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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
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Summary

For decades, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been the primary federal entity responsible for scientific understanding of the nation’s surface water and groundwater. As part of this effort, the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program assesses the historical and current water-quality conditions and future water-quality scenarios in representative river basins and aquifers across the country. The program was implemented in 1991, primarily in recognition of the importance of understanding the nation’s water quality and in response to the conclusion by USGS scientists that their ability to provide information about the nation’s water quality at that time was limited. NAWQA objectives are achieved through a design that stresses long-term, standardized collection and interpretation of physical, chemical, and biological data. Water-quality data collection and assessments in river basins and aquifers coupled with regional and national syntheses are the hallmark of the NAWQA program.

Now, the USGS is planning for the third decade of water-quality assessment (Cycle 3, 2013-2023) and approached the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Water Science and Technology Board (WSTB) for perspective on past accomplishments as well as current and future design and scope of the program. The NRC responded by forming the Committee on Preparing for the Third Decade (Cycle 3) of the National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program, appointed under the auspices of the NRC’s standing Committee on USGS Water Resource Research. The committee’s charge, as laid out in the statement of task, calls for a review of both past accomplishments of the NAWQA program as well as recommendations to improve the design and scientific scope of the program as it moves into its

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
×

third decade of water-quality assessments. (For the full statement of task, see Box 1-2 in Chapter 1.)

Once the study was under way, the USGS NAWQA Cycle 3 Planning Team asked the committee to give priority to the portion of the task asking for input on scientific priorities for the third decade (Cycle 3) of the NAWQA program. These scientific priorities were expressed in two USGS planning documents, the Design of Cycle 3 of the National Water Quality Assessment Program, 2013–2023: Part 1: Framework of Water-Quality Issues and Potential Approaches or the “Science Framework” and the Design of Cycle 3 of the National Water Quality Assessment Program, 2013-2023: Part 2: Science Plan for Improved Water-Quality Information and Management or the “Science Plan.” The committee responded with two letter reports (Appendixes A and B).1 This report, the committee’s final report, expands upon the advice in the letter reports and addresses the statement of task in its entirety. The report reflects on NAWQA’s history and accomplishments (Chapters 2 and 3), outlines a way forward for the program that includes additional feedback on scientific priorities and the Science Plan (Chapter 4), and links this to cooperative, collaborative, and coordinated efforts in the future (Chapter 5).

HISTORY AND ACCOMPLISHMENT OF THE NAWQA PROGRAM

The first decade (Cycle 1, 1991-2001) of the NAWQA program focused on a baseline assessment, i.e., the status of the nation’s water-quality conditions. The original program design provided information on water resources by investigating and comparing hydrologically meaningful pieces of geography or study units across the nation. The second decade (Cycle 2, 2001 to the present) focused on identifying trends in water quality, building on the Cycle 1 status activities. During Cycle 2, the program enhanced modeling efforts to extrapolate water quality conditions across the country and expanded communication efforts to disseminate products. In 2004, the program shifted away from the study unit design, restructuring the program design around 8 Major River Basins and 19 Principal Aquifers. This transition is explained in part by the increased emphasis on trend work in Cycle 2 but also by funding decline. This transition is consistent with an overall decline in the number of monitoring sites since 1991 because of planned changes in the design and funding decline (Table S-1).

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1 Both the Science Plan and the Science Framework evolved throughout the committee process, responding to continued development from NAWQA leadership, input from stakeholders, and advice from this committee. In the first letter report the committee reviewed the Science Framework version from the fall of 2009. In its second letter report the committee reviewed the Science Plan version from November 2010. The Science Framework is available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2009/1296.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
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TABLE S-1 The Evolution of NAWQA Program Status and Trends Networks


  Cycle 1 Cycle 2
1991-2001 2002-2004 2004-2007 2007-2012
Number of surface
water sampling sites
505 145 84 113
Number of aquatic
ecology sites'a
416 125 75 58 (6 sites are
ecology only)
Number of
groundwater
networksb and wells
272 networks;
6,307 wells
137 networks;
3,698 wells
   

aThe ecology sites are included in the total number of sampling sites.

bA groundwater network is a group of sampling wells.

