In an effort to improve efficiency, increase effectiveness and consistency, North Carolina has used a watershed-based (river basin) approach for protecting and evaluating water quality since 1983. A watershed-based approach includes: addressing various permits; modeling; evaluating wasteload allocations; conducting nonpoint source assessments; performing special intensive studies; and routine monitoring on a river basin scale.
The basin plans were officially written into General Statute in 1997 under Session Law 1997-458 and can be found under General Statute 143-215.8B. The basin planning process, as well as implementation, is a collaborative effort that involves several state and local resource agencies as well the public. To aid in assessing water quality, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Division of Water Resources (DWR) Water Sciences Section (WSS) collects aquatic samples (benthic and fish) on a five-year rotating schedule. Ambient water quality samples are collected monthly or quarterly across the state and are used to ensure state water quality standards are being met based on the waterbody's classification. Human health standards are reviewed and evaluated regularly by DEQ's Public Water Supply Section (PWSS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) provides information on shellfish harvesting and potential threats to shellfish harvesting areas, while the Water Supply Planning Branch (WSPB) and Groundwater Resources Section (GWRS) provides information about water use and availability. All of these assessments allow DWR to identify priority problem areas and target measures (regulatory and/or voluntary) to protect water resources.
Session Law 2013-413 combined the former Division of Water Quality (DWQ) with DWR, which resulted in developing data management schemes and planning initiatives to support the creation of integrated basin plans to address water quality and quantity issues. Information presented in the combined plans support a variety of state and local programs aimed at protecting and improving water resources in North Carolina’s streams, rivers, and estuaries, as well as groundwater. Water resource issues documented in basin plans provide support for local governments, natural resource groups, researchers, soil and water agencies, and other state and local agencies in identifying: current water resource issues; potential impacts from existing conditions; and potential project areas to focus restoration, conservation or preservation activities to protect water quality.