Water Quality

Great Bay - Photo credit: Rebecca Zeiber

Understanding how to mitigate the impacts of land use change, eutrophication, and contamination in estuarine ecosystems

Located at the interface of fresh riverine and open lake or ocean water, estuaries are characterized by their dynamic water quality. With fresh water from rivers and streams mixing with chemically distinct lake or seawater, the physical, chemical, and biological indicators of estuarine water quality are constantly in flux. These unique environments provide critical habitat for a wide variety of species, as well as key ecosystem services such as water filtration, storm protection, and nutrient regulation.

However, an estuary's unique location also makes it uniquely vulnerable; the delicate balance between water quality, water flows, and habitat can be easily upset by changes in upstream land use or by changes within the adjacent marine ecosystem. Agriculture and septic systems contribute high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen into coastal water bodies, which can lead to harmful algal blooms and hypoxia. Stormwater runoff and industrial waste contribute pathogens, viruses, metals, plastics, and other contaminants into waterways, resulting in negative water quality impacts. Dams, roads, and other man-made barriers disrupt the continuity of rivers and streams, influencing both the flow and quality of freshwater into estuaries. Further, sea level rise and changing precipitation patterns, due to climate change, exacerbate all of these negative water quality impacts.

Understanding how to mitigate the impacts of land use change, eutrophication, and contamination in estuarine systems is a priority need for the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. As a result, Science Collaborative project teams are studying drivers of water quality in estuaries nationwide, testing new ways to combat pollution, and promoting existing and new approaches to preventing contamination.

To learn more about specific projects and research products in this focus area, follow the links below.

Projects             Resources