals and the root causes of coastal impacts, agencies have been able to capitalize on the value of jointly funding and supporting a planning position that helps communities grow and develop in smarter ways. Outcomes achieved thus far include improved nonpoint source policies in land use plans and local ordinances, and secured funding from a competitive smart growth grant offered through the NOAA-EPA Coastal Community Development Partnership.

Educational information on shellfish safety for consumers, processors and sellers is available (in six languages) at

An additional wealth of water quality information can be found here.

An organization that has worked for many years for "the restoration and protection of coastal water quality and habitat; the encouragement of sound environmental programs and their enforcement; and the delivery of effective education programs" is the North Carolina Coastal Federation. The North Carolina Coastal Federation has an extensive list of publications available online.

COSEE SE, working with various Sea Grant organizations and others has produced numerous resources for educators.

Created in 1996, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund makes grants to local governments, state agencies and conservation non-profits to help finance projects that specifically address water pollution problems.

The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science-sponsored scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences have recently created a new, avant-garde website on Cyanobacterial Harmful Algal Blooms (CyanoHABs). The website, as an educational and public health informational tool, delivers user-friendly facts about affected habitats, toxins, impacts, and a guide to their latest CyanoHAB research. Future development of the site may include historic perspectives, including prior publications and reports dealing with CyanoHAB dynamics, management, and human health issues. CyanoHABs are algae blooms that threaten humans, animals, and/or the environment. These blooms of cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, have become more wide-spread and pose serious threats to water quality, fisheries, animal and human health.

If you shuck it - Don't chuck it. That's the tagline for a North Carolina program that is using old oyster shells to make new ones. New reefs are being built from oysters across the state with much success. Airlie Gardens is just one location in the county that has created a thriving oyster population from new reefs. There are plenty of benefits to more oysters in the water. A single six inch oyster in a high flow area can filter fifty gallons of water each day. So the more oysters, the cleaner the water. That's is a good thing for waters like Bradley Creek that have been too polluted for safe shell fishing for years. The state-wide program from the Division of Marine Fisheries is asking all citizens to recycle their old shells after they eat them. Doing so not only cleans the water, but also benefits a dwindling oyster population.

General Reference Documents and Websites

EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.

NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, has released an interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.


  1. Erin Bryan-Millush NCDENR. Surfrider State of the Beach survey response. December 2003.
  2. Mike Lopazanski, personal communication. June 17, 1999.
  3. J.D. Potts, Shellfish Sanitation Branch. Surfrider State of the Beach survey response. July 8, 2002.
  4. Mike Lopazanski, personal communication. July 20, 2000.
  5. Erin Bryan-Millush, NCDENR. Surfrider State of the Beach survey response. December 2003.
  6. Erin Bryan-Millush, NCDENR. Surfrider State of the Beach survey response. December 2012.

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