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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.
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.