Hydrology, Cryosphere & Earth Surface News

Water Resources Challenges Expected to Increase

A new report identifies the highest-priority challenges and recommendations for the U.S. Geological Survey’s water mission.


A new report on water priorities for the United States says that water-related challenges will increase over the next several decades and that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) needs to remain nimble and flexible in dealing with these challenges.

The report, Future Water Priorities for the Nation: Directions for the U.S. Geological Survey Water Mission Area, presents stark news. “Over the next 25 years, growing populations, climate change, aging water-related infrastructure, and the demands of agriculture, industry, and energy production and use will increase the need for and threaten the available quality and quantity of water supplies,” its authors write. This independent report, requested by USGS, was issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on 28 September.

The document also presents a path forward that calls for more focus on key challenges and the further use of innovative technologies. “Next generation tools and technology and collaboration at multiple levels will be needed to understand changes in the water environment and determine how society can ensure clean, safe, and ample water for all uses,” it states.

Challenges for USGS and the Broader Research Community

The report, which acknowledges USGS as “the nation’s leader in water-related research and information,” presents five key questions to advance the USGS water resources mission. They are the following: What are the quality and quantity of atmospheric, surface, and subsurface water, and how do they vary spatially and temporally? How do human activities affect water quantity and quality? How can water accounting be done more effectively and comprehensively to provide data on water availability and use? How does the changing climate affect water quality, quantity, reliability, and water-related hazards and extreme events? And how can long-term water-related risk management be improved?

The report also poses questions that the broader water research and resources communities, including USGS, could address. Those questions include the following: How does the hydrologic cycle respond to changes in the atmosphere, the lithosphere, and the biosphere? How can short-term forecasting for climate, hydrology, water quality, and associated social systems be improved? How do institutions and governance and institutional resilience affect the quantity and quality of water? How can understanding of the connections between water-related hazards and human health be improved? And how can competing uses for water resources be managed and maintained to sustain healthy communities and ecosystems in a changing world?

Challenges Becoming More Important

The report calls on USGS to enhance the collection of water data and water use data across time and space; increase focus on the relationships between human activities and changes in water quantity, water quality, and water-related hazards; develop a robust water accounting system; and prioritize activities that address prediction and risk of floods, droughts, and waterborne contaminants, among other hazards.

“Our water resource challenges have been with us for decades,” George Hornberger, chair of the National Academies committee that produced the report, told Eos. “As we move forward, we think these challenges are just going to become ever more important, and it is going to be ever more important for us to make sure that we do have the data we need and the modeling we need to interpret the data.”

Regarding one of the key questions presented in the report about climate change, Hornberger said, “It is just so abundantly clear to the committee that climate change really does present potentially really important water resources challenges. We’re already seeing some of that. That’s not a surprise.”

A somewhat new element in the report is the focus on emerging and innovative technologies to better understand water issues, said Hornberger, professor of civil and environmental engineering and of Earth and environmental science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He explained that this focus needs to harness new space- and ground-based sensors and big data to help solve current and future water woes.

Plans for USGS to Examine the Report

The report “will have some immediate impact,” Don Cline, USGS associate director for water resources, told Eos. Cline said that a meeting later this month with agency center directors from around the country will review the report’s recommendations “to start to identify how we can respond to them.” Cline said plans also call for forming science teams to go into more detail about how to address the recommendations.

Overall, Cline called the report “an endorsement” of the agency’s efforts in water resources. The report “is telling us that we have been on the right track. We need to amplify some of the things that we do and maybe think about some new ways to go about some of our traditional work.”

Will the Report Have an Impact?

Emily Bernhardt, professor of biology at Duke University in Durham, N.C., said that the report does a good job in applauding USGS for the work it does really well and “it pushes on the agency to do more to make [water] information more accessible, more integrated, and more related to societal needs.”

However, Bernhardt, tasked by the academies to be an independent reviewer of the report, said that she is concerned about whether the report will have an impact. “It will be interesting to see how the recent reorganization of the USGS does or does not facilitate its ability to reach the important goals from the report,” she said.

“It’s hard to get any attention for something like this [report], which basically says, ‘Hey, this agency is doing a great job; let’s make sure it has the resources to do even more,’” Bernhardt added. “I hope the report can be used by USGS leadership to continue to sustain funding for the agency. I suspect that’s where it will matter.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Water resources challenges expected to increase, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO107567. Published on 09 October 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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