In Digital Information Age, Water Data Is Not Always a Click Away
Congressional support and funding is dropping for U.S. water monitoring networks.
By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue
January 19, 2014
By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue
January 19, 2014
Congress is inadequately funding two water monitoring programs run by the U.S. Geological Survey that independent review panels have deemed vital to the national interest – vital because the data the programs collect are used to forecast floods, design bridges and roads, and assess long-term changes in the nation’s water resources.
The data from the National Streamflow Information Program and the National Water Quality Assessment Program also act as a watchdog, helping regulators and advocates track the success and failure of the tens billions of dollars spent each year by local, state, and federal agencies to reduce pollution, revive endangered species, and restore ecosystems.
In short, say critics, Congress is being tight-fisted with an agency that provides more value per dollar than almost any other. Last year, the budget for the two programs was $US 140 million.
“It’s a sad state of affairs, and it’s shortsighted, especially given the dollar amounts involved,” Don Siegel, a Syracuse University professor who chaired a National Research Council assessment of the NAWQA program in 2012, told Circle of Blue. “The value added by the USGS is truly enormous. I can’t think of an agency where there is so little waste. It’s a tragedy that its mission is being diminished.”
The USGS is not the only casualty. Many programs that monitor the nation’s water and land have had weak support recently from Congress:
The mood in Washington for cuts is so pervasive that those who recognize the value of comprehensive and rigorous water data are huddling to keep the monitoring programs intact. The Advisory Committee on Water Information, which counsels federal agencies, has formed a work group to assess how to gather the highest quality data on a shoestring. Membership in the group includes dam safety operators, irrigation associations, water utilities, civil engineers, and forest managers.
In a set of draft recommendations that will be published later this winter, the group argues that data collection should be a top federal priority, said Peter Evans, the chair of the Advisory Committee on Water Information’s monitoring challenges work group. Evans said that water data is an irreplaceable record, vanishing once the snow melts or the river rises.
“You can come back and do interpretive studies,” Evans told Circle of Blue, referring to the analysis of the raw numbers. “But you can’t ever come back and collect the data.”
In 2013, the federal government contributed only half of the $US 164 million budget for the National Streamflow Information Program (NSIP), which measures water levels in rivers and aquifers. The balance comes from a mix of local and state agencies, a volatile collection of more than 800 partners with different goals and financial uncertainties of their own. Some 618 monitoring gauges – out of more than 8,000 in the NSIP network – have been shut down in the last year because of insufficient funds.
The total number of gauges, however, has crept up slightly over the years. New installations have outpaced discontinuations. The net increase is due to a greater reliance on the non-federal partners, who have chipped in more money. But that slight rise masks an undesirable trend: the inability to set national priorities when funding does not come from Congress.
State priorities can shift according to local political and economic winds. An important gauge today may be less so tomorrow. The result is greater instability in the national network and the loss of the most valuable monitoring stations: those with more than 30 years of data, the standard required for assessing long-term hydrological changes.
As a remedy, NSIP proposed a “backbone” network of the 4,759 gauges most important for federal goals. But Congress has provided only one-quarter of the $US 120 million necessary, said Mike Norris, the NSIP program coordinator.
“We’re not close at all,” Norris told Circle of Blue. Only 500 gauges in the backbone network are fully supported by federal dollars. Congress did add $US 6 million in the 2014 budget for new gauges, but the goal of full funding is still a distant aspiration.
The need for long-term baseline data is evident in the Lake Erie watershed, where changes in land use have given rise to massive algae blooms not seen since the 1970s. Jack Kramer, laboratory manager emeritus at the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, told Circle of Blue that data might be collected for a particular study and then halted when the researcher moves to a new topic.
“There are huge holes in the data,” Kramer said. “Good bad or indifferent, just huge holes. From year to year, from agency to agency. My favorite one is when you have the graduate student go out and do a thesis. The information goes that way, and then it’s gone. You’re faced with this problem of, oh yeah, we looked at that and it was, let’s really be optimistic, a three-year study. There’s almost always problems with quality control of the numbers that are produced.”
Similar budget challenges threaten the National Water Quality Assessment (NAQWA), the program that tracks water quality in rivers, lakes, and aquifers. The two-decade-old program faces a seven percent cut in fiscal year 2014 compared to 2012, which could eliminate 30 percent of the gauges in its long-term monitoring network.
In its 2012 report, the National Research Council argued that NAQWA is essential for answering the basic question that prompted the program’s creation two decades ago: Is the nation’s water quality getting better or worse?
“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 report states. “The need for a national water-quality assessment is as important, if not more so today, as when NAWQA was established.”
Lawmakers throw pots of money into conservation and restoration programs. For instance, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an Obama administration priority, has received $US 1.3 billion in federal funds since 2010. But without basic data on water conditions, the success of these programs cannot be judged.
Siegel, who chaired the National Research Council committee that wrote the report, said that NAWQA data enables researchers to track the pace at which water contamination will happen in the future. Many pollutants, such as nitrate, persist in groundwater for decades and slowly disperse.
“Without the data we blind ourselves to future environmental stresses,” Siegel said. “The public and politicians are exposed to surprises that didn’t have to be.”
In the face of federal neglect, states are stepping into the breach and setting their own priorities. West Virginia and Montana are in the process of creating state water plans. Officials from both states told Circle of Blue that because of flagging federal support their plans would emphasize funds for water monitoring.
“If you’re going to make plans, you have to know where water is and where it isn’t,” said Brian Carr, manager of the water use section of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. “You can’t do that without gauges.”
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