SWITC course in Schenck Forest

DEQ, NC State Partner to Teach the ‘Science of Streams’

The DWR Surface Water Identification Training and Certification course, or SWITC, ensures staff and consultants can identify streams that will be subject to state rules for riparian buffers, which are areas where trees, grass or other vegetation are required to be preserved alongside streams.

Author: Laura Oleniacz, Hannah Taib, Indyah Bryant

When a writer describes a stream, they might use words like “babbling” or “bubbling,” “gurgling” or “rippling.” When DEQ’s Division of Water Resources experts describe a stream, things get more technical.

DWR and North Carolina State University experts regularly partner to teach new DWR staff, as well as state forestry officials and local government employees, how to identify streams using water levels, soil types and other factors so they can earn their certifications.

“You might say, ‘I’m standing in a stream and that’s obvious, it has water and big banks,’” said Sue Homewood, 401 & Buffer Permitting Branch senior branch coordinator. “But when we identify a stream, we look for how much water there is, the types of soils, the types of rocks and the types of critters that live there.”

The course, called the Surface Water Identification Training and Certification course, or SWITC, ensures staff and consultants can identify streams that will be subject to state  riparian buffer rules. Riparian buffers are areas where trees, grass or other vegetation are required to be preserved alongside streams. These buffers can help filter pollution, such as nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, and dirt from water run-off, helping stabilize the land.

N.C. Fish Kills Spur Clean Water Action

The first of North Carolina’s buffer rules were created in response to large-scale fish kills in the state’s estuaries, coastal water bodies where freshwater and saltwater meet.

Massive fish kills were documented regularly in the summer and fall in the 1980s and 1990s in two sub-estuaries that make up North Carolina’s Albemarle-Pamlico estuary, according to North Carolina State University scientists.

Working with state and federal environmental regulators, researchers from NC State linked fish kills in the estuary to toxic Pfiesteria, a microscopic organism. Pollution with nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which are also considered fertilizers, can contribute to algal blooms, and were also found to stimulate reproduction of Pfiesteria.

State leaders created the Neuse River Nutrient Sensitive Waters Management Strategy to help prevent pollution from entering waterways and flowing downstream. If it’s not managed, nutrients can enter the water in discharged wastewater from water treatment plants, from water running off urban and agricultural areas and other point and nonpoint sources.

Part of the strategy included the creation of rules for riparian buffers. The first rule was created in North Carolina in 1997-1998 for the Neuse River Basin, which begins near Raleigh and empties into the Pamlico Sound. The rules required 50-foot buffers on all streams determined to be perennial (streams where water is present all year long) as well as intermittent streams (which contain water for part of the year) and ponds, lakes and estuaries, in order to help filter nutrient pollution from the water.

“When stormwater runs over the buffer, the trees and other vegetation remove nutrients and other potential pollution,” said Stephanie Goss, 401 & Buffer Permitting Branch Supervisor for the N.C. DEQ Division of Water Resources. “The buffer has many functions. It also serves as a canopy to keep the stream from getting too hot.”

Now, there are additional basins in the state that have requirements for riparian buffers, including the Tar-Pamlico, Randleman Lake Watershed, Catawba River Basin, Goose Creek Watershed and the Jordan Lake watershed. Buffer rules were created for a range of reasons. In Goose Creek, they were created to protect an endangered mussel, while in the Jordan and Randleman lake watersheds, they were created to protect drinking water supplies.

N.C. DEQ officials use the SWITC program to train staff and other experts to identify streams that will be subject to buffer rules, and to make sure streams are classified consistently throughout the state.

From the Classroom to the Field

As part of the SWITC course, students went into Schenck Forest in Raleigh to prove they could identify and classify a stream correctly.

In one portion of the test, the students huddled around a bucket, staring at tiny critters they had captured from pools, roots, the stream bank and under leaves.

SWITC course Schenck Forest photo 2
Photo by Hannah Taib. Students in the SWITC course identified critters in a stream in order to classify it.

Their goal was to identify the insects, amphibians, fish, mollusks and crustaceans they had captured. The presence, or absence, of certain species not only provides insight into the amount of water that is present, but also the quality of the water.

“Different critters need different amounts of water throughout their life cycle, and if you find certain critters, it’s a good indication that there is water there all the time,” Homewood said. “Dragonflies and damselflies will spend most of their life in water in an early stage of life, as one example. We use those critters to guide our decision.”

They also evaluated the stream’s geomorphology, hydrology and biology – evaluating a total of 26 different questions to calculate a score that determines the stream’s status.

The work has direct application to the work of DWR – certifying staff not only to implement rules for buffers, but also to enable staff to handle permits for work that takes place in a stream, and to enforce regulations.

“In order to enforce rules for pollution in our waterways, we have to prove that it’s a stream to begin with,” Homewood said.

Learn more about the Surface Water Identification Training and Certification (SWITC) Course here. More about the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary in North Carolina can be found here

The study, "History of Toxic Pfiesteria in North Carolina Estuaries from 1991 to the Present: Many toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks have plagued the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System, including events both before and after the 1997 outbreaks in Chesapeake Bay" was published in BioScience on Oct. 1, 2011. Authors included JoAnn  Burkholder and Howard B. Glasgow.

The study, "New phantom dinoflagellate is the causative agent of major estuarine fish kills," was published in Nature on July 30, 1992. Authors included JoAnn Burkholder, Edward J. Noga, Cecil Hobbs and Howard B. Glasgow Jr.

The study, "Implications of Harmful Microalgae and Heterotrophic Dinoflagellates in Management of Sustainable Marine Fisheries" was published in Ecological Applications in February, 1998, by JoAnn M. Burkholder.

Story by Laura Oleniacz, photos and video by Hannah Taib, video by Indyah Bryant.

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