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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research 1 Setting the Stage In the coming decades, no natural resource may prove to be more critical to human health and well-being than water. Yet, there is abundant evidence that the condition of water resources in many parts of the United States and the world is deteriorating. Our institutions appear to have limited capacity to manage water-based habitats to maintain and improve species diversity and provide ecosystem services while concurrently supplying human needs. In some regions of the country, the availability of sufficient water to service growing domestic uses is in doubt, as is the future sufficiency of water to support agriculture in an increasingly competitive and globalizing agricultural economy. Indeed, demands for water resources to support population and economic growth continue to increase, although water supplies to support this growth are fixed in quantity and already are fully allocated in most areas. Renewal and repair of the aging water supply infrastructure, particularly along the eastern seaboard, will require time and hundreds of billions of dollars (GAO, 2002). These are examples of a mounting array of water-related problems that touch virtually every region of the country and for which scientifically sound and economically feasible solutions need to be found. The future water crisis is unlikely to materialize as a monolithic catastrophe that threatens the livelihoods of millions. Rather it is the growing sum of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of water problems at regional and local scales (and not just in the semiarid West, as interstate conflicts over new water supplies for the metropolitan Washington, D.C., region and Atlanta, Georgia, testify). Indeed, a search of the New York Times, Associated Press, and Reuters databases for articles related to “water” or “wetlands” found over 330 articles for 2002 alone, with 29 of the 50
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research states being the subject of at least one article.1 Indications of the increasing frequency of significant water-based environmental problems include such events as the recent collapses of ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay. Increases in damages attributable to droughts and floods are evidence of the nation’s vulnerability to extreme weather events. The threat of waterborne disease, as exemplified by the 1994 Cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and subsequent less dramatic events, is constantly present. Nonetheless, it is difficult to perceive the increasing frequency of these problems because water resources management and research tend to be highly decentralized. In much the same way that it makes the totality of the nation’s water problems difficult to comprehend, decentralization also masks the extent to which scientific information is required to address these problems. Yet, as numerous cases in this report illustrate, making good decisions about water issues requires scientific understanding and, thus, continued investment in water resources research. The growing complexity of water problems only reinforces this need for scientific information in fashioning new and innovative solutions. Unfortunately, although the number, complexity, and severity of water problems are growing, investment in the scientific research needed to develop a better understanding of water resources and the ways in which they are managed has stagnated. Overall investment in research on water and water-related topics has not grown in real terms over the last quarter century, even as the number of relevant research topics has expanded. Much of the current federal and state research agenda tends to focus on short-term problems of an operational nature. Too little of it is focused on the kind of fundamental, integrated, longer-term research that will be required if current and emerging water problems are to be addressed successfully. Furthermore, research agendas are not normally prioritized (from either a regional or national perspective), with the result that there is no assurance that the research being done is focused on the most urgent and important problems. Also, there is no assurance that the ad hoc research agendas that do emerge lead to efficient investment among the research priorities. ISSUES OF CONCERN IN WATER RESOURCES The magnitude of water resources problems, and the importance of research in addressing them, are best illustrated by referring to specific examples, a number of which are described below. 1 This search was conducted on the New York Times web site (www.nytimes.com) for calendar year 2002 using the words “water” and “wetlands.” Article title and summaries were searched to verify that the articles were about current local, regional, or national water resources problems.
