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Gushing about Research at Jacksonville’s Forest Water Reuse Facility

USDA water research grant
Dr. Elizabeth Nichols conducting research at the City of Jacksonville Land Treatment Site

Dr. Elizabeth Nichols, Environmental Technology Associate Professor, received a $484,990 USDA grant in March to further her research with forest water reuse facilities. Specifically, she will look at “Municipal Wastewater Application to Forests: Participatory Science to Understand Human Exposure and Risks to Chemical Contaminants of Concern” from May 2016 through April 2020 with fellow researchers Drs. Jason Delborne, Science, Technology and Society Associate Professor; Damian Shea, Zoology Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Diana Rashash, Water Quality and Waste Management Specialized Agent at the Onslow County Extension Center; and Dr. Mark Strynar, Chemist in the US EPA Office of Research and Development in Research Triangle Park.

The USDA awarded more than $8.5 million in grants to improve community water sources across the country. The 10 university grants will support research, education and outreach through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Water for Agriculture Challenge Area, administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The Challenge works with universities like NC State to develop regional systems for sustainable use, reuse, flow and management of water; and at the watershed and farm scales, tackle water issues related to agricultural production and environmental sustainability.

“Access to a sufficient and safe supply of water is critical to our nation’s health and also to our economy, and we must act to protect this precious resource,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release. “The grants we are announcing are the latest of many steps the USDA has taken to help communities who are struggling with water quality. Enhanced federal coordination through the National Drought Resilience Partnership will further support locally-led drought resilience projects to improve residents’ access to water and increase the effectiveness and sustainability of American agriculture.”

land treatment site
City of Jacksonville Land Treatment Site in Onslow County.

Dr. Nichol’s research involves a unique collaboration with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the NC State Cooperative Extension and the city of Jacksonville, N.C., working together on the watershed scale project. The EPA will help identify chemicals in pharmaceuticals and personal care products and what happens to them during the waste water treatment process. The City of Jacksonville Land Treatment Site in Onslow County is one of 86 permitted sites for land application of municipal wastewater in North Carolina and treats nearly 6 million gallons of wastewater daily. The naturally purified waste water is then sprayed on 6,300 acres of cultivated forest land, which functions as a living filter, before being recycled back into the groundwater reservoir.

“We know how forest water reuse facilities perform for removing regulated chemicals like nutrients and regulated contaminants of concern, but do not understand how non-regulated chemicals like pharmaceuticals and chemicals in personal care products will perform,” Dr. Nichols said.

The research study will be participatory, so Dr. Nichols and her team will engage stake holders in the decision making process.

City of Jacksonville Land Treatment Site forest
City of Jacksonville Land Treatment Site forest

“Stakeholders in the community should reflect the values people hold with vested interests in water use and quality,” she said. “Experts, like researchers in the field, have great ideas, but don’t always engage the communities that their research will affect. We want to help stake holders understand what the community values and engage them in the process to drive better communication and decision making. Experts in the field and those managing the system want to better communicate the values and perspectives of the community.”

Ultimately, she hopes to work with stake holders to find better uses for the water used in forest water reuse facilities. The USDA is expecting water shortages in the future and understanding how the trees treat pharmaceuticals and chemicals in personal care products will determine if the water could be used on agricultural lands and food crops or other alternative uses.

Although reuse water is not suitable for human, pet or livestock consumption, reuse water could help reduce the amount of potable water used during seasonal droughts for irrigation and reduce the amount of nitrogen discharged in streams and rivers.

For more information about Forest Water Reuse Facilities and wastewater, visit