Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative: Collaborative Land Protection to Maintain Water Quality

Whitney Reynier
Posted on: 12/21/2017 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

Posted by

Rachel Gregg

Project Summary

The Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative (UNCWI) is a collaborative effort between regional land trusts, nonprofit entities, and several local municipalities and counties to protect drinking water supplies and quality in the Upper Neuse River Basin through land acquisition and/or conservation easements. A collaboratively developed Conservation Plan guides land acquisition by prioritizing land parcels according to their importance to water quality and their ability to provide other conservation benefits for the basin. Since original plan development, UNCWI partners have successfully protected 7,658 acres and 84 stream miles, with benefits for water quality, wildlife, human communities, and overall landscape resilience.


The Upper Neuse Basin in the Piedmont region of North Carolina covers 770 square miles and contains nine reservoirs that provide drinking water to more than 600,000 people in six different counties. Population growth and increasing development, which are projected to continue at minimum through mid-century, are threatening basin-wide water quality by converting natural land cover to impervious surfaces. Higher impervious cover increases runoff and pollutants entering regional waterways and reduces infiltration, patterns that could be exacerbated by increasing precipitation variability and rainfall intensity. In general, development also impacts wildlife habitat connectivity, carbon sequestration, and other critical ecosystem services. In light of projected population growth and increasing climatic variability, stakeholders throughout the basin recognize the importance of protecting current water quality and supply to meet future demand.

The Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative, a partnership of land trusts, the city of Raleigh, and other local governments, are working together to identify and voluntarily protect lands critical for maintaining the region’s water quality into the future. UNCWI works with local landowners to purchase land or establish conservation easements to reduce development in critical areas and maintain water quality. The Conservation Trust for North Carolina coordinates this initiative, and other members include the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, Eno River Association, Triangle Greenways Council, Triangle Land Conservancy, Tar River Land Conservancy, and The Conservation Fund. The city of Raleigh established the initiative, and many local municipalities have been critical partners, including Durham, Orange, and Granville counties, and the cities of Durham, Hillsboro, Butner, and Creedmoor.

Funding for activities of the Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative comes from a variety of sources. Raleigh created a dedicated revenue source for the program in 2011 by enacting a small monthly “watershed protection fee” for water customers based on monthly water use, which helps fund UNCWI’s conservation easements and land purchases. Raleigh has contributed over $5.8 million since 2005 to buy land and conservation easements, and to support land stewardship projects to maintain water quality. In 2010, UNCWI received a grant from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to work with local forest owners to develop forest stewardship plans and create conservation easements on their property. The North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund, Durham, Orange County, Granville County, and Creedmoor have also contributed money to help purchase and protect land. 


In 2005, the Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative developed a Conservation Plan to guide land protection activities undertaken by all partners. The plan identifies water quality and supply issues facing the Upper Neuse Basin, discusses local and regional regulatory frameworks impacting land conservation and water quality regulation, and describes potential funding streams (local, state, federal) to fund land protection. The Plan also describes a collaborative effort that mapped, modeled, and prioritized the most critical lands for protection within the basin.

This process, led by the Triangle J Council of Governments and The Trust for Public Land (TPL), utilized public meetings, a technical advisory team (TAT) comprised of water resources experts, and GIS mapping to identify conservation priorities and critical lands for protection within the basin. Community members identified protecting water quality as the primary conservation priority, in addition to protecting working lands and maintaining aquatic and terrestrial habitat connectivity. The TAT identified data layers that influence water quality, such as slope, soil type, impervious surface cover, and current land use, and input these factors into the TPL Greenprint Framework, a GIS model. The Framework analyzed and categorized different land parcels within the region based on their ability to help maintain water quality. Parcels identified as having the highest benefit to water quality were then overlaid with parcels providing other conservation value to community members, including parcels containing working lands, wetlands, and areas with special biodiversity significance as defined by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. Parcels providing the most benefits for protecting water quality while simultaneously providing other community conservation priorities were flagged as high priority parcels for conservation. (More information on the process used to identify and prioritize lands can be found in the Conservation Plan.)

In total, the model identified 24,000 unprotected acres in the Upper Neuse Basin as high priority for future protective action. Since parcel boundaries were not explicit in the model, local land trusts developed additional criteria to identify parcels of greatest conservation priority based on their ability to maintain water quality. Criteria included length of stream frontage, adjacency to protected land and/or a significant natural heritage area/element occurrence, and parcel size.

The Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative has used several other tools in its effort to protect water quality. The University of North Carolina Environmental Finance Center conducted a “revenueshed” analysis to identify watershed locations that could be used to generate revenue for water quality protection. This analysis provided the foundation for Raleigh’s Watershed Protection Fee for municipal customers, which funds current land acquisition by UNCWI partners. Duke University also created a water quality benefits estimation tool specific to the Upper Neuse Basin. This tool analyzes property characteristics, including location, development risk, and development type (agricultural, forestry, urban) to model estimated water quality benefits by preventing development. In essence, the tool models what is being prevented (e.g., enhanced nitrogen runoff) due to land protection efforts. This has been a useful measurement and communication tool; UNCWI can roughly track the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment being kept out of regional water through land conservation.

Formal public outreach as a part of this project has largely been focused on landowners. However, local land trusts lead public awareness events, many municipalities are engaged in community education and outreach, and multiple groups within the basin are working to enhance public understanding of the land-water connection to build support for conservation and fundraising efforts.

Outcomes and Conclusions

Over the 10 years since the Conservation Plan was published, UNCWI partners have protected 88 properties through purchases or conservation easements, protecting a total of 7,568 acres and 84 stream miles. The total value of this land is well over $72 million. These protected acreages help maintain water quality and quantity by slowing and filtering precipitation and runoff, and will continue to play a critical role in drinking water provisioning for municipalities in light of projected population growth and climate variability. In addition, UNCWI partners completed a Forestry Conservation Plan in 2010 through a grant from the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities to engage private forest landowners in best management practices to maintain water quality.

The collaborative nature of the UNCWI has facilitated overall success, with each participant leveraging their expertise and sphere of influence to assist the land protection process. For example, local land trusts interface with landowners to negotiate purchases/easements, while governments provide project funding. The Conservation Trust for North Carolina acts as intermediary between governments and land trusts to keep communication pathways clear. Compartmentalizing roles this way provides efficiencies, utilizes the expertise of each participant, and builds upon the trust that regional citizens have with their local land trust to responsibly manage land. This last component is particularly important to foster and maintain, as the loss of North Carolina’s state tax credit for land donation leaves less incentive for landowners to donate or sell their land, although the federal income tax deduction and reduced property and estate tax incentives still apply.

Some of the major challenges encountered in the UNCWI’s land protection efforts include politics and funding. With so many counties and cities drawing water from the basin, and following a EPA 303-D Impaired Water listing of Falls Lake, a major reservoir, there was some tension between upstream municipalities being required to address water quality via a state mandate and those counties downstream advocating for additional voluntary land protection financing via the UNCWI partnership. Land trusts have been key players in mediating relationships between these regulated and non-regulated municipalities to further land protection efforts while meeting state water quality regulations for Falls Lake. In terms of funding, having a partnership of local governments and nonprofits opens up opportunities for collaborative grant funding that would be unavailable to each of these groups working in isolation.

In 2015, UNCWI partners updated their Conservation Plan. The new plan outlines land protection and conservation priorities through 2045 based on a GIS-based Watershed Protection Model that incorporates updated land cover information, the new best available scientific knowledge, and refined stakeholder objectives and protection prioritization criteria. With this plan, funding from the city of Raleigh, and the participation of willing landowners, the UNCWI hopes to protect an additional 30,000 acres of land over the next 30 years to continue protecting drinking water sources. In addition to updating the Conservation Plan and protecting additional acreage, the UNCWI hopes to maintain positive relationships and open communication between partners and funders, and ensure that green infrastructure and natural area benefits are considered in regional planning efforts. The UNCWI also hopes to expand its work on forest and agricultural best management practices, and increase public education and outreach.


Reynier, W. (2017). Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative: Collaborative Land Protection to Maintain Water Quality [Case study on a project of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: http://www.cakex.org/case-studies/upper-neuse-clean-water-initiative-co… (Last updated December 2017)


Project Contact

Caitlin Burke

Projects & Grants Coordinator

[email protected]

Affiliated Organizations

We work with local land trusts, landowners, and communities to protect these natural treasures, so that all North Carolinians can enjoy safe drinking water, clean air, fresh local foods, and recreational opportunities, for generations to come. By doing so, we promote greater individual and community health.

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