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research Will Drinking Water Be Safe? Over the past 100 years, investment in water research as well as in water treatment and distribution infrastructure has made the quality of drinking water in the United States among the best in the world. Enormous gains in public health were realized from the virtual elimination of typhoid and cholera, which were once spread through the water supply. Today, the provision of safe and reliable supplies of drinking water is taken for granted in the United States. Nonetheless, new chemical contaminants and biological agents continue to emerge and threaten the safety of water supplies. For example, the inorganic chemical perchlorate was discovered in drinking water wells in northern California in 1997 (AWWARF, 1997), having found its way into groundwater from manufacturing processes (for rocket fuels, munitions, and fireworks) and inadequate disposal practices. Perchlorate is now known to interfere with thyroid hormone production and is a suspected human carcinogen, and it has been shown to affect the drinking water supplies of more than 12 million consumers in at least 14 states (Renner, 1998). Other contaminants await discovery and, like perchlorate, will be added to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) drinking water Contaminant Candidate List, which already contains 60 chemical and microbial species awaiting regulatory determinations (EPA, 1998). In addition to the periodic appearance of new contaminants that result from inadvertent lapses in the handling and disposal of chemicals, the potential for intentional contamination of drinking water supplies now represents a real and continuing threat. Appropriate treatment of drinking water supplies often requires trade-offs that are sometimes not well understood scientifically. For example, membrane-based treatment technologies, such as reverse osmosis, that remove contaminants from drinking water ultimately concentrate the contaminants in another medium, the disposal of which would be of environmental concern and could pose a threat to the health and safety of workers who must handle the material. This type of trade-off must be clearly characterized and understood if the most reliable and cost-effective methods of treating the nation’s drinking water are to be developed. Much additional research will be needed to (1) identify biological and chemical constituents that could threaten water supplies and (2) identify methods of treatment to remove existing and future contaminants without creating toxic hazards or additional problems with environmental contamination. Technologies that deal with multiple contaminants while minimizing associated health and environmental effects are especially needed. Will There Be Sufficient Water to Support Both the Environment and Future Economic Growth? The semiarid states of the American West and Southwest are the fastest-growing states in the nation and will require new supplies of urban water. Yet, the
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research waters of these states, which are naturally in short supply, are almost all fully allocated among environmental, urban, and agricultural uses. And the existing mechanisms for reallocating water away from current uses are not well developed and are frequently ineffective. The problem lies with the fact that there are no well-functioning institutions that allow people in these regions to live with an essentially fixed supply of water. The result is frequently paralyzing political conflict, as the examples below demonstrate. In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) concluded that the current flow regime of the Missouri River jeopardized at least three rare and endangered species—the pallid sturgeon, least tern, and piping plover. FWS recommended modifications in the criteria used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to guide dam operations on the Missouri River, which would entail both regular increases in spring flows and reduced summer flows (lower summer flows are intended to support nesting and foraging habitat for least terns and the piping plover, as well as nursery habitat for the pallid sturgeon and other fishes). Because such a change in flow regimes would materially impinge upon the navigability of the Missouri and make waterway transportation difficult or impossible during the harvest season, some stakeholders have challenged the scientific validity of the finding. The resulting political impasse over how to manage the flows of the Missouri means that the riverine ecosystem continues to be degraded with the accompanying threat to the three species, while agricultural and waterway transportation interests have no guarantee that their positions will ultimately prevail. While acknowledging that there are some gaps in the science underlying the FWS biological opinion, the National Research Council (NRC) concluded that changes are necessary in the flow regime, which should be adaptively managed to reduce scientific uncertainties (NRC, 2002). The story is very much the same in the Klamath Basin of southern Oregon and northern California. As widely reported, in 2002 agricultural producers engaged in civil disobedience when their irrigation water was cut off so that river flows and lake levels could be enhanced to support several endangered fish species. These growers, who suffered real economic damages, have criticized the biological opinion that led to the shut-off as being scientifically inadequate. And, in a situation reminiscent of the Missouri River confrontation, an NRC report raised doubts about the science underlying the Klamath opinion (NRC, 2003). Some have argued that these cases are simply the tip of the iceberg—that the Missouri and the Klamath are forerunners to dozens of such conflicts about to emerge—and that there is a lack of adequate science to support balanced resolutions of these conflicts. The real fear is that economic growth will be restrained without any tangible improvement in the quality of the environment. Nor are these cases limited to the western United States and to surface water. Glennon (2002) describes examples from all parts of the United States in which the overwithdrawals of groundwater have led to the drying up of streams and rivers, leading to cascading social conflicts, economic hardships, and ecological degra-
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research dation. In many cases, this is exacerbated by the legal institutions that regulate groundwater, which tend to ignore the physical realities of hydrology and the tremendous increase in the scientific understanding of hydrology since the pertinent regulations were first enunciated. With respect to problems in the East, the city of Atlanta, Georgia, is engaged in a struggle with Alabama and Florida to acquire adequate water to support growth in its metropolitan area. The waters of the Potomac River are the focus of a dispute between Virginia and Maryland over allocative doctrines that date back to the 1700s—a dispute that ultimately had to be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Although some allocative disputes may be resolved in the courts, in all regions of the country better water science is needed to make improvements in the efficiency with which water is used, and to help ensure that water is allocated and reallocated in a balanced way that acknowledges the need to support economic growth, agricultural productivity, and environmental protection. Can Effective Water Policy Be Made? There is evidence that many of our federal water policies are either ineffective or only partially effective. A good example is the “no net loss” policy for wetlands initially adopted in 1989. At that time, there was much concern over the fate of the nation’s wetlands, as it was