From Left to Right: James Ray, Emily Tucker and Ryan Parks (MEM’19)

DURHAM, N.C.—Ryan Parks, James Ray and Emily Tucker (MEM’19) worked with Triangle Land Conservancy on their group Master’s Project (MP) to help the North Carolina nonprofit develop a more holistic approach for protecting water quality through land conservation.

An MP combines the academic rigor of a thesis with the practical experience of an internship. Working singly or in groups, students apply skills and knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom to tackle real-world environmental challenges for real clients, through a well-formulated and defensible analysis. It is a culminating experience for all Master of Environmental Management (MEM) and Master of Forestry (MF) students at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Duke Environment recently corresponded with Parks, Ray and Tucker, who are pursuing an MEM in water resources management, environmental economics and policy, and ecosystems science and conservation, respectively, to discuss the goals and key findings of their MP as well as how the findings could help provide a foundation for a holistic approach to conservation and a more resilient future for the watershed.

What is the goal of your MP?
Parks: “The goal of our project is to help our client, Triangle Land Conservancy, better integrate their conservation work into a broader strategy for improving water quality in the Jordan Lake watershed. Jordan Lake provides water for more than 600,000 residents in the Raleigh-Durham metropolitan area and its watershed is facing pressures from agriculture and rapid urban development that are leading to a loss of natural habitats and deteriorating water quality. Conservation practices can be an important tool for addressing these challenges.

Jordan Lake Watershed (Credit: Parks, Ray and Tucker)

“With our project we aim to determine how conservation, in the form of land conservation, riparian buffer restoration, and conservation agriculture can be best deployed on the landscape to achieve holistic water management goals – improved water quality, support for rural communities, and protection of natural heritage.” 
What challenges did you encounter with your work?
Tucker: “There’s so much work to be done, and it’s all very exciting. I think narrowing our focus to produce concise and motivating examples of how our three focus areas can be combined has challenged us. We’re still having ‘wouldn’t it be neat if we looked at…’ moments and the report is due in a matter of weeks.”

Ray: “Presenting our findings in an accessible way that can be applied within the decision-making frameworks of conservation organizations like TLC has been a challenge. That’s one of the major reasons we’ve incorporated examples and use cases applying our analysis within the larger report.”

What are the key findings of your MP?
Tucker: “From a connectivity standpoint, protecting the ‘good stuff’ occurs mainly in the upper and lower watershed where connectivity is high and the topography provides buffering capacity against climatic swings. The mid-watershed poses a significant barrier to overall watershed connectivity and is identified as an area where restoration efforts would make a big difference.” 

Ray: “Farmers stand to benefit from the adoption of best management practices (BMPs) that align with the region’s water quality needs. We need to focus on getting the word out regarding the resources and information that’s already available in order to address the resistance to the adoption of BMPs such as cover crops and no-till practices.”

Parks: “With 50% of the watershed still forested, there is an abundance of opportunities to protect water quality through conservation. This work will help conservation organizations identify and secure funding to protect the areas that are most important to water quality. There are also opportunities to improve water quality through the restoration of streamside riparian areas. Our work helps pinpoint areas where this restoration is needed most.”

Water management and conservation in the Jordan Lake area affects many key stakeholders. Did your work address how to identify their shared goals and common needs in order to gain their support?
Ray: “The bottom line is something that all stakeholders have in mind when addressing environmental management issues. These financial considerations guided the development and synthesis of our project components to help highlight areas where multiple benefits could be achieved. If we’re able to incentivize practices that achieve water quality benefits while increasing the income of farms, more people are going to come to the table to get things done.”

Parks: “The context of our project within the broader water management strategy, and all the stakeholders involved, has definitely been at the forefront of our minds since we started the project. We’ve attended multiple Jordan Lake One Water stakeholder meetings to make sure we understand the complex challenges in this watershed. From these meetings we recognized that any management strategy would have to provide benefits to upstream communities, particularly rural farming communities. For this reason, we really focused in on conservation agriculture and riparian buffer restoration as a way to involve these landowners.”

Tucker: “Conservation is increasingly moving in the direction of holistic approaches for a more resilient future. In terms of watershed management, there is enormous opportunity here to provide long-term drinking water solutions while bolstering ecosystem connectivity and function for generations to come. As Ryan mentioned, we’ve focused on riparian buffer restoration and conservation agriculture to meet these objectives, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”