College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Academics. Research. Extension

Perspectives Online

« Research shows starter fertilizer phosphorus not needed for soils testing 'very high' for phosphorus | Main | YOU DECIDE: Are the best things in life free?»

Stewards provide water-quality education

December 13, 2007

Media Contact: Marjorie Rayburn, Gates County Center, North Carolina Cooperative Extension, 252.357.1400 (cell: 252.333.7774) or

EDENTON -- In 2005, Marjorie Rayburn heard a presentation about an Oregon "Watershed Stewards" program at an annual agricultural agents' conference in New York. The presentation sparked an idea.

"I always look for ways to improve homeowner awareness of water quality issues and how things they do in their yards can impact water quality," says Rayburn, North Carolina Cooperative Extension area-specialized agent for water quality in Gates, Chowan and Perquimans counties.

"Also, many of our residents in northeastern North Carolina are 'newcomers' who relocate here to enjoy the water resources such as fishing and boating, but have little knowledge about those resources," she says.

Back home, Rayburn met with her water quality advisory council: farmers, environmental community representatives, a forester, a wetland plant nursery owner and a Perquimans County Soil and Water Conservation District board member.

"They encouraged me to start a 'Water Quality Stewards' group," says Rayburn, who also covers commercial horticulture for Extension. The council also helped develop a mission statement and suggested topics and speakers.

That mission: to educate landowners, local government officials and others such as teachers, children, parents, boaters, and such about water quality issues and practical actions they can take to protect and improve water quality in their own backyard and community.

"From there," says Rayburn, "I went to work."

She set up a tentative schedule, contacted speakers, found a meeting location - usually the Albemarle Learning Center in Edenton - and coordinated numerous field trips. Recruiting through newsletters, word of mouth, Extension Master Gardener contact lists, newspapers and flyers, she attracted 10 dedicated participants who met weekly from March through June 2006.

To help initiate a class project, Rayburn arranged a "Let's Build a Rain Garden" session led by Charles Humphrey, Cooperative Extension area specialized agent in environmental education and Kelly Collins, a North Carolina State University Biological and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) grad student.

After locating a potential site on Perquimans County property where water from a county building's roof was eroding the lawn and eventually running into a nearby creek, the group got to work.

Says Rayburn, "With cooperation from a lot of partners - the Town of Hertford, Perquimans County, Coastal Plain Conservation Nursery, Planters Ridge Garden Center, N.C. State's BAE Department, N.C. Cooperative Extension -- and our volunteers, the rain garden now provides an attractive alternative to manage roof runoff."

The project reduces erosion on the building's front lawn by holding water in a garden of wetland plants until it can soak in, rather than having water run off unfiltered into a nearby creek. The Perquimans county manager was so impressed, he has already suggested a county recreation site for the location of another rain garden.

In addition to the project and lectures and demonstrations by specialists, the group took field trips to water-quality-related sites all over Eastern North Carolina

Workshop and field trip topics included soils, geology, hydrology, drainage, fisheries, flora and fauna, stream classification, low-impact development, septic systems, estuary processes, water- quality monitoring and, of course, rain gardens. Speakers represented Cooperative Extension, the state Division of Water Quality and the state Wildlife Resources Commission, Merchant's Millpond State Park, a private wetland nursery, retired water quality experts and local government.

In addition to its educational aspects, the class resulted in other benefits to the community.

"The first Water Quality Stewards class donated more than 200 volunteer hours, not only in projects such as the rain garden, but in educating others about and monitoring water quality," Rayburn says. "I estimate those hours to be worth more than $3,800."

Rayburn was involved in water-quality work in northeastern North Carolina before "water quality agent" became part of her job title.

"Many farming practices promoted by Cooperative Extension are positives for water quality - conservation tillage, fertilizer amount, timing and placement to reduce runoff into streams and other water bodies, integrated pest management and more," notes Rayburn.

As an area Integrated Pest Management agent for a decade prior to being named a water-quality agent, she realized early on that "farmers did a pretty good job of managing their land to protect water quality for economic reasons, not just environmental reasons: they can't afford to spend money applying fertilizer that runs into the river!"

Rayburn also provided information for basin-wide management plans for the Chowan and Pasquotank river basins and chaired the former Chowan River Basin Council. She now serves on the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program's policy board and citizens' advisory committee.

With another Water Quality Stewards class set for January, Rayburn is incorporating feedback from her first class. Popular field trips to N.C. Estuarium in "Little Washington," the Coastal Plain Conservation Nursery near Edenton, and Merchants Millpond State Park near Gatesville were highly rated and will be a part of our next program.

And thanks to one Extension agent's open mind and willingness to experiment, in northeastern North Carolina, good water-quality-education-related ideas just keep on coming.

For information on the next Water Quality Stewards class, set for January 2008, call Rayburn at 252.357.1400 at the Gates County Cooperative Extension Center (cell: 252.333.7774), or email her at

Written by:
Art Latham, 919.513.3117 or

(This story and a photo are available at: A high-resolution version of the photo is available from Art Latham, 919.513.3117 or
Photo caption
Dwane Hinson, left, district conservationist, U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, speaks with Dr. Greg Jennings, water quality coordinator for N.C. State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Water Education Network director, and Marjorie Rayburn, N.C. Cooperative Extension water quality specialist, at a Water Education Network site visit and demonstration in Edenton, N.C.

Posted by Dave at December 13, 2007 03:14 PM