variously estimated that more than half of the nation’s wetlands had been converted to other uses (Dahl, 1990). It is widely recognized that wetlands are among the most biologically productive environments and that they provide important environmental services such as flood protection and water quality maintenance (NRC, 1995). In 1989, then President George H. W. Bush promulgated a policy of “no net loss” of wetland area and function, which continues to be the policy of the federal government. In implementing this policy it was recognized that economic development and agricultural activity inevitably result in the degradation or destruction of wetlands. Hence the government required that damages to the nation’s wetlands be mitigated. A recent review of this policy (NRC, 2001a) concluded that despite a requirement that more than one acre of wetland be restored or created for each acre lost, only 69 percent of the acreage required was actually restored or created, and the type of wetland resulting from the mitigation action was often different from and of lower ecological value than the wetland that was lost. Further, up to 90 percent of the mitigation efforts were not monitored, and there was full compliance with only 55 percent of the wetland permits issued. The report concluded that the failure of mitigation policies to protect wetlands results from shortcomings in policy making and implementing institutions as well as from inadequacies in our current understanding of restoration ecology. The nation’s ability to improve compensatory mitigation will depend upon the way in which mitigation practices are administered, monitored, and recorded, which will require a
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research considerably enhanced scientific understanding of the structure and processes of wetlands (NRC, 2001a). The management of wetlands is not the only water policy to be hampered by a lack of scientific information. Policies governing (1) the treatment of drinking water supplies, (2) the use of water in agriculture, (3) the maintenance and preservation of aquatic habitats and species diversity, (4) the treatment and reuse of wastewater, and (5) the management of floods and droughts will all require additional scientific information if they are to be effective. Can Water Quality Be Maintained and Enhanced? During the 1970s and 1980s, the nation made good progress in improving surface water quality. Through a strategic combination of permitting requirements and financial support for the construction of municipal wastewater treatment facilities, dramatic improvements were realized in the quality of the nation’s surface waters. Yet, the failure to deal with nonpoint source pollutants has come to represent an important omission in national water quality management. Beginning in the 1980s efforts were made to implement a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program that had been originally authorized by the Clean Water Act of 1972. Rules were devised and states were required to implement TMDL programs for impaired waters, which would lead (among other things) to the control of nonpoint source discharges. This has proved to be difficult, and successes are limited. In 2000, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that the primary impediment to the successful implementation of state TMDL programs was the lack of high-quality data and information to make fundamental decisions (GAO, 2000), such as decisions about which waterbodies are in violation of water quality standards, about the extent to which nonpoint pollutants contribute to the problem in question, and about how TMDLs should be calculated for waterbodies that are in violation of standards. Only five of the 50 states claimed to have the tools and information needed even to assess all of their waters (GAO, 2000). A subsequent study by the NRC identified major gaps in the knowledge required to make TMDL programs effective (NRC, 2001b). Creating this knowledge will require research leading to the development of more refined statistical tools, of watershed and water quality models, and of innovative bioassessment techniques. A much-needed updating of the antiquated 1992 TMDL Rule has now been stalled, in part because the tools and techniques required for full and effective implementation of the TMDL program are only now under development. The larger picture is that as new chemicals are manufactured, as the legacy of chemical plumes in the soil from early agricultural and industrial activities is visited upon groundwater, and as conversion of wildlands and other relatively undisturbed lands continues, the need for more and better science to support our
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research understanding of contaminant behavior and treatment and control technologies will increase. Will Our Water Management Systems Adapt to Climate Change? Existing data show that there have been unprecedented changes in climate in the postindustrial era (Jones et al., 1999; Karl and Trenberth, 2003). There are, moreover, legitimate concerns about the nature and pace of future climate changes and the implications of those changes for water resources (Gleick et al., 2000; IPCC, 2001). Although there are many remaining uncertainties about the scope, intensity, and timing of climate change in the coming decades, there is scientific agreement about the projected occurrence of change for a wide range of water-related issues. For example, there is a high degree of confidence that rising temperatures will alter snowfall and snowmelt dynamics in the western United States, affecting the timing and magnitude of both winter and spring runoff and forcing changes in reservoir operations. Similarly, higher sea levels along the coasts will increase salinity contamination in coastal freshwater aquifers and alter coastal marshes and wetlands (Gleick et al., 2000). Furthermore, research is beginning to suggest that there will be changes in various types of extreme climatic events (Meehl et al., 2000). Thus, for example, higher frequencies of extreme warm days, lower frequencies of extreme cold days, a decrease in diurnal temperature ranges associated with higher nighttime temperatures, increased precipitation intensity and extremes, and midcontinental summer drying have been widely predicted. Reliable prediction of the frequency of occurrence of extreme weather events is particularly important because of the implications of such events for water availability, food supply systems, and plant and human health. The midwestern floods of 1993 and the drought of 1988 provide examples of the vulnerability of agricultural and urban ecosystems to such events (Rosenzweig et al., 2001). Embedded within the overall global climate variability, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon is an important quasi-periodic cycle of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that affects the earth’s climate and has been shown to be the precursor of floods and droughts in various regions of the world (Ropelewski and Halpert, 1996; Harrison and Larkin, 1998). Climate modeling simulations show that in the future, there is likely to be an increased frequency of ENSO-related events that will be of greater severity, significantly affecting regional renewable water supplies (Timmermann et al., 1999). In view of such predictions, consideration of such phenomena in regional water resources planning studies is now warranted. Unfortunately, although substantial resources have been expended for basic climate change research (e.g., NSTB, 2002), little funding has been provided to translate these research findings into new and improved methods for water resources planning and management—an area that has been identified as the weakest element of climate change integrated assessments (NAST, 2001).