During these two decades of water-quality monitoring, NAWQA documented that although most water in the United States is fit for many uses, contamination from point and nonpoint sources affected the surface water and groundwater in every study unit, particularly in agricultural and urban areas. Contamination consists of a mixture of nutrients, pesticides, volatile organic compounds, and their breakdown products, which are often just as prevalent as the parent compounds. For example, NAWQA reported that more than half of shallow groundwater samples in urban and agricultural areas contain one or more pesticide compounds. By comparison, pesticides were present in approximately one-third of samples from undeveloped or mixed land use areas. NAWQA also identified improvements in the nation’s water quality. For example, after a 2001 federally-mandated phaseout of the organophosphate insecticides diazinon and chlorpyrifos in urban settings, the concentrations of these compounds in northeastern and Midwestern streams decreased after 2002.

NAWQA applied models to support inferences from recent and historical data, project the future water-quality outcome of present and hypothetical actions, and provide the basis for assessing contamination in places where less than optimal or limited field data were available. For example, the SPAtially Referenced Regressions on Watershed attributes (SPARROW) model was used to assess how large-scale changes in land use may affect future nutrient loading from the Mississippi River basin to the Gulf of Mexico. All told, SPARROW models were implemented for six of the eight

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
×

major U.S. river basins,2 providing an important resource for assessing water quality at the basin scale and evaluating water management strategies.

In assessing the ecological condition of the nation’s surface waters, NAWQA showed that aquatic organisms (algae, macroinvertebrates, and fishes) seldom exhibit similar degrees of alteration in response to different land uses, implying that assessments based on only one type of organism misjudge the extent and severity of impairment. Furthermore, hydrologic alteration and land use change are the major drivers of alterations in ecological condition.

NAWQA distributed and communicated water-quality data through its data warehouse,3 which makes program data widely available online with sufficient nodes to approximate national coverage and, in some cases, with sufficient regional coverage to assess changes in water quality over time in major watersheds. NAWQA produced approximately 1,900 publications as of January 2012, a publication every 4.2 days on average, a value which, while not an indicator of quality, provides a sense of the quantity of work produced over the history of the program. NAWQA regularly cooperated and coordinated efforts with other programs in the USGS, agencies within the Department of the Interior, and other federal, state, and local agencies. Decision-making, regulatory, and advisory bodies from the federal government (for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]), local councils, and state legislatures in more than 30 states used NAWQA’s science to the benefit of public health and water resource management. NAWQA studies enabled improvements in areas such as source water protection, quality assurance, quality control, sampling design, sampling methods, analytical protocols, and interpretation frameworks for the water resources issues that states and local governments confront.

The committee concludes that in Cycles 1 and 2, NAWQA provided a successful national assessment of U.S. water quality, in accordance with the mission of a national water-quality assessment program. A more detailed record of representative accomplishments, in no particular order, is presented in Box S-1. NAWQA is well positioned to continue collection and interpretation of water-quality data at a variety of scales, from single rivers and watersheds to larger basins and aquifer systems, and to translate this information to an assessment of the status, trends, and understanding of the nation’s water quality. Chapters 2 and 3 of the report reflect further on NAWQA’s history and accomplishments.

Despite this record of accomplishment, NAWQA faces many challenges as it moves into Cycle 3 (2013-2023):

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2 SPARROW models were implemented for all regions except for California and the Southwest. Models for these regions will be implemented in the future.

3 See http://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/data.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
×
  • How does NAWQA remain a national program in the face of resource decline?
  • How should NAWQA balance new status activities against the need to maintain long-term trend networks and understanding studies?
  • How can NAWQA use ancillary data4 and maintain a high level of quality?
  • How can NAWQA maintain focus amidst numerous and competing stakeholder demands?

The following sections of this summary correspond to Chapters 4 and 5 of the report, and reflect the committee’s advice on a path forward, including specific recommendations in bold.

