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North Carolina Water Systems. Rivers, Wetlands and Tidal Regions. River Basins. Three distinct systems Flow to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi French Broad, Great Kanawha Flow to the Atlantic Ocean through South Carolina Yadkin, Catawba

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North carolina water systems

North Carolina Water Systems

Rivers, Wetlands and Tidal Regions

River basins
River Basins

  • Three distinct systems

    • Flow to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi

      • French Broad, Great Kanawha

    • Flow to the Atlantic Ocean through South Carolina

      • Yadkin, Catawba

    • Flow to the Atlantic Ocean through North Carolina

      • Chowan, Tar, Roanoke, Neuse, Cape Fear

What are river basins
What are River Basins

  • River Basin – portion of land drained by a river

    • Eventually empty into an estuary or ocean

  • There are 17 river basins in North Carolina

  • Drain 52,337 square miles of surface and underground water

  • We ALL live in a river basin

North carolina water systems

Chowan & lower Roanoke

Pamlico & Neuse

Cape Fear

New River

French Broad

North carolina water systems

Pee Dee River Yadkin River

Waccamaw Abbotts Creek

Little Pee Dee (SC) South Yadkin

Lumber Little Yadkin

Lynches Ararat

Little Elkin

Rocky Fisher

Coddle Creek Little Fisher

Uwharrie Mitchell

Little Uwharrie Mulberry



Santee (SC)

Wateree (SC) Congaree (SC)

Catawba Broad

Lower Little Pacolet (SC)

Middle Little North Pacolet

Upper Little First Broad

Johns Second Broad

Linville Green


Little Hungry

What are estuaries
What are Estuaries?

  • Places near the coast where freshwater and saltwater mix

  • Influenced by both the ocean and freshwater source

    • Tides, waves, major storms

  • Time of day and length of the estuary influence the amount of salt

    • More salty at high tide

    • More salty closer to the ocean

How did estuaries form
How Did Estuaries Form?

  • North of Cape Lookout

    • Thick layers of sand, mud and peat deposited over 1.6 million years as different ice ages caused the rise and fall of sea levels

  • South of Cape Lookout

    • Mostly rock covered by a thin layer of sand and mud

    • Formed 90 to 1.6 million years ago

Types of estuaries
Types of Estuaries

  • Three types of estuaries in North Carolina

    • Trunk estuaries

      • perpendicular to the coast, in-line with the rivers that feed them

    • Tributary estuaries

      • Flow into trunk estuaries

    • Back barrier sounds

      • Parallel to the coast between the barrier islands and the mainland shore

Why are estuaries important
Why are Estuaries Important?

  • Erosion and flooding control

    • Sand bars buffer waves

    • Plants and shellfish beds anchor the shore against tides

    • Swamps and marshes absorb high winds and water from heavy rains and storm surge

      • Gradually release this water into rivers and ground water supplies

Why are estuaries important1
Why are Estuaries Important?

  • Filter out toxins

    • Chemically

      • Aerobic respiration, sulfate reduction, methanogenesis

      • Salt marsh plants trap some chemicals and pathogens and move them into soil where they are neutralized

    • Biologically

      • Feeding of estuarine animals and bacteria

      • Oysters that filter impurities out of water as they eat trapping the impurities in their bodies

Why are estuaries important2
Why are Estuaries Important?

  • Animal and plant habitat

    • More than 150 species of fish and invertebrates live in North Carolina estuaries

      • Some species use different habitats within the estuarine system during different stages of their life cycles

    • Underwater plants cover about 200,000 acres on the coast of North Carolina

      • Submerged plants produce oxygen and nutrients used by animal species

Why are estuaries important3
Why are Estuaries Important?

  • Economic

    • Three quarters of the fish caught commercially in the United States live in estuaries

      • on average estuaries produce more food per acre than our most productive farmland

    • About thirty commercial fishing species live in North Carolina estuaries

      • Commercial fishing is important to the national economy and food supply.

    • Tourism and recreation

Threats to estuaries
Threats to Estuaries

  • Land use changes

    • Land is developed for human habitation and use, roads, bridges, culverts, sewage systems, pipelines, and dams

      • change the flow of water through the ecosystem

        • wetlands soak up water like a sponge and settle contaminants in the ground

        • asphalt and concrete deflect water so that it runs off with all its contaminants directly into the rivers, estuaries, and the sea

  • Contamination of rivers and oceans

    • North Carolina estuaries contain 3,000 square miles of surface water, but 30,000 square miles of land drains into the Albemarle-Pamlico

  • Dredging of channels damages plants and oyster beds and stirs up sediment that clouds the estuary water

  • Since European colonization, nearly half North Carolina’s wetlands have been lost, and coastal development continues to damage wetlands

Threats to estuaries1
Threats to Estuaries

  • Global warming

    • causes sea levels to rise which threatens the swamp forests, which can withstand only temporary flooding

    • hurricanes also cause high water levels - eroding the shoreline and flooding organisms adapted to freshwater with ocean water.

    • Together sea level rise and storms cause North Carolina wetlands to erode at a rate of about 800 acres per year

  • Excess of nutrients

    • sewage treatment plants, septic systems, polluted air, and fertilizers deposit nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in rivers and ultimately in estuaries

    • high levels of these nutrients can create large growths of algae called algal blooms blocking sunlight

    • As algae dies its decomposition consumes oxygen which eventually suffocates fish and invertebrates