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research New research is needed to help cope with the large uncertainty associated with how climate change will affect water resources and to develop new institutional approaches for water resources and risk management under intensified climate variability. Indeed, professional water groups and agencies have now begun to ask for research into how climate change will affect water systems (AWWA, 1997). * * * Will drinking water be safe? Will there be sufficient water to protect environmental values and support future economic growth? Can effective water policy be made? Will water quality be enhanced and maintained? Will our water management systems adapt to climate change? All of these questions address issues that bear on the overarching question to which this report is addressed: In the future, will there be adequate water to meet the needs of competing users? What if the answer to this question or to some of the derivative questions discussed above is “no”? It would portend a very difficult future—one in which the water supplies are not always available or are available only in very limited quantities; water quality continues to deteriorate, reducing available supplies; our ability to devise policies to manage water resources effectively is severely constrained; and we struggle, unsuccessfully, to adapt to climate change. A vibrant and robust research program alone will not be sufficient to prevent all of these scenarios, but knowledge and insight gained from a broad spectrum of natural and social science research on water resources is society’s best hope for success. The type and quantity of research that will be needed to address current and future water resources problems are unlikely to be available if no action is taken at the federal level. Although the states are frequently vested with the responsibility to resolve many water resource problems and to respond to federal mandates such as the Clean Water Act, 13 state representatives who met with the committee were unanimous in stating that the increasing number of water problems as well as their increasing complexity are rapidly eclipsing the states’ ability to resolve those problems. State governments typically do not have substantial research capacity in the water resource topics, nor do they have the funding to support research on the scale needed to solve their collective problems (for example, if the problems are basinwide in nature, and thus transcend the boundary of a given state). Moreover, individual states may not have an incentive to conduct water resources research, especially if the results would be broadly applicable to more than just the sponsoring state. That is, individual states have a disincentive to conduct water resources research because it has the characteristics of a pure public good (as discussed in the succeeding section). Nongovernmental organizations will similarly underinvest in water resources research due to both weak incentives and the lack of financial resources. Taken together, this suggests that
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research the federal government will need to fund or produce the necessary research to address future water crises, if it is to be produced at all. Nor do water resources problems fall logically and easily within the purview of a single federal agency. Indeed, as discussed in this report, federal responsibilities for water resources management and research are fragmented among nearly 20 agencies. As water resource problems increase in complexity, even more agencies may become involved. At the present time, the uncoordinated and mission-driven water resources research agendas of these agencies (see Chapters 4 and 6) are inadequate to meet the challenges that lie ahead. In the absence of a new and strong commitment at the federal level to generate additional knowledge of all kinds related to water resources, the future may be characterized by never-ending strife and frustration over our inability to surmount water problems growing in number and complexity. WHY PUBLICLY SUPPORTED RESEARCH? It is sometimes asked why the federal government should support research on water resources instead of leaving this activity to the private sector. The answer lies with the fact that the results of much water resources research, particularly basic research, have the characteristics of a public good. That is, once the research is concluded, the results should be freely available to many or all, irrespective of whether the recipients directly pay for them. Those who produce research with public good characteristics are unable to capture all of the returns to that research because the results are not patentable or licensable. Indeed, the private sector typically underinvests or fails to invest at all in the production of public goods because it cannot capture or “appropriate” all of the returns from the investment. The problem of the lack of appropriability is especially pertinent to water resources, since water is a publicly held resource. Although private firms and individuals may enjoy the right to use water, they rarely have title to the corpus or body of the resource. Lack of appropriability combined with public ownership of the resource makes the justification for public support of water resources research compelling. John Wesley Powell, one of the earliest and most distinguished water scientists in the United States, expressed this concept forthrightly as follows: Possession of property is exclusive; possession of knowledge is not exclusive; for the knowledge which one man has may also be the possession of another. The learning of one man does not subtract from the learning of another, as if there were a limited quantity of unknown truth. Intellectual activity does not compete with other intellectual activity for exclusive possession of truth; scholarship breeds scholarship, wisdom breeds wisdom, discovery breeds discovery. Property may be divided into exclusive ownership for utilization and preservation, but knowledge is utilized and preserved by multiple ownership. That which
