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A Watershed-Scale Model for Predicting Nonpoint Pollution Risk in North Carolina

Abstract

The Southeastern United States is a global center of freshwater biotic diversity, but much of the region’s aquatic biodiversity is at risk from stream degradation. Nonpoint pollution sources are responsible for 70% of that degradation, and controlling nonpoint pollution from agriculture, urbanization, and silviculture is considered critical to maintaining water quality and aquatic biodiversity in the Southeast. We used an ecological risk assessment framework to develop vulnerability models that can help policymakers and natural resource managers understand the impact of land cover changes on water quality in North Carolina. Additionally, we determined which landscape characteristics are most closely associated with macroinvertebrate community tolerance of stream degradation, and therefore with lower-quality water. The results will allow managers and policymakers to weigh the risks of management and policy decisions to a given watershed or set of watersheds, including whether streamside buffer protection zones are ecologically effective in achieving water quality standards. Regression analyses revealed that landscape variables explained up to 56.3% of the variability in benthic macroinvertebrate index scores. The resulting vulnerability models indicate that North Carolina watersheds with less forest cover are at most risk for degraded water quality and steam habitat conditions. The importance of forest cover, at both the watershed and riparian zone scale, in predicting macrobenthic invertebrate community assemblage varies by geographic region of the state.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Dr. George Hess for his comments on the manuscript; Dr. Marcia Gumpertz, Amy Nail, and Mark Atlas for their constructive statistics advice; Dr. Jim Gregory for instruction on watershed hydrology and stream ecology; and David Lenat for his insights about the use of the benthic macroinvertebrate indices. Finally, we appreciate the helpful comments from Alan Herlihy and two anonymous reviewers. This project was supported by the US Environmental Protection Agency through Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant 2000-STAR-K3 (EPA Agreement Number R828784). It has not been subjected to EPA review and therefore does not necessarily reflect the views of EPA, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

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Potter, K., Cubbage, F., Blank, G. et al. A Watershed-Scale Model for Predicting Nonpoint Pollution Risk in North Carolina. Environmental Management 34, 62–74 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-004-0117-7

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-004-0117-7

  • Nonpoint source pollution
  • Ecological risk assessment
  • Aquatic ecosystems
  • Land use planning
  • Water quality
  • Forest cover