May 2017

In the Spotlight

NC Water Resources Research Institute of the UNC System - Nicole Wilkinson

The NC WRRI of the University of North Carolina System, based at North Carolina State University, is one of the 54 institutes of NIWR located in the U.S. and its territories.  Advised by NIWR and funded with federally appropriated monies through USGS, as well as state funding administered through NC State University, NC WRRI works to connect scientists with decision makers for effective water resource management in a context unique to North Carolina. 

Nicole Wilkinson, just elected to the Board of our Universities Council on Water Resources, talked with us recently to share her experiences as the Coordinator for Research and Outreach for the WRRI.  Nicole earned a B.S. in Marine Science and Biology from the University of Miami, with plans to do pure science research “on a deserted island somewhere where people would not be a distraction!” Her plans quickly changed, after she took time for international volunteer work. Through work on sea turtle conservation and education initiatives with local non-profits and community members in Grenada and Costa Rica,  Nicole realized that to “make a difference and have impact on environmental issues, you need to recognize the human component.”  She returned to the U.S. to earn her interdisciplinary Master of Environmental Management degree in Coastal Environmental Management from Duke University, and began her professional career as the Coastal Training Program Coordinator at the National Estuarine Research Reserve in Georgetown, South Carolina.  Her work there involved “getting research into the hands of those who use it,” and provided her with the experience she needed to take on a similar role for NC WRRI and the state of North Carolina, where a primary role of the institute is to “act as a liaison between science and decision-making.”

NC WRRI is located in Raleigh, North Carolina, in an area known as the Research Triangle, so named because of the three cities (Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill) that host renowned research universities (NC State University, Duke, and UNC-Chapel Hill), and the many high-tech enterprises that have grown up in the area.  This centers NC WRRI in a rapidly growing region of among the fastest growing states in the U.S.  The population growth in North Carolina is due not only to employment opportunities, but also to the great natural resources in the state.  There are 17 major river basins in North Carolina, and almost every community has river access of some kind.  The state is incredibly diverse, featuring distinct mountain, piedmont, coastal plain, and barrier island regions, extensive estuaries and sounds, and dense urban centers contrasted by extensive rural and agricultural landscapes.  People want to live in the state, and there is a perception among the population of good and plentiful water resources.  However, issues of scarcity and quality do exist, even in states like North Carolina, and there is need for raising awareness of these issues with citizens and those in resource management positions.  This is where NC WRRI has been able to make a real impact.

Specializing in coordination among the many water resource researchers, agencies, utilities, and managers located in North Carolina, NC WRRI operates a little differently than many NIWR institutions.  In helping people to work together efficiently and effectively to improve the status of water resources in the state and bordering regions “we serve as a catalyst for getting the right people in the room together. The WRRI coordinates among big areas of research and helps connect the dots so that people can really further goals in water resources.”  What are some of these goals?  Similar to many communities around the U.S. and the world, ensuring clean drinking water, managing waste water, and studying the effects and treatment of emerging contaminants are of concern to NC.  Additionally NC WRRI seeks to involve diverse populations in water quality issues, and does so by sponsoring calls for proposals across the state and seeking ways to actively engage colleges and universities traditionally serving African American men and women, Native Americans, and other historically under-served populations. NC State University tends to lead in engineering research questions, and UNC-Chapel Hill is the largest EPA grant recipient and has a large NIH presence, particularly situating them to lead in public health research questions. “NC WRRI is looking to new disciplines, such as social work, education, and communications at some of the smaller schools to increase community engagement in water resources research and increase the likelihood that research results are applied by end users,” says Nicole. 

Nicole described some notable successes of NC WRRI.  “We have one group operating for 32 years now, the Urban Water Consortium, consisting of the 12 largest drinking and waste water utilities in the state.   Each utility contributes $10,000 per year to the consortium to support applied research. NC WRRI facilitates development of research projects in coordination with universities and utilities so the pooled funding can be invested to greatest impact.”  One such research project recently investigated high 1,4-dioxane levels in NC rivers, identified possible sources, and is working towards treatment options for the contaminant.  Another consortium, the Stormwater Group, has gathered dues-paying municipal stormwater programs to improve water issues in the context of the urban landscape and storm water run-off challenges. NC WRRI’s role in evaluating research proposals helps utility and municipal decision-makers ensure that the research they fund has sound methodology, high likelihood of success and that results can be readily applied. Through these partnerships, the utilities also help NC WRRI ensure that it is supporting research on relevant water issues and high priority needs of end-users.

Nicole helped launch of the NC Watershed Stewardship Network (WSN) in 2015, an enterprise particularly dear to her.  After two years of discussion and planning in what she fondly calls a “coffee shop group,” the group gained enough momentum and commitment from watershed professionals and volunteers around the state to establish itself as a leader on watershed issues. The group works to “identify, include, link and serve watershed professionals and volunteers, matching their skill sets and needs to form skilled, effective collaborations to empower more effective watershed stewardship in NC.” The group has evolved quickly, and is now providing workshops, training, and coordination of external funding for projects.  For example, the Watershed Stewardship Network is one of nine organizations that will be working with the New River Conservancy on a 2-year grant to support a statewide citizen science water quality monitoring program. A key measure of the staying power of the group is indicated by hiring a half-time WSN coordinator onto NC WRRI’s staff (with another half-time coordinator supported by partners at UNC-Chapel Hill). “Seeing this group grow roots and legs is extremely exciting,” Nicole says, though she has become less involved with its activities as its steering committee and co-coordinators take on more leadership roles.

Nicole currently brings her focus to NC WRRI’s growth in other areas, where she describes her role as being a “catalyst for collaboration, with a new understanding of the value of collaboration as a product, not just a means to an end.” What is the ultimate goal of NC WRRI?  “To put ourselves out of work!” laughs Nicole. “Ultimately we always strive toward eliminating water resources issues.” Congratulations to Nicole Wilkinson and the rest of the staff of NC WRRI on their excellent work thus far.

Photo 1 - Keel Eno River, downstream. Credit: Kenny Keel, Town of Hillsboro.

Photo 2 - Ocracoke Island, Outer Banks. Credit: Jason Doll, Moffat & Nichol.

Photo 3 - Rain Garden. Credit: Jennifer Frost, City of Charlotte.

Photo 4 - Stormwater Wetland. Credit: Isaac Hinston, City of Charlotte.

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 April 2017 16:18