A WAY FORWARD

The reason for the continuation of the NAWQA program today echoes that which originally motivated the creation of the program: the need to characterize water quality at a national scale. This need persists despite the program’s 20-year record of success because of the complex water-related issues facing the nation. Over the past two decades, NAWQA has evolved from a program emphasizing water-quality data collection and trend assessment to one having the potential to forecast contaminant occurrence and aquatic degradation trends under multiple scenarios at nationally significant scales. Although many other successful efforts assess water quality at the local and regional level, NAWQA’s unique niche is that it is a national program, taking on work that other entities cannot do alone because of, for example, jurisdictional boundaries or available resources. Water-quality monitoring in Cycle 3 is important not only to NAWQA, the USGS, the Department of the Interior, or other agencies, but also to the nation. The federal government needs NAWQA in order to answer the question “Is the nation’s water quality getting better or worse?” This is particularly true given that observational networks to measure various water-quality characteristics in the United Status have been on the decline for a number of years. Without measurement, there is no basis on which to evaluate whether policies are effective, no foundation on which to build water management decisions, and no vantage point from which to foresee and forestall water resource challenges. The need for a national water-quality assessment is as important, if not more so today, as when NAWQA was established.

A tipping point for NAWQA is a point where, once crossed, the program as currently organized, scaled, and operated can no longer provide

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4 Ancillary data are water-quality data collected by other USGS programs, and national, regional, or local efforts on the same water-quality constituents monitored by NAWQA.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
×

BOX S-1

Accomplishments of the NAWQA Program

National assessment of chemicals in the nation’s surface water: NAWQA has provided a national picture of surface water quality.

National assessment of chemicals in the nation’s groundwater: This picture extends to the quality of the nation’s groundwater, giving the scientific and regulatory communities and the public an understanding of the nation’s water quality. Specific to groundwater, NAWQA has demonstrated the utility of groundwater age determination in water-quality studies, especially mixing of old and young waters.

Incorporation of biological indicators of water quality into assessments: NAWQA has integrated measures of indicator organisms into water-quality monitoring and has examined relationships among biological, chemical, hydrological, and land-use parameters using uniform methods at a national scale.

National synthesis reports: These reports synthesize robust data sets using descriptive statistics to draw broad conclusions for the nation to help answer the question that led to the program’s development—what is the state of the nation’s water-quality?

Continuity and consistency in study methods and design: NAWQA uses standardized sampling regimes, network design, and analytical techniques to enable cross-site comparisons, as well as intensive site-specific and constituent-specific sampling to meet local and regional stakeholder needs, and national water-quality assessments.

a national assessment of water quality. Restoration of resources will not reverse this inability to achieve the program’s core mission, once the tipping point is crossed. Scaling the program up to what it once was would be inhibited by the break in the long-term monitoring record and the erosion of programmatic infrastructure. However, there may be other scales, modes or organization, and scientific effort that would still allow water-quality monitoring to be achieved. Yet this water-quality monitoring would lack a key feature of the program—national scale—or the ability to say something meaningful about the nation’s water quality as a whole.

The committee cannot quantify an exact tipping point for NAWQA. Metrics for identifying when the tipping point is crossed, perhaps built into the network design, would be required. However, the committee can reflect on how to assess proximity to the tipping point through the critical

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
×

Development and use of robust extrapolation and inference-based techniques: NAWQA has done an exemplary job of developing and applying robust extrapolation and inference-based models (e.g., SPARROW and the Watershed Regression for Pesticides or WARP models that are statistical, geospatial, and/or process-based and that support inferences from recent and historical data and projections of the outcome of proposed actions).

Information dissemination: NAWQA’s communication activities have grown in scope and sophistication as the program has evolved. The program now uses multiple media and appealing graphics to communicate its information products and tools, and it has a wealth of publicly available water-quality data in its data warehouse.

NAWQA science informing policy and management decisions: The program has translated and interpreted its high-quality, nationally consistent data with sophisticated tools so that policy and decision makers can use the program’s science to inform efficient decision-making.

