A new report, “Future Water Priorities for the Nation: Directions for the U.S. Geological Survey Water Mission Area,” speaks to water science and resources challenges for the next 25 years. While written specifically for the Water Mission Area (WMA) for the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the driving forces for change are applicable to any region of the world.
The scope of the problem is well summarized in Final Thoughts (p. 41), which are worth repeating verbatim:
The global population will grow by 2 billion by 2040 and will place additional demands on natural resources. This growth in population will be realized during a time of economic advances in the developing world, which will likely amplify demands. Global temperatures will continue to increase over the next 25 years, and climate change will continue its course. The world population living in urban areas will grow to about 60 percent by 2040. All these changes will add to the water resources challenges identified above, with concomitant needs for new data, information, analyses, and science to address the challenges.
To deal with these challenges, the report makes specific recommendations, which are worthy of discussion throughout the global water monitoring community. Many agencies are already making good progress on some of these recommendations. Awareness of what others are doing can expedite and accelerate change in regions with greater barriers to proactive planning and development of their water monitoring systems.
Recommendation 1.1: Enhance data collection, include citizen science, and develop web-based analytical tools.
More data is needed, and monitoring networks need increased flexibility to acquire more data, with some of it from unconventional sources. This will require increases in public funding, and for the public to come on board, they need to see the value of their investments with improved access to information products.
Recommendation 1.2: Coordinate with agencies and organizations on data delivery.
The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) has made good progress in developing the technology for data interoperability but there is much more work to do to develop a highly functional and resilient water data ecosystem of producers and consumers.
Recommendation 2.1: Increase focus on the relationships between human activities and water.
It is becoming clear that before we have finished developing an understanding of water quantity and quality dynamics in natural systems that natural systems are becoming scarce to the point of extinction. The role of socioeconomic factors in hydrology are becoming more impactful than the role of geology and climate.
Recommendation 3.1: Develop a robust water accounting system.
Closing a water balance equation and accounting for all the inputs, storages, and output of a basin has always been challenging. We are getting a lot better at quantifying the atmospheric inputs and losses to evaporation and runoff but the assumption that humans can be ignored from the water balance is no longer tenable.
Recommendation 3.2: Collaborate with agencies and organizations on water data standards and categories of use.
My interpretation of the difference in the recommendation to collaborate (3.2) from the recommendation to coordinate (1.2) is that coordination is an outcome of collaboration. In other words, collaboration represents decisions, planning, and commitment, whereas coordination is a systematic action with collective purpose.
Recommendation 4.1: Ensure that monitoring networks provide adequate information to assess changing conditions.
Most national water monitoring agencies already have a portion of their network dedicated to change detection. I would argue that this recommendation is about much more than doing the same thing, the same way. Decades ago, the question of whether change is detectable, or not, was an interesting question and sub-networks were tasked with answering that question. However, that question has been answered. The questions now are: what are the social, economic, and ecological consequences of change? Can change be attributed to source? If the source of change is known and measurable, can change be predicted? What we monitor, where we monitor, and how we monitor will need to adapt to the changing questions.
Recommendation 5.1: Focus on long-term prediction and risk assessment of extreme water conditions.
Extremes of droughts and floods have always been central to the raison d’etre for most monitoring agencies but now we can add extremes of water quality. Adapting to the changing extremes will require a) surviving them b) mitigating them, and c) avoiding them. Option c should come before option a but that is not how politics works (I can say that even if the authors of the report need to be more polite). We need monitoring that will provide useful data during extreme events, we need data management to put the events into useful context for engineering mitigation, and we need data to feed science to develop the knowledge needed to be safe in the future.
Recommendation 6: Develop multiscale, integrated, dynamic models that encompass the full water cycle.
Such models require an investment that exceed that of most water monitoring agencies. However, this report does have an outlook of 25 years and I am not prepared to deny that such modeling capacity could be achievable for much of the world in that time-frame.
Recommendation 7: Collaborate as appropriate both within and outside of the USGS, including agencies and the private sector.
I think this differs from recommendations 1.2 and 3.2 in that this calls for inter-sectoral collaboration. This make sense because water is integral to a complex web of interdisciplinary science and multi-sectoral policies. Don’t look at your feet, look up and get the big picture.
Recommendation 8: Build a workforce who are ready to take on new water challenges.
Well said. Without 8, recommendations 1 to 7 won’t happen.
From my vantage point at Aquatic Informatics, I interpret all of these recommendations through the lens of water data management. Our role is to help water monitoring agencies prepare for the next 25 years (and beyond). This report doesn’t point to anything that we didn’t already know and it is reassuring that all of our clients are on the right path even though there is much more work to do.
It is easier to run a marathon in an event with hundreds of other athletes than it is to go the distance on your own. Water monitoring agencies often work in relative isolation from each other and sharing these recommendations can provide some comfort that you have plenty of company for the long challenge ahead.
Water monitoring is an essential public service. While funding is limited, the stakes are high and measured in the billions of dollars. Learn how your agency can benefit from proven data-to-information-to-knowledge management best practices.