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Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research (2004)

Chapter: 2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research

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Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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2
The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research

The federal role in helping to ensure that the nation’s water resources meet public needs has changed dramatically over the years. Sustained congressional funding to support water resources research started in the 1950s, expanded considerably in the 1960s, and has remained essentially static since then. The research agenda supported by this funding has changed in response to shifting national priorities. This chapter provides a broad overview of the evolving federal role concerning water, starting at the time of European settlement. It then turns to a more detailed discussion of the federal role in water resources research and of efforts over the last 50 years to organize and coordinate federally supported water resources research.

NATIONAL INTERESTS IN WATER

Over the last 200 years, water resources in the United States have undergone a profound transformation. Initially considered as a means of transportation and navigation (and managed as such), water resources for much of the early 20th century were developed primarily as water sources for agriculture and later for industrial and municipal use. The most recent era of water resources management has seen a blossoming of efforts to protect waterbodies from both quality and quantity degradation brought on by such development.

Support of Commerce and Settlement

In this nation’s early years, the development of water resources for transportation and other purposes was left largely to private initiative. Congress regarded

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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its powers as narrowly confined to those explicitly conferred upon it by the U.S. Constitution. The earliest federal role in water development and management began in the 1820s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) was authorized to undertake work to improve the navigability of the nation’s coastal and inland waterways. This was made possible by a Supreme Court ruling in the case of Gibbons v. Ogden (9 Wheat. 1, 197 1824), which declared that Congress had the authority to regulate navigation on interstate rivers under the terms of the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. That authority was subsequently broadened by other rulings regarding navigable rivers and their tributaries (Maass, 1951; Hill, 1957). Thereafter, Congress made direct appropriations to the Corps for specific river and harbor improvements. One rationale for authorizing the Corps to be involved in domestic civil works was to provide work for officers during peacetime so as to maintain their engineering proficiency. Navigation improvements continued to be the norm until after the Civil War, when Congress expanded the role and authority of the Corps to include flood control (Holmes, 1972).

During the latter half of the 19th century, the Corps’ authority was expanded in two distinct ways. First, the navigation activities that had previously been restricted to maintaining depth in natural channels by clearing debris were expanded to include the construction of dams and other structures on navigable waters. Simultaneously, the Corps also received authority to regulate the disposal of refuse as well as of dredge and fill materials, also for the purpose of protecting navigation. In this way, the Congress could ensure that the activities of the states and of private parties would not interfere with navigation. Second, the Corps was given responsibility for flood control on the lower Mississippi River, which on a regular basis was visited with devastating floods that adversely affected navigation and the development prospects of the region.

To summarize, the federal interests in water resources during the 19th century were limited to matters related to navigation. The expansion of federal authorities into other areas would not occur until the 20th century, although important events in land acquisition and development that set the stage for this occurred in the 19th century (as discussed below).

The period from 1775 to around 1850 has been characterized as the Era of Acquisition in the United States. During this period, the nation acquired most of the lands that would ultimately define the extent of the country on the North American continent, including the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the annexation of Texas in 1845, and the acquisition of the areas in the southwestern United States, including California, Arizona, and Nevada in 1848 through the Mexican Cession. With the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 and the acquisition of Alaska in 1867, the shape of the United States in North America looked very much the way it looks today.

Beginning around 1850, the Congress made significant efforts to turn much of this land over to private ownership via the Homestead Act of 1862, as large

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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holdings of public lands were seen as inconsistent with democratic ideals. Furthermore, the concept of “Manifest Destiny” dictated early settlement as a means of consolidating western land expanses and the nation’s new borders. As this transition occurred, some well-documented abuses on private holdings began to surface, despite Congress’s having recently written many of the nation’s first grazing, mining, and timber laws. For example, some forested lands were cutover indiscriminantly, grazing lands were subjected to heavy and nonsustainable grazing pressures, and mining laws were widely abused. This led to federal action between 1880 and 1900 in which some of the remaining timbered lands were reserved to the national forest system and the national park system. It is interesting to note that in creating the national forest system, the Congress made clear that a primary purpose for establishing and managing forest reserves was to “secure favorable conditions of water flows” as a reliable supply for downstream users (16 USCA §475).

In the latter decades of the 19th century, there was concern over the relative absence of settlement and development of broad expanses of land in the arid and semiarid West. Thus, in 1888 the Congress appropriated funds to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to undertake an “irrigation survey” under the leadership of John Wesley Powell.1 Powell’s report, The Arid Lands of the United States, underscored the lack of rainfall in the region and the unsuitability of its lands for agriculture without supplemental water through irrigation. Although ultimately rejected by the Congress, Powell’s report has become the single most definitive work describing the circumstances of the arid and semiarid West and recommending policies for the development of this region (Pisani, 1992).

The Development Era

The presidency of Theodore Roosevelt between 1901 and 1908 brought with it a new attitude about the federal role respecting natural resources, including water. In place of unfettered private development, Roosevelt promoted the need for governmentally supervised natural resources development to ensure their fullest possible use. This view was prompted to a large extent by the significant acreage of federal land that had been reserved and required management. With Roosevelt’s enthusiastic support, Congress passed the Reclamation Act of 1902, committing the federal government to a major role in the development of water resources for use in irrigation in the arid western states.