Collaboration and cooperation: NAWQA continues to cooperate, coordinate, and collaborate within its own agency as well as with other federal, state, and local agencies in designing and carrying out its programs with a commitment to enhancing its usefulness by making its data and programs relevant to others with interests in water-quality.

Linkages and integration across media, disciplines, and multiple scales: NAWQA has been successful in multidisciplinary research at regional and national scales, collecting and interpreting geographic, hydrologic, biologic, geologic, and climatic data from a range of environmental media (e.g., groundwater, sediments, soils, surface waters, and biota) to help resolve water-quality questions.

question, how much could uncertainty increase in NAWQA outputs before relevant national conclusions could no longer be drawn, and the program suffered irreparable harm? Similarly, does NAWQA have adequate water-quality monitoring data to support its water-quality models?

A successful national water-quality assessment in Cycle 3 would be a national-scale water-quality surveillance program that evaluates and forecasts how changing land use conditions and climate variability may affect water quality in different settings, and that informs water policy and decision makers as they evaluate policy options impacting the nation’s water resources. The continuity of national water-quality measurements in space and time is fundamental to this success. First and foremost, NAWQA’s primary focus should be on continuing the monitoring needed to support the national status and trends assessments of the nation’s water quality.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
×

Interruption of the long-term status and trends dataset will limit all other program efforts. Efforts in Cycle 3 that reach beyond the focus of basic monitoring are important (discussed below), but these other goals can only be accomplished if the basic data collection continues.

Measurements provide a snapshot of conditions for only one point in time and are not alone sufficient to forecast future conditions or to understand water quality in unsampled areas. Models are a tool to understanding unsampled areas, constructing scenarios for assessing the impacts of climate and land use change, or forecasting the likely consequences of different policy options. A focus of NAWQA efforts in Cycle 3, second only to basic monitoring activities, should be the support of NAWQA modeling initiatives. For example, the committee supports the planned use of the SPARROW model in Cycle 3, expanding the types of contaminants modeled and making the SPARROW model available for public use.

Assessment of the Science Plan

The Science Plan for Cycle 3 is a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s needs for understanding status and trends in surface and groundwater quality and developing a portfolio of multiscale models to forecast changes in water quality in response to changes in demographics, land use, and climate. The Science Plan provides a forward-thinking vision for NAWQA science in the next decade of assessing the nation’s aquatic resources:

Science-based strategies can protect and improve water quality for people and ecosystems even as population and threats to water quality continue to grow, demand for water increases, and climate changes.

The Science Plan builds on the existing two decades of data, experience, and NAWQA products. The overall scope of the Science Plan is broad; thus, the committee recommends that no other issue(s) should be considered for addition to the NAWQA program in Cycle 3. NAWQA has identified the major water-quality issues facing the nation in the Science Plan.

The Science Plan proposes an expansion of current monitoring networks, similar to the number of sites at the beginning of Cycle 1, and expanding understanding and modeling activities. The Science Plan is structured around four goals, each of which relate to the underlying program principles of status and trends (Goal 1), understanding (Goals 2 and 3), and modeling (Goal 4). The four goals in the Science Plan are consistent with the guiding vision, and contribute to meeting the vision in a synergistic, interconnected, and balanced manner (although not communicated equally well). Then, the Science Plan lists 20 objectives under the four goals that outline the scientific work planned to achieve each goal (Box S-2).

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
×

These 20 specific objectives that are described in the Science Plan are not necessarily equal in their contribution to meeting the central or core principles of the Science Plan or to meeting the overall program mission. These objectives also differ in the effort and resources they will require, the clarity of how they are presented, how well they are justified, and the consequences of pursuing them with higher or lower priority. In an ideal world, the Cycle 3 Science Plan would be implemented in full. All 20 objectives have scientific merit. However, given the current federal fiscal climate and the scale of the Science Plan, full-scale implementation of the Science Plan is unlikely.5

As directed by the statement of task and to be sensitive to available funding, the committee considered the relative importance of the different scientific objectives within the Science Plan and in terms of trade-offs that implementing one versus the other would represent. The committee categorized the 20 objectives as “essential,” “not essential,” and those needing “further justification.” An objective is essential if it contributes to, for example, monitoring status and trends of surface and groundwater quality and relevant aquatic ecosystem indicators or modeling capabilities and forecasting consequences of future scenarios.6 An objective that is not essential provides important benefits to the nation and there would be consequences if it were not accomplished, but it is not essential to NAWQA’s achievement of its core mission as a national water-quality program. In some cases, these objectives are being addressed by other entities. The Science Plan does not provide sufficient justification of the value to the nation of any objective that needs “further justification.”

Objectives corresponding to basic monitoring (i.e., status and trends assessment) and modeling are essential. Basic monitoring activities are the fundamental underpinnings of all program activities (Goal 1). Studies that contribute to modeling that will enable assessments of future scenarios and to estimate water-quality conditions in unsampled waters are critical (Goal 4). Thus, generally speaking, Goal 1 (Objectives 1a, 1d, 1e, 1f, and 1g) and Goal 4 (Objectives 4a and 4b) of the Science Plan are essential. However, it is important to note that embedded within these essential goals are monitoring activities where the committee advises caution because of limited funding. For example, national-scale sediment monitoring is a valuable scientific pursuit. Yet caution is advised given the magnitude of resources likely required to pursue sediment monitoring at the scale and detail proposed in the Science Plan (part of Objective 1e). Similarly, Objec-

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5 This supposition is derived from conversations with NAWQA leadership and a set of fiscal scenarios crafted in the Science Framework. These scenarios estimate low, moderate, and high funding levels (compared to fiscal year 2009 levels) and correlate to activities the program could pursue in Cycle 3.

6 The term “essential” is further defined in Chapter 4.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
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BOX S-2

NAWQA Cycle 3 Science Plan Goals and Objectives

Goal 1: Assess the current quality of the Nation’s freshwater resources and how water quality is changing over time.

(a) Determine the distributions and trends of contaminants in current and future sources of drinking water from streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs.

(b) Determine mercury trends in fish tissue.

(c) Determine the distributions and trends in microbial contaminants in streams and rivers used for recreation.

(d) Determine the distributions and trends of contaminants of concern in aquifers needed for domestic and public supplies of drinking water.

(e) Determine the distributions and trends for contaminants, nutrients, sediment, and streamflow alteration that may degrade stream ecosystems.

(f) Determine contaminant, nutrient, and sediment loads to coastal estuaries and other receiving waters.

(g) Determine trends in biological condition in relation to trends and changes in contaminants, nutrients, sediment, and streamflow alteration.

Goal 2: Evaluate how human activities and natural factors, such as land use and climate change, are affecting the quality of surface water and groundwater.

(a) Determine how hydrologic systems—including water budgets, flow paths, travel times, and streamflow alterations—are affected by land use, water use, climate, and natural factors.

(b) Determine how sources, transport, and fluxes of contaminants, nutrients, and sediment are affected by land use, hydrologic system characteristics, climate, and natural factors.

(c) Determine how nutrient transport through streams and rivers is affected by stream ecosystem processes.

(d) Apply understanding of how land use, climate, and natural factors affect water quality to determine the susceptibility of surface-water and groundwater resources to degradation.

(e) Evaluate how the effectiveness of current and historic management practices and policy is related to hydrologic systems, sources, transport, and transformation processes.

tive 1a includes lakes and reservoirs. Again, while scientifically valuable, the committee encourages caution when pursuing an objective that has not been traditionally part of NAWQA’s design.

Goals 2 and 3 represent the planned extension of Cycle 3 into “understanding” water-quality status and trends, per the original program design (Cycle 1, status; Cycle 2, assessment; Cycle 3, understanding). Many Objectives in Goals 2 and 3 are considered “essential” (2a, 2b, 2d, and 2e; 3b,

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
×

Goal 3: Determine the relative effects, mechanisms of activity, and management implications of multiple stressors in aquatic ecosystems.

