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Thursday March 30th

OWASA and UNC professor encourage thoughtfulness during National Water Quality Month

The OWASA building in Carrboro pictured on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.
Buy Photos The OWASA building in Carrboro pictured on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.

August is National Water Quality Month, and the Orange Water and Sewer Authority is using the month to educate local residents through tours and instructional resources.

OWASA Communications Specialist Blake Hodge said that learning about where usable water comes from is a good way to celebrate the month. OWASA offers tours of the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant and the Mason Farm Wastewater Treatment Plant, as well as the Cane Creek Reservoir during the lake's recreation season.

“People can come out and take a kayak around, take a small boat around and do some fishing or sightseeing,” he said. “There’s wonderful wildlife around there as well. So I think that's a valuable thing too, to be able to add some realness and add some perspective, seeing where that water is coming from.”

According to Orange Water and Sewer Authority Strategic Initiatives Manager Mary Tiger, one way to protect water quality on an individual level is to avoid flushing non-flushable items down drains.

“Stuff like grease and wipes really gunk up the system and can cause sewer overflows, which is really bad for water quality and also impacts the infrastructure that's used to clean the water,” she said.

Hans Paerl, a professor of marine and environmental sciences at UNC, has spent some of his month studying algal blooms in Lake Erie with a group of UNC graduate students.

Paerl runs the Paerl Lab out of the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, N.C. He specializes in aquatic microbial ecology and has researched water quality as near as North Carolina and as far as China.

Recently, Paerl has been observing the impacts of climate change, including extreme rainfall and drought events. These drastic events play an important role in stimulating algal blooms, which he said are indicators of serious water quality problems.

“The organisms that cause the blooms, they’re called cyanobacteria or blue-green algae,” he said. “They prefer really warm conditions — so they like it hot, so to speak — and they also like nutrients. Of course, we are responsible for over-fertilizing many of our lakes and water bodies with nutrients coming from a variety of sources.”

Nitrogen and phosphorus are the two most important nutrients in stimulating algal growth. Paerl said excess nitrogen is a serious problem in North Carolina.

He said that while improvements have been made in reducing the amount of phosphorus in our water systems, such as by improving wastewater treatment, the amount of nitrogen continues to increase with urban development, fertilizers and other agricultural inputs.

Some algae also release harmful chemicals and toxins. If these algae bloom in reservoirs, the water becomes undrinkable, and decontamination of drinking water plants is a time-consuming process that can leave those reliant on the plant without accessible drinking water. 

Paerl said that if they are ingested, the toxins released by algal blooms can cause liver function problems, digestive ailments, neurological damage and even death. 

“These blooms have to be routinely tested for these toxins, and that’s true in North Carolina too,” he said. “Jordan Lake is a good example of where we’ve had algal blooms, and we’ve become more vigilant in terms of whether or not the drinking water supplies that come out of that lake and other reservoirs that supply drinking water contain these toxins. So it becomes kind of a detective game trying to figure out which lakes or reservoirs are impacted.”

Paerl said that while there are temporary fixes to remove algal blooms, the blooms have the potential to come back — and the nutrient problem will remain. 

“We just need to be more aware of how our individual activities impact nutrients domestically, but also in a bigger way," he said. "Putting parks in our neighborhoods, leaving in native vegetation and being aware of the fact that a lot of the things we do, a lot of the activities we’re involved in in terms of maintaining our property do involve nutrients.”


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