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Trends in water quality of selected streams and reservoirs used for water supply in the Triangle area of North Carolina, 1989–2013

July 18, 2018

As the population of the Triangle area in central North Carolina increases, the demand for good quality drinking water from streams and lakes within the upper Neuse and upper Cape Fear River Basins also increases. The Triangle area includes Raleigh, Cary, Research Triangle Park, Durham, Chapel Hill, and the surrounding communities. The U.S. Geological Survey examined temporal trends in water quality for 13 stream and 8 reservoir sites in the two basins on the basis of data collected during 1989–2013. Trends were analyzed using a fitted time-series model that accommodated for shifting trends and variations in streamflow at multiple time scales. Seventeen water-quality properties and constituents were evaluated, including specific conductance and major ions, nutrients, and organic carbon. Suspended solids and suspended sediment were examined at stream sites; chlorophyll a and Secchi transparency were examined at lake sites.

The investigation identified considerable changes in population, land cover, streamflow, and selected water-quality characteristics in the study area over the 25-year period. Specific conductance and concentrations of calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and chloride tended to increase throughout the study area. Area-wide increases were also observed for organic nitrogen. Trends for other water-quality constituents varied on a more site-specific basis because of local watershed influences such as changes to wastewater-treatment processes and substantial shifts from rural to urban land use. Water quality is influenced by multiple, often confounding factors, and thus may change in a non-uniform manner over time. Long-term monitoring is critical for tracking these trends and ensuring resiliency of water supplies for the future. Results from this study may promote the understanding of water-quality response to a growing population and land-cover changes and can assist water-resource managers in the Triangle area in tracking progress toward water-quality goals.