The Albemarle-Pamlico drainage study unit is one of 60 units of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment Program, and includes the large river basins which drain into the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds-the Chowan, Roanoke, Tar-Pamlico, and Neuse River Basins. The study unit includes about 28,000 square miles and has an interrelated set of environmental characteristics which strongly influence water quality. The chemical and physical nature of these characteristics are the dominant controls on baseline water quality in the study area. About 50 percent of the study area is forested, slightly more than 30 percent is agricultural, about 15 percent is wetlands, and less than 5 percent is developed. Three million people live in the study area, and activities related to agriculture and development have caused increased concentrations of constituents such as nutrients, pesticides, and suspended sediment. About two-thirds of the 36 to 52 inches of precipitation in the area reenters the atmosphere by evapotranspiration. About one-third of the remaining precipitation reaches streams by overland runoff; the remainder recharges the water table aquifer, where much of the water eventually discharges to streams as ground water. Thus, ground-water quality has a substantial influence on surface-water quality, particularly during dry weather. In 1990, about 152,900 tons of elemental nitrogen and 10,500 tons of elemental phosphorus either were applied to crops as fertilizer or fixed by biological processes, and in 1987, about 43,500 tons of nitrogen and 12,200 tons of phosphorus were produced as animal wastes. In addition, about 1,300 tons of selected herbicides and 400 tons of selected insecticides were applied to crops in 1990. Some 249 permitted point sources discharged 410 million gallons per day, containing an annual load of 5,800 tons of nitrogen and 1,800 tons of phosphorus, to the study area in 1990. Data from 1970-79 indicate that mean annual suspended-sediment yields for selected forested, agricultural, and developed urban basins in North Carolina are 50, 250, and 550 tons per square mile, respectively. In order to facilitate comparisons, much of the data were compiled by hydrologic unit. Homogeneous areas, or strata, representing the most prevalent combinations of environmental factors, such as land use, soils, and geology, were defined. Future data collection and analyses will be designed to answer objective-related concerns about the relations between important water-quality conditions and these study-unit strata.