(a) Determine the effects of contaminants on degradation of stream ecosystems, which contaminants have the greatest effects in different environmental settings and seasons, and evaluate which measures of contaminant exposure are the most useful for assessing potential effects.

(b) Determine the levels of nutrient enrichment that initiate ecological impairment, what ecological properties are affected, and which environmental indicators best identify the effects of nutrient enrichment on aquatic ecosystems.

(c) Determine how changes to suspended and depositional sediment impair stream ecosystems, which ecological properties are affected, and what measures are most appropriate to identify impairment.

(d) Determine the effects of streamflow alteration on stream ecosystems and the physical and chemical mechanisms by which streamflow alteration causes degradation.

(e) Evaluate the relative influences of multiple stressors on stream ecosystems in different regions that are under varying land uses and management practices.

Goal 4: Predict the effects of human activities, climate change, and management strategies on future water quality and ecosystem condition.

(a) Evaluate the suitability of existing water-quality models and enhance as necessary for predicting the effects of changes in climate and land use on water quality and ecosystem conditions.

(b) Develop decision-support tools for managers, policy makers, and scientists to evaluate the effects of changes in climate and human activities on water quality and ecosystems at watershed, state, regional, and national scales.

(c) Predict the physical and chemical water-quality and ecosystem conditions expected to result from future changes in climate and land use for selected watersheds.

SOURCE: Design of Cycle 3 of the National Water Quality Assessment Program, 2013-2023: Part 2: Science Plan for Improved Water-Quality Information and Management

3c, and 3d) because of their scientific importance but also partly because the scientific activities described in these objectives are intimately linked with one another (i.e., one cannot proceed without the other). Basic status and trends monitoring is critical to the proposed understanding studies. Thus, this assessment should also be considered within the committee’s overarching recommendation to, first and foremost, maintain status and trends assessment of water quality (i.e., Goal 1).

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
×

The committee questions the role of status and trends of microbial contaminants (Objective 1c) in the core vision for NAWQA and considers this objective “not essential.” Assessing the status and trends of microbial contaminants at the scale proposed in the Science Plan is a formidable task. The committee questions whether the program has the capacity to proceed with this objective; this could be a resource-intensive effort, and it is inappropriate to proceed at the expense of core efforts, given limited funding. However, the essence of this goal is a human health issue, the result of which would establish the quality of recreational waters. In addition to the obvious scientific benefits, assessing microbial contaminants can be a highly visible activity for the program, clearly demonstrating program impact. An examination of the costs and benefits of obtaining these data when determining whether to pursue this objective is important; collaborative opportunities exist (for example, states and/or the USGS Energy Minerals and Environmental Health Mission Area).

Objective 2c, intended to determine how nutrient transport through streams and rivers is affected by stream ecosystem processes, is a relatively specific objective. This is an important but not essential objective in the committee’s view, in part because of potential collaborative opportunities. The committee also considers Objective 3a, effects of contaminants on stream ecosystems, to be a not essential objective for NAWQA. That streams are subjected to multiple stressors is an issue of national importance, but the level of effort required to adequately address this problem could consume a significant amount of the program’s resources. Objective 3e, multiple stressors in different regions, is scientifically worthwhile. Yet the committee is concerned with the proposed scale at which these studies will be conducted and how this scale contributes to a national program. Objective 4c (predictions for specific watersheds) depends on the success of the modeling efforts in Objective 4a but also could depend heavily on partnering efforts. Thus, because of the potential collaborative opportunities, the committee considers this objective “not essential.”