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research one man gains by discovery is the gain of other men. And these multiple gains become invested capital, the interest on which is all paid to every owner, and the revenue of new discovery is boundless. It may be wrong to take another man’s purse, but it is always right to take another man’s knowledge, and it is the highest virtue to promote another man’s investigation. The laws of political economy do not belong to the economics of science and intellectual progress. While ownership of property precludes other ownership of the same, ownership of knowledge promotes other ownership of the same, and when research is properly organized every man’s work is an aid to every other man’s. (Dupree, 1940.) In the aftermath of World War II, Vannevar Bush wrote a thorough justification for a strong governmental role in supporting research in the scientific community (Bush, 1950). He argued that the responsibilities for promoting new scientific knowledge and for developing scientific talent were properly the concern of the federal government because these activities vitally affect the nation’s health, prosperity, and national security. He noted that the benefits of research were widespread and often appeared many years after the research was done. More recently the National Science Board has endorsed the concepts originally set forth by Bush (National Science Board, 1997). The board noted the emergence of a “global technological marketplace” and the increasing need for knowledge and information to contend with and manage the “modification of natural and social environments that is occurring” on larger scales and at increasingly rapid rates. These trends make the case for governmental support of research even more compelling than it was during the 1940s. The board concluded that changes in circumstances and national priorities do not negate the potential benefits from government-supported research. It is also significant that the board singles out environmental management and “green manufacturing” as areas with public good characteristics for which Bush’s original case is particularly cogent today. There are numerous examples of government-funded research on water resources that has led to significant payoffs for the nation or for distinct regions of the nation. This research falls into two broad categories: (1) that done to facilitate and enhance the solving of water and water management problems and (2) that done to develop the scientific knowledge necessary to undergird mandated regulatory programs. Problem-Solving Research Examples of problem-solving research include studies that have facilitated the management of salts in irrigation, research that has permitted more accurate and long-term prediction of weather, and research on the possibilities and arrangements that promote the voluntary transfer of water. These examples are discussed in more detail below.
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research Managing Salt in Irrigation When water is applied to crops in irrigated agriculture, it is ultimately transpired by the plant or evaporated from the soil surface, leaving behind salts in the root zone. If salt concentrations are allowed to build up in the root zones, they reduce plant productivity and ultimately result in sterilization of the soil. The failure to manage salt build-up in the root zone is thought to have led to the destruction of many civilizations including the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia. Research conducted primarily by experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to a lesser extent at the nation’s universities led to the development of modern techniques for managing salinity in irrigated agriculture; without this research, much of the irrigated land in the semiarid parts of the country would not be productive (ASCE, 1990). The fundamental technique of salinity management is to apply water (in excess of the crop water requirement) in quantities sufficient to allow salts to be leached below the root zone. The quantities of water needed vary by crop type, as some crops are relatively sensitive to salt and others relatively insensitive (Maas and Hoffman, 1977). However, in many instances the application and leaching of this excess water may cause water tables to rise and may promote the water-logging of soils. Research has revealed that adequate drainage must be part of the overall strategy for managing salt balances. In recent decades, research has focused on the management of drainage waters to maintain and enhance water quality (NRC, 1989). All of this has benefited western growers, many of whom would not have been able to farm on a sustainable basis without the results of these federal research efforts. Needless to say, the entire country has benefited through the provision of affordable food. Facilitating Voluntary Transfers of Water The development of water resources in the arid western states focused initially on irrigation, which, given the enormous demands for water to grow crops, consumed the lion’s share of available supplies. Under western water law, irrigators as first users hold rights that are fully protected from the claims of more junior users. However, as the western states have grown, demand for water has changed such that portions of the water supply are being shifted from irrigation to new uses. One important strategy to accomplish this is to use voluntary, market-based transactions. Water rights in western states are regarded as property rights, a key attribute of which is their transferability from one owner to another by sale, lease, or devise. However, historically there had been very few transfers of water rights in western states that have involved actual changes of water use, especially changes from irrigation to other uses. The National Water Commission first identified this problem in the 1970s, after which research that focused on better understanding
