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geologists collect water
Geology student Brad Panneton helps ECU geologist Terry Woods collect water samples from the bottom of the Pasquotank River. ECU biology student Curtis Hodges (in background) uses a sensor that tracks temperature, movement, salinity and conductivity of the water. (Photo by Erica Plouffe Lazure)


Rulifson Surveys Water Discharge in Albermarle Sound

By Erica Plouffe Lazure

An East Carolina University biologist is giving a water treatment plant in the Albemarle Sound its first-ever bill of health.

Roger Rulifson, an ECU biologist and director of the Field Station for Coastal Studies at Mattamuskeet, has been hired to survey how the Camden water treatment facility affects the waters and wildlife in the sound, particularly around the facility’s discharge pipe in the Pasquotank River. An $870,000 contract with the counties of Pasquotank and Currituck will enable Rulifson and his research team to gather information about the waters and anticipate how the growing demand for more treatment plants in the region could affect the environment.

“The counties are being proactive,” Rulifson said. “They want to build more water treatment plants but they want to do it right; they understand people are attracted to their communities because of the waterfront and the environment it offers and they want to make sure they are able to continue to have it stay as it is.”

The counties hired Rulifson to conduct a three-year study of the sound in order to gauge how the salty discharge of Camden’s reverse osmosis water plant is affecting the sound’s ecosystem. A reverse osmosis plant uses semi-permeable membranes that act as a filter to desalinate and purify water. Plans are in the works to build at least two more water treatment plants in Pasquotank and Currituck counties and officials across the region want to anticipate what effect the discharge from more treatment plants might have on the environment.

There are 17 reverse osmosis water treatment plants in North Carolina. All of them are located in the northeastern part of the state and most discharge into the Albemarle Sound. The most southerly plant is located in Belhaven. There is no permitting process or impact study required for the construction of these water treatment plants, Rulifson said. This study is the first of its kind in the state. Concerns about how the treatment plants’ briny discharge will affect the habitat and waters led to the proposed study, and could serve as a blueprint for future studies as more counties turn to treatment plants to desalinate and treat drinking water.

In addition to identifying nutrients in the water, the research crew tracks water temperature, visibility and conductivity. They also survey and count the numbers of specimens in the food chain, including plankton, clams, crabs and fish in trawls and nets.

“The reason why we are so intense with testing around the discharge location is to see what the plume is doing; which direction it is going and what it is leaving behind,” Rulifson said. “We are also looking at critters who can’t move, like shellfish, to see if they are fewer in number.”

Rulifson, assisted by ECU biologist Roger Robbins and ECU geologist Terry Woods, and student research assistants, will spend the next six months collecting data from the discharge pipe area and along other points in the Pasquotank River. Rulifson hopes to have preliminary data available in 2006 and continue the study through 2008.

 
9/1/05
This page originally appeared in the Sept. 2, 2005 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at http://www.ecu.edu/news/poe/archives.cfm.