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Crucial conversations, crucial conservation

The college’s “Stewards of the Future” conference, which drew nearly 500 participants to the McKimmon Center on Nov. 2, focused on water quality and quantity issues, with emphasis on North Carolina agriculture.

“Water is the most important resource issue for humanity in the 21st century.”

So said Brian Richter, director of global freshwater strategies for The Nature Conservancy and keynote speaker at the college’s “Stewards of the Future: Water for a Growing World” conference.

The event, which drew nearly 500 participants to the McKimmon Center on Nov. 2, focused on water quality and quantity issues, with emphasis on North Carolina agriculture.

Through keynote addresses, multimedia presentations, a panel discussion and moderated workgroups, the conference addressed key topics such as water conservation, treatment technologies, precision water management, wastewater quality and management, irrigation technologies and developing agricultural products while protecting water resources.

“Here in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, we work hard in close partnership with our stakeholders to identify and solve the grand challenges faced by North Carolinians and the world,” said CALS Dean Richard Linton. “One challenge that has been identified, over and over, from every sector and every scale of operation, is the management of a safe and reliable water supply.”

Christy Perrin among the audience
CALS’ Christy Perrin poses a question from the audience.

The conference was designed to provide a variety of perspectives on issues of water quality and quantity, identify key challenges and generate critical conversation on how to ensure a safe and plentiful water supply for North Carolina and the world, according to Dr. Deanna Osmond, professor in the college’s Department of Soil Science and conference planning committee co-chair.

Richter, author of Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability, kicked off the event with an examination of global water shortage issues. Water shortages are occurring in one-third of the planet’s watersheds and aquifers, affecting one half of the world population, Richter said. In the western United States, more than half of the rivers and streams are being depleted by 50 percent, and more than a quarter are being depleted by 75 percent, he said.

“Increasing water scarcity has serious ecological, economic and security impacts,” he said. But despite these grim statistics, Richter said that he remains “quite optimistic and quite hopeful” that solutions such as water desalination, reuse and conservation have the potential to solve global water shortage issues.

In the second keynote address, Dr. Ken Reckhow, Duke University professor emeritus of water resources, delivered a detailed overview of national water safety regulations and examined challenges to North Carolina water quality, which include everything from the complexities of the nitrogen cycle to pollutant load reduction.

Following Reckhow’s talk was a rapid-fire multimedia presentation that featured a variety of industry and government leaders working to solve water quality and quantity issues.

Participants in the session included BASF, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, Smithfield Foods, Orange County government, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bayer CropScience, John Deere Co., Syngenta, the Greenville Public Utilities Commission and SePRO Corp.

Chancellor Randy Woodson
Chancellor Randy Woodson welcomed conference participants.

After lunch, NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson welcomed participants to the second half of the conference.

“Water is one of the most pressing global issues that has impact on everything from agriculture to the way cities are developed to the way countries behave toward one another,” Woodson said. “It is so crucial that we take the information derived from today’s conference and put it to work.”

Following Woodson’s remarks was a multimedia session, “Innovation in Action: Ensuring a Water Future” that spotlighted more than a dozen of the college’s faculty members and the important work they’re doing to address the grand challenges of global water quality and quantity.

Tamar Haspel, Washington Post columnist and author of the website “Starving Off the Land,” moderated a lively panel discussion on the Neuse River Basin. Participants were Bill Holman, North Carolina state director of The Conservation Fund; agricultural consultant Billy McLawhorn; and Ken Waldroup, assistant public utilities director for the city of Raleigh.

Osmond, a Neuse River basin expert, was a surprise addition to the panel. “I would like people to appreciate that they all live in a river basin or watershed,” she said. “We’re all part of the problem and part of the solution. We must look at this holistically.”

Tamar Haspel moderated a panel discussion about the Neuse River Basin. She is author of "Starving Off the Land."
Tamar Haspel moderated a panel discussion about the Neuse River Basin. She is author of “Starving Off the Land.”

After the panel, Georgia farmer Donald Chase took the stage for a talk that focused on water conservation and agriculture, with a focus on drought.

New technologies, planning and collaboration are bright spots on the horizon for effective drought response and water conservation, Chase said.

“The time to plan for droughts is before they happen, not when the crisis hits,” he said. “We have friends everywhere, not just in agriculture. We need to be working together and finding solutions.”

In the final session of the conference, about 25 facilitators representing state agencies, non-profit organizations, private businesses, Cooperative Extension and Industrial Extension led small-group discussions about how to seize new opportunities while meeting the challenges presented throughout the conference. The groups shared their perspectives and identified not only the challenges but also the solutions and actions they could take to ensure clean and ample supplies of water.

“One of the biggest goals of our Stewards of the Future conference series is to generate important conversations on the big issues that impact agriculture and life sciences – issues that impact us all at local, state, national and global levels,” Linton said. “We want to hear what’s important to you.”

Dr. Mary Lou Addor of North Carolina Cooperative Extension and Larry Roberts of the Roberts Business Group coordinated the session. Outcomes from the facilitated discussions will be made available on the conference website:

The conference wrapped up with the presentation of two sets of awards: the Innovation Fair Awards and the CALS Outstanding Research Awards.

Mitch Woodward, Wendi Hartup and a Innovation Fair goer.
Among Innovation Fair presenters are Cooperative Extension’s Mitch Woodward (center), water quality specialist, and Wendi Hartup, Forsyth County natural resources agent.

The Innovation Fair, a marketplace of ideas where CALS scientists and their interdisciplinary collaborators showcased ongoing and emerging scientific research, took place throughout the summit’s second day. Dr. Matt Koci, associate professor of poultry science, won first place in the Innovation Fair Awards competition. Dr. Dean Hesterberg, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Soil Science, took second place; and Sofia Feng, graduate research assistant in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, came in third.

The CALS Outstanding Research Awards winners, Barbara Doll, water quality specialist with the Sea Grant Program, and graduate student Robert Vick of the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, were determined by online voting on YouTube videos created and submitted by the candidates. This competition celebrated the ingenuity and innovation of the college’s scientists and awarded flexible funding to help support their research programs.

McKimmmon Center auditorium during the Stewards of the Future conference.
The Nov. 2 conference at the McKimmon Center focused on water quality and water quantity issues — and the management of a safe and reliable water supply.

Dr. Wayne Skaggs, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, who emceed the event, hit home with thoughts on the magnitude of the problem (“Google world water scarcity,” he instructed the audience), as well as the vast potential for solutions.

“While the problems are enormous, so is the scale of our opportunities to make positive contributions to what I believe is the most important of the grand challenges facing us,” he said. “The challenges are immense, but I am optimistic that we are capable of finding solutions. I am optimistic because I have seen the progress we have made, both at the university and in industry, in finding ways to conserve water and improve water quality.  I am optimistic because I have seen the work our students are doing to develop and apply new technologies here at home and around the world. I am optimistic that each one of us can make a difference.”

— Suzanne Stanard