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research market-like transactions in water flourished (Meyers and Posner, 1971; Hartman and Seastone, 1970; Johnson et al., 1981; Vaux and Howitt, 1986; Saliba and Bush, 1987). With federal funding, academics from six western states examined water-transfer experiences over a recent 20-year period (Natural Resources Law Center, 1990), and an NRC committee examined issues related to market-like transfers of water in the West (NRC, 1992). This body of research identified impediments to the transfer of water rights, including the interrelated nature of water use, expensive state review processes not designed to facilitate transfers, and cultural and social factors, and it also investigated how to lessen or eliminate these impediments. A result of the research has been a building up of support for the careful use of water transfers in meeting changing water demands. Water rights transfers are now part of the standard array of options available for solving problems of water scarcity in the West. Transfers allowed Californians to respond effectively to the drought of 1987–1993, which saved millions of dollars. A recently completed accord that includes transfers from the Imperial Irrigation District to San Diego appears to have brought a peaceful resolution to a serious conflict among the states using Colorado River water. Most of this research was supported by the federal government and has resulted in significant benefits to urban dwellers in many parts of the West. Predicting El Niño Fundamental research on the nature, manifestation, and impacts of the El Niño phenomenon has been supported by the federal government since the 1970s (e.g., Philander, 1990). Such research efforts received great impetus with the influx of new data from the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean Array of moored buoys installed in the equatorial Pacific by 1994. This research and the availability of new data resulted in the formulation of reliable predictive models prior to the occurrence of the significant El Niño of 1997–1998, an event that developed very rapidly in the first half of 1997 to become one of the highest magnitude El Niño events in the last 50 years (second only to the 1982–1983 El Niño). Although the west coast suffers substantial flood damage when significant El Niño events occur (e.g., Cayan and Webb, 1992), when the 1997–1998 El Niño occurred as predicted, the affected region was well prepared (by adjusting crop planting and fertilizing schedules, sandbagging, altering reservoir release patterns from normal use patterns, accelerating plans to repair and improve structures, etc.). Actual damage was substantially lower than that anticipated had there been no prediction. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that California’s emergency management agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency spent an estimated $165 million preparing for adverse weather effects prior to the 1997–1998 El Niño, and the actual losses for the event in California were estimated to be $1.1 billion (NOAA, 2002). The losses from the 1982–1983 El Niño were much greater ($2.2 billion). A significant por-
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research tion of the difference in losses is attributed to increased preparedness resulting from the 1997–1998 El Niño forecast. Research in Support of Regulation Examples of federally funded research in support of regulation include studies that broaden our understanding of the causes of eutrophication in inland waters, studies of mercury deposition, and studies to determine the sources of nitrogen loading in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These are examples of research that have made the regulatory process more effective and fair to those who are subject to it, as discussed below. Understanding the Causes of Eutrophication Eutrophication—the result of excessive inputs of nutrients (nitrogen or phosphorus) to fresh and coastal marine waters—is one of the major causes of water quality degradation. The many problems caused by excess nutrient inputs include accelerated growth of phytoplankton both in the water column and in the benthos; the dominance of toxic, bloom-forming algal species; decreases in water transparency; the development of hypoxic and anoxic conditions in the bottom waters and sediments, with concomitant mortality of fish and invertebrates; the production of unpleasant odors and tastes; and interference with filtration of drinking water. Extensive research carried out across a broad range of scales (laboratory-based assays to experimental manipulation of whole lakes) has been necessary to resolve these issues (for a review, see Smith, 1998). This has resulted, among other things, in a range of specific, quantitative assays for distinguishing nitrogen vs. phosphorus limitation in waterbodies and these nutrients’ role in controlling phytoplankton production and species composition. A long history of research, beginning with the work of Thienemann (1918) and Naumann (1919) and later expanded by limnologists Golterman (1975), Fruh et al. (1966), Vollenweider (1976), and Schindler (1977) has demonstrated the effect of external nutrient inputs on concentrations of nutrients in lake water and the resulting impairment of waters, allowing regulatory limits to be established. Finally, federally funded research on the role of phosphorus in causing eutrophication led to the adoption of ordinances during the 1970s by some states and cities that banned the use of phosphate-based laundry detergents; these laws have became so widespread that the industry voluntarily eliminated phosphates from all laundry detergents in order to be able to market their products nationally. Understanding the Risk of Methylmercury On January 30, 2004, EPA proposed standards of performance for mercury emissions from electric utility steam generating units, the largest single source of
