Water is essential to life and is integral to the development, health, and growth of communities and ecosystems throughout the United States and the world. Water of specific qualities and quantities is needed for the production of food, energy, and industrial products; for the development and operation of infrastructure and transportation systems; and to satisfy basic human needs in all settings, from the rural to the urban. Thus, water resources are closely linked to economic development (Brown and Lall, 2006). Natural terrestrial environments and aquatic ecosystems are also critically dependent on water and its replenishment through the nation’s interconnected watersheds and their various contributing rivers, lakes, streams, snowpacks, and aquifers.
In addition to daily water demands and needs for freshwater, perturbations to the hydrologic system may result in too much or too little water, causing flooding or drought. These changes to the system, often exacerbated by human-made circumstances, affect the safety, economy, and well-being of people in every part of the country. Flooding, for example, may occur in response to extreme precipitation, rapid snowmelt, or storm surge. In 2017, the extreme precipitation from Hurricane Harvey inundated more than 300,000 structures in Houston, Texas, causing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, with the costs of flood damage from the event estimated to exceed $125 billion.1
Just as too much water in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to human, economic, and ecological losses, too little water also poses risks.
While there are several definitions of drought, climate and weather variability, together with human pressures on water resources, can combine to cause water scarcity. By many measures, drought risks are on the rise (e.g., Strzepek et al., 2010; Cook et al., 2015, 2018; Diffenbaugh et al., 2015). Even without the extreme variations in weather that are linked to the changing climate, growing populations and economies are placing increasingly greater pressure on water resources (Vörösmarty et al., 2000). California recently experienced a severe 5-year drought that had significant effects on forest health and fisheries and led to groundwater overdraft and cutbacks in water availability for agriculture and municipalities (Griffin and Anhukaitis, 2014; Diffenbaugh et al., 2015).
Although the United States is much better off than much of the world with respect to deleterious water-related health effects, there is still work to be done (Patel and Schmitt, 2017). Water contaminants, including microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses and chemical products produced by modern society, are consistently found in both natural waters and municipal and rural water supplies (e.g., Kolpin et al., 2002; Focazio et al., 2008; Malham et al., 2014; Campos et al., 2015), whether through natural breakdown and disposal of these substances or through accidental or intentional spillage or runoff. However, the quantities, fate, and transport of this large range of contaminants are not known with certainty. With the advent of new analytical instrumentation, chemicals that were not previously detectable have been discovered in waterways. Over the past two decades, it has been shown that these emerging contaminants can pose a threat to both human and ecosystem health (e.g., Field et al., 2006). Particularly in the case of emerging contaminants, their effects on the health of human and natural systems and the ways in which they may transform or degrade in the environment are not yet well established, in part because the ability to detect and monitor them is still developing (Richardson and Ternes, 2009).
Water, in all of its natural and constructed environments, represents a fundamental and sometimes limited resource and a continuous challenge in terms of monitoring and predicting its behavior, flow, transport, and composition. At present, the state of knowledge is incomplete relative to how the various stocks of water are organized across the landscape, how flows among them change, and how and why water quality varies temporally and spatially. Understanding the natural processes related to water, the ways humans influence and control these processes, and the related changes in water quality and quantity over time is key to sustaining human health and prosperity and maintaining environmental quality. A central opportunity for humanity in the 21st century is to understand the nature of water resources challenges and to develop and apply the solutions, both institutional and technological, capable of addressing them successfully.
Water resources needs of the nation are persistent, dynamic, and require holistic approaches that depend on multiple lines of science- and engineering-based evidence to help conserve and sustain water availability for society. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is a scientific agency housed within the U.S. Department of the Interior and is tasked by the U.S. Congress to provide scientific information to describe and understand geological processes; water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; natural hazards; ecosystem and environmental health; and impacts of global change. As such, USGS is the prime federal agency to inventory, monitor, and conduct scientific research on the nation’s water resources.
The Water Mission Area (WMA) is one of seven interdisciplinary mission areas within USGS. WMA’s strategy is to provide water resources monitoring, assessment, modeling, and research data and tools that are relevant to (1) preserving the quality and quantity of the nation’s water resources; (2) balancing water quantity and quality in relation to potential conflicting uses; (3) understanding, predicting, and mitigating water-related hazards; and (4) quantifying the vulnerability of human populations and ecosystems to water shortages, surpluses, and degradation of water quality. To address this strategy, WMA collects, assesses, and disseminates hydrological data and analyzes and researches hydrological systems.
WMA works closely with federal, state, and regional partners to coordinate and conduct scientific studies and is the most important national source of basic water resources data for other federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA; in particular, the National Weather Service), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other agencies within the U.S. Department of the Interior. WMA also plays an active and important role as part of the broader research community and the private and nongovernmental sectors by contributing significant data, observations, and analyses to support scientific advances and understanding with respect to water and to inform water policy and decision-making at the national, regional, state, and local levels (e.g., NRC, 2009). WMA’s operational structure fosters interaction with partners at all levels and ensures that USGS provides focused and relevant national scientific expertise to states and localities. As an example, WMA is monitoring nitrate levels2 at more than 60 sites in the Mississippi–
Atchafalaya River Basin as part of the strategy to reduce hypoxic areas in the Gulf of Mexico.3 WMA serves as a consistent national resource for advancing water science while setting critical research priorities to meet the persistent and dynamic challenges to the nation’s future water systems.
