North Carolina's Pamlico-Tar River Project

At the end of the 1980s, one of North Carolina's largest bodies of water was in dire need of help. From May 1991 to July 1992, at least nine major fish kills had occurred in the Pamlico Sound. The cause, scientists discovered, was countless numbers of "phantom" microbes—a form of swimming algae—that burst forth from a state of suspended animation, swam up into the water, and released a poison that killed millions of fish before becoming inert again a few hours later.

Both the Tar River and the Pamlico Sound were virtually dead. In September of 1989, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Management declared the water body to be "nutrient sensitive" due to the unhealthy amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen draining from the land surrounding the Pamlico Sound. Because of the declaration, the state was required to come up with a plan to improve water quality by reducing point-source emissions. Local governments were facing extreme financial hardship if they alone were required to reduce point sources sufficiently to restore the water quality of the Pamlico-Tar basin.

The citizens of the area petitioned the state to try a different strategy. Instead of relying on a study and plan of action by the state bureaucracy, they gathered people from around the region who had a stake in the water quality of the river. Their plan was to evaluate the effects of all pollution sources. It was the first time a group of environmentalists, industrialists, and scientists joined together with the state to work out a solution. Calling themselves the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation, they committed themselves to reducing the amount of pollution in the water and finding agreeable solutions for those whose livelihood depends on the Tar River and the Pamlico Sound.

The project was broken up into two phases. The first phase gathered some much-needed information. It had been previously thought that the contamination of the rivers was from water treatment plants. However, upon testing for point-source pollution, the foundation learned that only 15 percent of the pollution came from point sources, while the remaining 85 percent was coming from non-point sources.33 Furthermore, there were no benchmark data available to tell the members of the foundation what levels of point and non-point source pollution the waterways could handle safely or how much of the pollution was naturally occurring.

The decision was made to find ways of reducing the point and non-point-source pollution simultaneously. The water treatment plants were organized into one association. They were now going to deal with their pollution as a single entity, instead of facility by facility and town by town. By doing this, the plants could look at the average contamination of all the plants, instead of focusing solely on their own output. This maximized the overall reduction in pollution. Their goal was to reduce point-source contamination by 35 percent over the next five years. However, the plan was so successful that there was an 80-percent reduction in just one year.34

The next problem was trying to help the farmers who were contributing to the non-point-source pollution. The water treatment association decided that instead of having to expand their treatment facilities at a cost of millions of dollars for little nutrient reduction, the plants would pay farmers to adopt Best Management Practices (BMPs) to reduce their runoff. The association donated $850,000 to a pilot program run by the North Carolina Division of Soil and Water Conservation designed to help farmers install better irrigation systems and storage facilities for their water.

Phase One was completed in December 1994. Phase Two began in January 1995 and strove for specific yearly reduction of contaminants in the water for the next nine years. Also in 1995, new standards were implemented on confined animal farms. New farms could not operate without the proper irrigation practices and nutrient-rich water holding facilities. Existing farmers had until 1997 to comply with the new regulations.

So far the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation's efforts have been successful, although the effects of Hurricane Floyd have set progress back slightly. Still there is much cause for optimism. Since the project's inception, the average amount of water flow from wastewater treatment plants has increased by 34 percent, while at the same time the amount of nitrogen has decreased by 34 percent and the amount of phosphorous has decreased by 57 percent.

Pamlico-Tar River Foundation is an example of how human ingenuity was able to successfully reduce pollution in the waterway. It is being used as a model for other communities facing similar situations. According to Bruce Yandle, a professor of economics at Clemson University, the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation solution worked because it was in the best interests of everyone involved. Says Yandle: "Tar-Pamlico introduced a set of economic incentives that made pollution control pay and everyone gained, including the river."35