Students Recommend Ways to Improve Monitoring of N.C. Water Reservoirs

With North Carolina enduring extreme drought conditions, examining sedimentation in reservoirs across the state seemed like a timely subject for a consulting project in Professor of the Practice Jim Johnson’s PPS 304 class.

MPP students at Falls LakeThe client, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, wanted policy recommendations related to sedimentation in water supply reservoirs in the state. Sedimentation has both short-term impacts on water quality through accumulation of pollutants and long-term impact on water quantity through reducing the capacity of reservoirs. Johnson put together a team of first-year MPP students who had expressed interest in the project: Jeffery Beelaert, Jeremy Block, Jake Palley and Catherine Shames.

The obvious first step was to examine the data about sedimentation and reservoir capacity, but the team soon discovered the information was not readily available. North Carolina reservoirs have a variety of owners, from private landowners and energy companies to public agencies and local governments. Lacking state mandates, such data is not collected in a standardized manner or even collected at all for many reservoirs.

As the team worked, their varied backgrounds and strengths came to the fore. As a former Marine, Beelaert knew how to talk to the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees many of the state’s reservoirs, about data the team was seeking. It turned out that the best way for the corps to provide the information in a timely fashion was for the team to file a Freedom of Information Act request. Shames drew on her skills as a paralegal to draft the request, with help from attorney Tom Taylor, professor of the practice of PPS.  

Block, a joint MPP and biochemical PhD student, led discussions with the scientists and database managers from the N.C. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

“There was a lot of cross-learning on this project,” he said. “We had the right people to have the right discussions with all the stakeholders.”

Palley has an undergraduate degree in environmental studies and personal experience with severe water shortage. During his service in the Peace Corps in Paraguay, local wells ran dry and he spent the summer using just five gallons of water a day carried up from the river. He also grew up in Colorado, where water supply has always been a serious issue, and consulted with state officials in Denver about their programs.

“The drought highlights the long-term problems with the water supply,” said Palley. “North Carolina needs to keep better track of the reservoir capacity data.”

The final report included six policy options to address the issue that would increase the data available to policymakers and enhance institutional knowledge at the state level. The primary recommendation was for DENR’s Department of Water Resources to hold a conference of reservoir owners and state and local agencies to improve the volunteer reporting system and create an ongoing forum for stakeholders. Second was for the department to increase supervision of targeted high-risk reservoirs. Legislative proposals included amendments to the Sedimentation Pollution Control Act and increased funding for local programs on sediment control.  

The client was very pleased with the end result. The center is conducting a major policy study of water issues in the state and worked with an MPP group last year on a related topic—interbasin water transfers.

“This group was phenomenal,” said Mebane Rash Whitman, the center’s editor. “It was like working with a professional consultant.” The center plans to draft a white paper on the issue and an article for their publication North Carolina Insight. “I expect this work to have a significant impact on state water policy,” she said. 

The executive summary of the report, “Recommended Policies to Address Sedimentation in North Carolina's Reservoirs ,” is available online along with other student projects at sanford.duke.edu/research/students.