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research mercury emissions. This regulatory proposal, including the controversial cap-and-trade approach, seeks to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired utility units (EPA, 2004). This proposed rule follows an improved understanding of the risks of mercury exposure for fetuses, infants, and young children obtained through federally funded research. Methylmercury in humans causes neurological damage that affects memory, attention, and language skills, especially during formative developmental stages. Human exposure to mercury follows a complicated pathway that begins when inorganic mercury from industrial air emissions precipitates over waterbodies. There, it is bacterially transformed into organic forms such as methylmercury, which is far more toxic than inorganic mercury (EPA, 1997). Methylmercury is taken up from the water column by fish, and humans are then exposed following consumption of those fish. Federally funded research has tackled numerous components of this problem, including studies to determine the level and type of mercury emission sources; studies of mercury fate, transport, and transformation in the water column and on land; studies of human and animal exposure routes for mercury; and risk management studies. A conclusion emanating from some of this research was that there is a plausible link between anthropogenic mercury emissions and methylmercury in fish. Furthermore, a quantitative health risk assessment of methylmercury based on fish consumption surveys estimated that up to 3 percent of women of child-bearing age eat sufficient amounts of fish to put their fetuses at risk from methylmercury exposure (EPA, 1997). These studies have cumulatively led to the naming of mercury as one of the fifteen “pollutants of concern” in the Great Waters2 (EPA, 2000). The current regulatory proposal reflects this increased understanding of the nature and extent of mercury toxicity and the role of airborne mercury in contaminating water resources. Nitrogen Loadings in the Chesapeake Bay In 1983, the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement was adopted, establishing a Chesapeake Bay Program and an executive council to lead restoration efforts within this important estuary. A central element of the program was the setting of targets and timetables for the reduction of phosphorus and nitrogen loading into the Chesapeake Bay. In 1987, the executive council of the program called for a reduction of 40 percent from 1985 levels of “controllable” loads of phosphorus and nitrogen to be achieved by 2000 (Sims and Coale, 2002). These ambitious goals were predicated on the notion that loadings were entering the bay predomi- 2 The Great Waters are the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, the Chesapeake Bay, and specific coastal waters designated through the National Estuary Program and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research nantly through runoff and groundwater flow. Although the phosphorus target was realistic and achievable by 2000, the nitrogen target was problematic because of the difficulty in reducing fertilizer use, because of suburban development, and because of other diffuse nonpoint discharges into the bay from member states as well as from states further upstream that are not part of the program. By the early 1990s, federally funded research conducted on airborne pollutant transport led to the estimate that about 25 percent of the nitrogen loadings to the bay originated from long-range transport of emissions from midwestern power plants, motor vehicles, and agricultural operations. These research findings had several important implications for management of the bay. First, they suggested that control of nitrogen loadings to the bay should include an air quality control component that reaches well beyond the existing bounds of the Chesapeake Bay and its catchment area. Second, if the airborne nitrogen could not be controlled, then it would be necessary to impose even more stringent requirements on the known and controllable waterborne sources. * * * These examples speak to the role that publicly funded research has played in addressing water resources problems over the last several decades, both for direct problem solving and to achieve a higher level of understanding about water-related phenomena. They illustrate that water problems tend to be regional in nature, but that the benefits of water research tend to be widespread and accrue broadly and to many different user groups. Although not stressed in the above examples, research has allowed the nation to increase the productivity of its water resources, such that today an acre-foot of water yields, on average, more value than it did 50 or 100 years ago.3 Additional research can be expected to increase that productivity even more, which is critical to supporting future population and economic growth. Finally, research that permits the nation to manage its water resources in more environmentally sensitive and benign ways is more important than ever, given the recognition and value now afforded to aquatic ecosystems and their environmental services. ENVISIONING THE AGENDA FOR WATER RESOURCES RESEARCH Recognizing a compelling need for rethinking the national water research agenda in light of emerging as well as persistent problems, the Water Science and Technology Board of the National Research Council in 2001 wrote Envisioning 3 This can be documented, both nationally and regionally, by dividing water use by GDP, adjusted for inflation.
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research the Agenda for Water Resources Research in the Twenty-first Century (NRC, 2001c). The Envisioning report was intended to (1) draw attention of the public and broad groups of stakeholders to the urgency and complexity of the water resource issues facing the United States in the 21st century, (2) identify knowledge and corresponding research areas that need emphasis both now and over the long term, and (3) identify ways in which the setting of the water research agenda, the conduct of such research, and the investment allocated to such research should be improved in the near future. The broad goal of the report was to identify the research needed to help ensure that the water resources of the United States remain sustainable over the long run. The report was organized around three broad categories (water availability, water use, and water institutions), and it identified 43 critical water research needs. Conclusions pertinent to the present report include the following: the challenge of solving the nation’s water problems will require a renewed national research commitment, which will include changes in the way research agendas and priorities are established water quality and water quantity need to be thought of in an integrated fashion, and research priorities should be developed in an integrated fashion relatively more attention must be given to water-related research in the social sciences and to research focused on the development of innovative institutions than has been the case in the past research on environmental water needs has emerged as an important player and should remain a major part of the research agenda. As discussed below, the present report expands and elaborates upon on this earlier effort. STATEMENT OF TASK AND REPORT ROAD MAP The purposes of this report are to (1) refine and enhance the recent findings of the Envisioning report, (2) examine current and historical patterns and magnitudes of investment in water resources research at the federal level, and generally assess the adequacy of this investment, (3) address the need to better coordinate the nation’s water resources research enterprise, and (4) identify institutional options for the improved coordination, prioritization, and implementation of research in water resources. The study was carried out by the Committee on Assessment of Water Resources Research. The committee has sought to identify overarching principles that will guide the formulation and conduct of water research rather than focusing exclusively on developing a topic-by-topic research agenda. Chapter 2 presents and analyzes the complex history of federally funded water resources research in an effort to understand how the research needed to solve tomorrow’s problems may compare with the research undertaken in the
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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research past. It is also instructive in illuminating how U.S. support for water resources research in the 20th century has fluctuated in response to important scientific, political, and social movements. Chapter 3 revisits the 43 research areas outlined in the Envisioning report, but with the intent of drawing out overarching themes that should govern how research endeavors are organized. It also describes a process for periodically updating the national water resources research agenda. Chapter 4 describes the committee’s methodology for collecting budget data and narrative information from the major federal agencies and from significant nonfederal organizations that are conducting water resources research. Within this chapter, these data are analyzed, and conclusions about the nation’s investment in water resources research are made. The importance of data collection to the overall water resources research enterprise is the subject of Chapter 5. The report concludes in Chapter 6 with more detailed alternatives for organizing and coordinating the water resources research enterprise than were presented in the Envisioning report. REFERENCES American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). 1990. Agricultural salinity and management. K. K. Tanji (ed.). Water Quality Technical Committee of the Irrigation and Drainage Division of the American Society of Civil Engineers. New York: ASCE. American Water Works Association Research Foundation (AWWARF). 1997. Report of the Perchlorate Research Issue Group Workshop, Ontario, CA. Denver, CO: AWWARF. Bush, V. 1950. Science–The Endless Frontier (40th Anniversary Edition). Washington, DC: The National Science Foundation. Cayan, D. R., and R. H. Webb. 1992. El Niño/Southern oscillation and streamflow in the western United States. Pg. 29–68 In El Niño: Historical and Paleoclimatic Aspects of the Southern Oscillation. H. F. Diaz and V. Markgraf (eds.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Dahl, T. E. 1990. Wetlands losses in the United States 1780s to 1980s. Washington, DC: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dupree, A. H. 1940. Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 1997. Mercury Study Report to Congress (Volumes I-VIII). EPA-452/R-97-003 through EPA-452/R-97-010. Washington, DC: EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards and Office of Research and Development. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 1998. Announcement of the drinking water contaminant candidate list. Federal Register 63(40) March 2, 1998. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2000. Deposition of Air Pollutants to the Great Waters: Third Report to Congress. EPA-453/R-00-005. Washington, DC: EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards and Office of Research and Development . Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2004. Proposed national emission standards for hazardous air pollutants; and, in the alternative, proposed standards of performance for new and existing stationary sources: electric utility steam generating units. Federal Register 69(20) January 30, 2004. Fruh, G. E., K. M. Stewart, G. F. Lee, G. F. Rohlich, and G. A. Rohlich. 1966. Measurement of eutrophication and trends. Jour. Water Pollut. Cont. Fed. 38:1237–1258. General Accounting Office (GAO). 2000. Water Quality—Key EPA and State Decisions Limited by Inconsistent and Incomplete Data. GAO/RCED-00-54. Washington, DC: GAO.
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Representative terms from entire chapter: