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Opportunities to Improve the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Assessment Program
The design and management of NAWQA and its past, present, and future success is an ongoing struggle for program balance, and this is reflected in the committee’s conclusions and recommendations. NAWQA must strive to find the appropriate balance of efforts and resources between its three primary goals of status, trends, and understanding as it enters its second decade of nationwide monitoring. The committee fully expects that NAWQA will continue to exhibit foresight and take a lead in studying emerging water quality issues and contaminants and will avoid expending unwarranted resources on a “contaminant-of-the-day” approach. As another exemplary balance issue, the committee notes the very important contributions that NAWQA can and should make in biological assessments and ecological synthesis in surface waters, yet the committee also strongly recommends that NAWQA not embark on an ecotoxicology program. Furthermore, although NAWQA must strive to be responsive to water quality policy and regulatory needs, it cannot be driven or controlled by these needs— thus epitomizing the struggle of doing “good science” in the public policy arena. In this regard, the committee commends NAWQA for doing an excellent job of balancing good science with policy needs in the face of flat budgets. However, NAWQA supporters, users, policy makers, and Congress itself should be made aware of the fine balancing act that this requires, and they should be supportive of the dilemma that it creates for operating such a program. NAWQA must also balance its work within the context of the agency that provides its charter, the USGS.
This committee, and nearly all users of NAWQA with which it has interacted, recommend that NAWQA do more, not less, even amidst the obvious resource constraints faced by the program. NAWQA’s resources have not grown to keep pace with annual inflation, and it has had to redesign significantly for Cycle II. Although NAWQA has done an exemplary job of downsizing to 42 planned study units for Cycle II, it cannot continue to downsize and still be considered a national water quality assessment. Though it could certainly be redesigned, this would likely undo the basis for assessment of trends and would waste a decade or more of effort.
To address long-term trends in water quality across the nation, one must recognize the concurrent need for long-term support to allow for consistency in the data gathering and analysis efforts. As discussed throughout this report, the future success of NAWQA is a struggle for balance of resources and scientific endeavors in a water policy environment. Current and future demands already exceed the capacity of NAWQA, but it is hoped that policy makers, politicians, and program managers can strike the necessary balance that will allow NAWQA to continue to provide important water quality data and information for the nation.