As of 2018, WMA has a workforce of approximately 3,750 staff at state and regional Water Science Centers and headquarters. More than 60 percent of WMA personnel are classified as hydrologists or hydrologic technicians, with other personnel classified as administrators, biologists, chemists, computer scientists, and ecologists. As the primary federal agency for water information, WMA monitors and assesses the quantity and characteristics of the nation’s water resources, investigates the sources and behavior of natural solutes and contaminants in water (often with state cooperators and partners), and develops practical tools to improve understanding and management of this resource. WMA personnel respond to strategic national priorities set by headquarters as well as regional, state, and local needs determined largely by collaborative partners. A more thorough discussion of WMA goals and capabilities is provided in Appendix A.
In 2013, USGS released its Water Science Strategy plan, which examined societal issues and developed a strategy that “observes, understands, predicts, and delivers water science by taking into account the water science core capabilities of the USGS” (Evenson et al., 2013, p. v). Furthermore, WMA seeks to provide water resources monitoring, assessment, modeling, and research data and tools through observing the water cycle, improving understanding of critical processes, predicting changes in water availability and quality over time, and delivering water science data and information to federal, state, and local agencies, the public, tribes, and industry to support informed decision-making.4
To support its efforts to implement that strategy and to refine it in light of the significant water challenges the nation continues to face, USGS requested that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s (the National Academies’) Water Science and Technology Board undertake a study to examine future water resources and science challenges over the next 25 years and to determine strategic research opportunities on which WMA could focus to address these challenges (see the Statement of Task in Box 1.1). With a foundation in several prior reports about water
3 See https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-11/documents/hypoxia_task_force_report_to_congress_2017_final.pdf; accessed September 4, 2018.
4 Data provided to the committee by Dr. Don Cline, USGS Associate Director for Water, at the committee’s first meeting on September 18, 2017.
resources and the hydrologic sciences (NRC, 1991, 2009, 2012a), the National Academies convened the Committee on Future Water Resource Needs for the Nation: Water Science and Research at the U.S. Geological Survey to respond to this request. (See Appendix B for the biographical sketches of committee members.)
All components of the water cycle continually respond and adjust to change, from local to global scales. Over the next 25 years, the technological landscape (including data and modeling) will look substantially different, and the capability to access and visualize complex data will be commonplace. In terms of water resources, high-resolution models will integrate data from dense arrays of ground-based and satellite sensors and remotely sensed measurements, and will in turn provide accurate, real-time, globally available data products. These products will include not only customizable and specialized current and forecast precipitation, surface water flows, groundwater levels, and water quality, but also emergency warnings for floods, droughts, and related hazards.
From a societal perspective, stronger integration of natural and social sciences with hydrological, climatological, and ecological analyses will improve understanding of the values, governance, and instruments that underlie water policy and management, including the needs and tradeoffs among important water-use sectors. Directed water research will deepen understanding of the human health and ecosystem consequences of water-related risk, whether from emerging or known contaminants (including pesticides and pharmaceuticals), increased coastal flood risk, contaminated floodwaters, water-related diseases, or drought.
With these thoughts in mind, the committee developed a concise vision to help guide its approach:
The challenges of providing water of adequate quantity and quality for all uses and of providing protection from water-related hazards are well recognized today. These challenges will expand in importance over the next 25 years. Technological and institutional advances and integrated and interdisciplinary approaches and policies will provide water scientists and managers with the tools they need to meet these challenges.
The committee convened three information-gathering meetings (September 18–19, 2017, Washington, DC; November 30–December 1, 2017, San Diego, California; February 8–9, 2018, Chicago, Illinois) and an additional closed session meeting to develop and finalize this report (April 19–20, 2018, Washington, DC). The committee heard presentations from leaders in fields related to many aspects of the Statement of Task (SOT), including those from state and federal agencies, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations. In addition, the committee held several webinars on topics such as hydroinformatics, water management, and technological advances in water research and monitoring and gathered
information from a questionnaire distributed to USGS Water Science Center directors and to state geologists. Appendix C lists the presenters and participants at these information-gathering meetings and webinars, as well as the questionnaire respondents. The committee also consulted peer-reviewed research literature, state and federal government reports, and international documents to provide a strong scientific foundation for this report.
Although the committee heard several presentations from USGS WMA personnel about their ongoing work, a complete review of WMA programs and an evaluation of the effectiveness of current WMA programs was outside the scope of its Statement of Task (see Box 1.1). Rather, the committee focused on how new science research and emerging technologies might be used in coming decades, whether applied to current topics or to new directions for WMA, and provided suggestions for how WMA can position itself to take advantage of these changes.
The report structure is as follows: Chapter 2 identifies the highest-priority water resources and science challenges for the nation for the next 25 years (SOT 1) and Chapter 3 identifies, among those challenges, where and in which formats WMA can add unique value through its scientific work (SOT 3). Appendix A provides a high-level summary of WMA activities and partnerships (SOT 2).
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