Thirty-six percent of the Triangle area is projected to be covered by impervious surfaces by 2040, and the city of Raleigh alone expects its water customer base to increase by 545,000 to 800,000 by 2030.  In the face of increasing development, protecting land around drinking water sources is one of the most effective ways to protect water quality. Forests, wetlands and open fields absorb rain and runoff, and help trap sediment and pollutants before they enter streams and lakes. Land conservation also results in added community benefits such as new parks and greenways, air purification and flood protection.

The Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative, a coalition of nonprofit conservation organizations, has helped to develop a strategic plan that prioritizes the most important areas of land that protect the area’s drinking water. In addition to strategic planning, the initiative’s efforts also include land acquisition, landowner outreach, monitoring, and stewardship.



Since the initiative’s original 2006 strategy was created, the initiative has protected 90 properties, 84 miles of stream banks, and 7,698 acres. The updated 2015-2045 Conservation Strategy sets an ambitious goal of preserving 30,000 acres over the next 30 years by working with willing landowners to protect priority properties.

For the updated planning process, The Fund led the production of an enhanced GIS-based Watershed Protection Model, which uses the best available science and geographic data to map the most important areas for land conservation, based on four main goals:

  • Protecting water sources
  • Preserving upland forests and farms
  • Protecting wetlands and floodplains
  • Protecting vulnerable areas with steep slopes and wet soils

The initiative partners presented the Conservation Strategy to the Raleigh City Council at a March 2016 work session.

“By pinpointing forests and other natural areas that provide the most bang for the buck for water quality protection, the partners in the Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative can better focus the investments of the local governments and the state to conserve lands that will provide multiple benefits for people and water."

—Will Allen, Senior Vice President, Conservation Services, The Conservation Fund

The model identifies more than 17,000 parcels of land totaling more than 260,000 acres in the Upper Neuse watershed that are eligible for funding from the city of Raleigh’s Watershed Protection Program.

The Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative is coordinated by the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, and includes The Conservation Fund, Ellerbe Creek Watershed AssociationEno River AssociationTar River Land ConservancyTriangle Greenways CouncilTriangle Land Conservancy, local governments, and state agencies. Together with willing landowners, the partners are protecting critical natural areas to ensure the long-term health of drinking water in the Upper Neuse River Basin.

The initiative’s efforts have been funded by the city of Raleigh through its Watershed Protection Fund. Revenue is generated from volumetric charges on water utility customers, averaging about 60 cents a month per household in Raleigh. Significant additional financial support from local governments in the basin, including Durham, Granville, Orange, and Wake Counties, and the cities of Durham and Creedmoor, and the state’s Clean Water Management Trust fund has been critical to the initiative’s success.


Land protection efforts are a key part of a comprehensive strategy for clean water and pollution reduction that highlights both gray and green infrastructure investments needed for clean drinking water. The City of Raleigh, already a nationally-recognized leader in protecting water quality, will use The Watershed Protection Model to help direct water quality investments to the highest priority projects.

“Conserving land along streams is a cost-effective way to protecting drinking water quality because it prevents polluted runoff from entering the water supply. This reduces the cost of water treatment, so investing in strategic land protection is a win-win—it safeguards drinking water quality and saves money for customers.”

—Reid Wilson, Executive Director of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina