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Grant Funds Examination of Triangle-area Reservoirs

Communities around the Triangle will soon be asked to play a role when it comes to providing information needed for environmental policy decisions – such as how to manage the region’s water supplies – thanks to new research being conducted by area universities.  Researchers from North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Duke University are partnering with the Triangle J Council of Governments (TJCOG) to study the connections between people and nature in the Triangle.

“The boundaries of our natural and political systems don’t match very well, and we’d like to work with Triangle communities to help figure out how to deal with that,” says Dr. George Hess, associate professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State and lead investigator on the project. “For example, the people who drink water from Falls and Jordan Lakes are, largely, not the same people who live in the places that water comes from – they live in different cities, towns and counties. Where is most of the pollution coming from? What are the most effective approaches to reducing it?  And how are the costs of that reduction distributed among the people who use the water and those who take action to keep it clean?  These are the kinds of issues we’ll explore, in support of effective and equitable policy decisions.”

The project, Triangle ULTRA (Urban Long-Term Research Area), is one of 12 such partnerships in the nation funded through a joint, two-year exploratory initiative of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Forest Service. The program is modeled after NSF’s Long-Term Ecological Research network – a program dedicated to providing knowledge to better manage U.S. ecosystems – but with a focus on urban areas. While the exploratory grant provides modest funding for two years, it is leveraged by related state, federal and privately funded projects at the universities and TJCOG.

“The Triangle continues to grow rapidly and our growth threatens to strain our environmental systems beyond the breaking point,” says Sydney Miller, water resources program manager with TJCOG and a project co-investigator. “As a region, we need effective, scientifically based methods for managing our environmental impacts and cost-effective measures in which our communities can have confidence.”

“This is an important place for this kind of project because of the rapid growth, multiple governments and communities sharing the watersheds,” says project co-investigator Dr. Lawrence Band, Voit Gilmore Distinguished Professor and Director of the Institute for the Environment at UNC-Chapel Hill, “and because of the opportunity to develop new theory and tools to study and manage urban ecosystems, merging environmental quality and quality of life.”

To accomplish these goals, the team will bring together scientists, community partners and natural resource management agencies. Project co-investigator Dr. Dean Urban, professor in Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment says, “working across disciplines gives us the opportunity to understand how land use patterns, eco-hydrology, the built environment, and society’s values and actions all interact to affect water, how people use it, and how it’s paid for. I’m excited about the collaboration among universities and we look forward to involving more faculty, community partners, and organizations.”

After the initial two-year phase, focused on water, the team hopes to expand to other ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration and air quality, energy efficiency, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation.

“Our long-term goal is to develop stronger connections among ecological, economic, political and social systems that will help Triangle communities maintain and enhance their quality of life when it comes to our environment,” Hess says. “The emphasis on involving partners beyond the research team will help ensure that the questions we ask are relevant, the methodology is meaningful to those who need the answers, and the answers can be used to inform policy decisions.”