Determining mercury trends in fish tissue (Objective 1b) needs “further justification” before implementation in Cycle 3, particularly given the scale proposed in the Science Plan. The Science Plan proposes national status and trends monitoring of mercury in fish tissue, expanded from the regional topical study of mercury in fish tissue in Cycle 2. However, consideration of trade-offs is important when evaluating whether the program should pursue this objective. If NAWQA does not pursue national status and trends monitoring of mercury, then other entities (states, other federal agencies, or academia) might provide data, in some cases significantly more data, than would NAWQA. However, further understanding of water-column chemistry and mercury in stream dynamics is a valuable scientific pursuit. Also, NAWQA’s Cycle 2 topical study on mercury in fish tissue received

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
×

significant public interest. By choosing not to pursue the larger scale status and trends assessment of mercury proposed in Objective 1b, the associated public visibility would not be realized.

Although the Implementation Plan for Cycle 3 was not yet prepared at the time of this review, the Science Plan contained preliminary discussion of how to implement the scientific agenda. The Science Plan proposes increased coverage of the NAWQA sampling network to an extent that is similar to that of the original design, coupled with intensive yearly sampling schedules (as opposed to intensive sampling every 2 to 4 years). Although the sense of the committee is that increasing the sampling network is important, some analysis of what would be gained by different numbers and combinations of sites is important. NAWQA should determine the number of sampling locations and frequency using a similar process that was used in Cycle 2, adapted to the objectives for Cycle 3, with particular consideration of the certainty required for Cycle 3 modeling efforts.

Communication and Program Impact

NAWQA has used a wide array of approaches to communicate findings, from press releases to congressional briefings, peer-reviewed publications, and the program website. These efforts are an accomplishment, yet communication challenges and opportunities do exist. For example, using tools to bring water-quality data to the public, such as the data warehouse, is an accomplishment of the NAWQA program. Yet the data warehouse, in the committee’s judgment, is not user friendly. Furthermore, ensuring that data interpretation, synthesis, and publication of NAWQA data take place in a timely manner is critical. The committee acknowledges the difficulty of this task given the sheer size of the datasets that NAWQA scientists publish, the intense yet valuable USGS peer-review process, and resource constraints. Timely interpretation, synthesis, and release of NAWQA results is critical. NAWQA data used in these results should continue to be delivered to the public via an improved public database.

NAWQA informally measures success and feedback through monitoring the number of website hits, the number of requests for products at the time of release, attendance at briefings during product launches, and collecting information on media coverage. The website homepage contains a link to a document titled The National Water-Quality Assessment Program— Science to Policy and Management, which catalogues how stakeholders use NAWQA information and contains personal testimony from a variety of users about the program. NAWQA has conducted three surveys probing

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
×

satisfaction of customers with specific products and the program at large.7 However, this tracking of program impact is sporadic and lacks a structured approach and cataloging system. Ultimately, tracking impact will allow NAWQA to demonstrate significance and the return on the nation’s investment. A unified strategy for the timely preparation, release, and subsequent tracking of the impact of NAWQA information and products is needed.

Coordination, Cooperation, and Collaboration

The comprehensive nature of the Science Plan makes it clear that NAWQA is committed to being a cooperative, collaborative, and coordinated federal program. This commitment continues and builds on a history of success in these endeavors within USGS, with the Department of the Interior, and with other federal, state, and local agencies. The Science Plan for Cycle 3 is a plan for addressing national water quality needs that deliberately goes beyond what NAWQA can accomplish, providing a framework for other agencies to identify objectives to be met as part of addressing the nation’s water quality issues. Thus, although NAWQA will be a cornerstone to implementing the Science Plan, the plan cannot be fully realized without involvement of other groups and agencies and a focus on real collaborative, financial, and intellectual efforts. This will require an expanded approach to involve potential partners and collaborators directly, when appropriate, in the development of science and implementation work plans, explicitly outlining roles, responsibilities, and accountability. The committee recognizes that these efforts are not as simple as they sound and indeed can be costly and time-consuming with attempts to maintain communications among different parties. Difficulties can often arise from overlap or differences in missions that require management time to reconcile. Keeping these potential costs in mind, there is value in NAWQA’s ability to leverage greater resources and expertise from external partners to meet the nation’s needs for water-quality assessment and understanding.

NAWQA’s scope and success have made it a visible and respected focal point within USGS. During the course of the committee’s deliberations, and during the time the draft NAWQA Science Plan was under development, USGS reorganized into six mission areas: Ecosystems; Climate and Land-Use Change; Energy and Minerals, and Environmental Health; Natural Hazards; Core Science Systems; and Water. The realignment also created a new Office of Science Quality and Integrity tasked with monitoring and

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7 The first Customer Satisfaction Survey was in 2000, probing the usefulness of a specific report, The Quality of Our Nation’s Waters—Nutrients and Pesticides, Circular 1291. The second and third surveys were more general in format, and were conducted in 2004 and 2010, respectively.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
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enhancing the quality of USGS science. Although a separate and distinct mission area, water is also a cross-cutting topic important to other themes. NAWQA data and products can fit within most if not all of these mission areas, and opportunities for collaboration should abound from overlapping interests. NAWQA leaders should seek further opportunities for cooperation, coordination, and collaboration within the USGS and make a systematic effort to communicate its capabilities and potential value to the relevant programs and offices within the USGS through the Science Plan.

NAWQA has worked to establish cooperative relationships and coordinated efforts with external partners including other federal agencies and state and local authorities. NAWQA’s efforts have become important to other agencies, and these relationships have strengthened NAWQA and USGS as a whole. NAWQA should maintain its interface with the other federal agencies and stakeholder groups and work toward leveraging collaborative resources to meet the needs of the national Science Plan. For example, in May 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and USGS announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding “to form an innovative partnership to address America’s growing water resources challenges.” NAWQA data and collaboration have contributed to the continuing efforts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one of NAWQA’s most critical partners, to meet the goals of the Clean Water Act and provided insight on unregulated chemicals under consideration for addition to the Contaminant Candidate List (CCL).8 This is an example of working toward real collaborative approaches, as urged in this report.

To meet the national needs outlined in the Cycle 3 Science Plan, NAWQA will need to emphasize collaboration in two modes: as a leader that partners with other USGS and external programs, and as a follower with other federal agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector. As part of this approach NAWQA would need to:

• focus on core mission areas where it has unique capabilities, for the program’s own implementation efforts;

• leverage resources with other agencies to achieve more of the objectives of the Cycle 3 Science Plan;

• foster higher levels of involvement and investment by other agencies; and

• help others design their own mission-critical programs to meet identified national objectives of the Cycle 3 Science Plan without NAWQA’s direct involvement; and

__________________

8 EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water is charged with developing a list of contaminants every 5 years that may require regulation, the CCL.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
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• explore incentives, for example, access to NAWQA technical assistance, which will enable more sharing of effort for data collection, analysis, and technological innovation across the entire program.

To operate in this more expansive mode, NAWQA should consider engaging partners and collaborators more directly in the development of mutual science plans, seamless exchanges of data and information, and joint implementation of work plans that identify shared responsibilities and accountability. The Cycle 3 Science Plan is a forward-thinking comprehensive water-quality strategy. Because it was authored during a climate of strained federal resources, this is an opportune time for NAWQA to bring together the federal agencies involved in water-quality monitoring and research and, using the Science Plan as a starting point, to develop a collaborative water-quality strategy for the nation.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2012. Preparing for the Third Decade of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13464.
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The first two decades of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program have provided a successful and useful assessment of U.S. water-quality conditions, how they have changed over time, and how natural features and human activities have affected those conditions. Now, planning is underway for the third decade (Cycle 3) of the Program outlined in the Science Plan, with challenges including ensuring that the NAWQA remain a national program in the face of declining resources, balancing new activities against long-term studies, and maintaining focus amidst numerous and competing stakeholder demands.

The Science Plan for Cycle 3 articulates a forward-thinking vision for NAWQA science over the next decade, building on the previous cycles' data, experience, and products. Preparing for the Third Decade (Cycle 3) of the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program explains the national needs outlined in the plan, NAWQA's need to emphasize collaboration with other USGS and external programs, other federal agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector.

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