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Opportunities to Improve the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Assessment Program
the exact wording of the goals has been refined over time, these three goals are the organizing themes for NAWQA’s past, present, and future.
During its first decade of monitoring (called Cycle I; see more below), which spanned from 1991 until 2001, NAWQA concentrated primarily on gathering comparable information on water resources (i.e., status assessments) in dozens of geographic areas, called study units, that include major river basins and/or aquifers nationwide. Perhaps the most important facet of the program is that the similar design of each investigation and the use of standardized methods make comparisons among disparate study units possible. Combining, comparing, and analyzing data from individual study units has led to regional and national assessments of water quality, collectively referred to as “national synthesis.” More specifically, national synthesis also includes information from other programs, agencies, and researchers to produce regional and national assessments for priority water quality issues. At first, national synthesis in Cycle I concentrated on two issues of national priority—the occurrence of (1) nutrients and (2) pesticides in streams and groundwater. These topics were ranked among the highest in importance because of widespread environmental and public health concerns and because the information necessary for a national assessment of these contaminants was incomplete. Later topics addressed by the national synthesis component of NAWQA included volatile organic compounds, trace elements, and ecological synthesis (in that order).
The National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Water Science and Technology Board (WSTB) has provided advice to NAWQA four separate times in the past as the NAWQA program has evolved from an unfunded concept in 1985 to a relatively mature and tested program in 2001. In a letter report from Walter Lynn, then the WSTB chair, to former USGS director Dallas Peck in October 1985, the WSTB heartily endorsed the concept of the original NAWQA program. WSTB members raised certain issues for USGS consideration during NAWQA program development. First, in response to the strong focus of data collection on physical and chemical parameters, the WSTB stressed the importance of including biological parameters in the program. It felt that both short-term and long-term impacts of water quality on human and ecological health would be best assessed via biological assessment. The board promoted increasing the level of interaction between the USGS and other federal and state agencies to maximize the utility of NAWQA data. Finally, the difficulties inherent in measuring groundwater parameters were acknowledged and a pilot program on groundwater quality assessment was suggested.
Shortly after this initial communication, the WSTB convened a colloquium (NRC, 1986) to specifically address what the necessary elements should be for a national water quality monitoring and assessment program. Colloquium participants raised new issues for consideration, such as which particular chemical constituents should be chosen for measurement, whether and how to interface with state monitoring programs, and how the program could reflect surface water-