Roosevelt supported an expanded role for the federal government in the comprehensive development of rivers for economic uses. The report of his Inland

1  

For an excellent account of Powell’s life, see Worster (2001). For a more comprehensive treatment of the integration of science into the federal government including the work of Powell, see Dupree (1957).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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Waterways Commission (1908) recommended creation of a coordinated federal effort to plan for river development, in cooperation with state and local governments. However, in passing the Federal Water Power Act in 1920, Congress decided to limit the federal role in hydropower development to licensing nonfederal development of water power on navigable streams in a manner that would best promote comprehensive development of the water resources (Holmes, 1972). It gave this licensing authority to the newly created Federal Power Commission and directed the commission to conduct nationwide surveys of water-power-development opportunities.

Simultaneously, Congress was expanding the role of the Corps. It continued to fund navigation improvements through periodic Rivers and Harbors acts, and it passed other legislation increasing the Corps’ flood-control responsibilities. Prior to 1936, the Corps’ authority with respect to flood control had been limited to surveys and planning except on the lower Mississippi River. With the Flood Control Act of 1936, Congress committed to a national program for the control of floods and granted the Corps authority to survey, plan, and construct flood-control works throughout the nation.

With the coming of the Great Depression and the advent of the New Deal, the federal role was expanded in virtually all arenas. Multipurpose water development projects expanded rapidly as large-scale public-works programs became a favored means of providing employment and stimulating economic recovery. In addition to the substantial expansion of the construction activities of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) and the Corps, Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority and added a soil and water conservation function to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Large multipurpose regional water development projects occurred on the Missouri, Columbia, and Colorado rivers in addition to multibasin projects such as California’s Central Valley Project. By the late 1930s, water projects accounted for 40 percent of the President’s budget recommendations for public works (Holmes, 1972).

As the nation’s attention turned to war in the early 1940s, economic recovery was at hand and the need for many New Deal programs declined. The National Resources Planning Board, which had been the lone mechanism for coordinating federal water programs during the 1930s, was abolished in 1941, leaving agencies with such programs free to compete for congressional funding. The political attractiveness of using federal funding to pay for expensive water development projects motivated Congress to authorize even more of these projects in the 1940s and 1950s than it had in the 1930s (Holmes, 1972). Most of the water project funding went to the Corps and the USBR. However, Congress started a new program within USDA during this period directed at smaller projects in rural, agricultural areas. Known as the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954 (P.L. 83-566), this program authorized federal support for projects intended to reduce erosion, control flooding, and provide water supplies at a small watershed level.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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Inevitably, various reactions to these projects set in. Budget concerns prompted demands for more thorough analysis of the economic benefits of the projects in relation to their costs. Critics noted the substantial subsidies these projects frequently provided to the direct beneficiaries and users. In the early 1950s environmentalists mounted a successful campaign to oppose construction of a dam at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument. Increasingly, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations and their Bureau of the Budget sought to force clearer economic justification for new projects. Circular A-47, issued at the end of the Truman administration, implemented a standard that proposed water projects would be expected to produce total benefits exceeding their costs. This standard had first appeared in the language of the Flood Control Act of 1936. Nevertheless, the funding of water projects had become a significant instrument of distributive politics as project beneficiaries, federal construction agencies, and members of Congress united in an “Iron Triangle” to secure a growing federal program of water projects (Ingram and McCain, 1977; Ingram, 1990).

The resulting search to define an appropriate federal role in the development and management of water resources resulted in the creation of a series of commissions and committees between 1946 and 1956 to make recommendations concerning a national water resources policy.2 Then, in 1959 the Senate Select Committee on Water Resources was established and was chaired by Senator Robert Kerr of Oklahoma. This committee recommended federal action in five areas: streamflow regulation, water quality improvement, underground water storage, increased efficiency of water use, and increased water yield through desalting and weather modification. The primary rationale set forth for federally funded water projects was to enhance the supply of usable water, not necessarily to support local economic development. The Senate Select Committee also acknowledged a 1948 congressional finding that there was an appropriate federal role in the abatement of water pollution. There was also recognition that significant new federal funding would be required to address the nation’s water quality needs. Finally, the Senate Select Committee report was also noteworthy because it addressed the need for an enhanced federal program of water resources research (U.S. Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, 1969).

The Era of Protection

In the decade of the 1970s fundamental changes occurred in national water policies and programs. A new federal agency, many new federal statutes, and new roles and involvement for various stakeholders and the public changed the

2  

Schad (1962) identifies eight such groups. Holmes (1972), pp. 40–43, provides a short summary of five of these: the first (1949) Hoover Commission; the 1950 President’s Water Resources Policy Commission; the 1952 House Subcommittee to Study Civil Works; the second (1955) Hoover Commission; and the 1955 Presidential Advisory Committee on Water Resources Policy.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
×

playing field for water resources and created new relationships. April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, signaled a new level of interest in and concern about environmental issues, particularly those associated with water resources. Simultaneously, public involvement in all types of decision making related to resources and the environment greatly increased. Many new, active interest groups demanded a say in water resource policy issues. These groups also supported the conduct of research upon which new programs of environmental protection and enhancement could be based. In 1970 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created by Executive Order by President Richard Nixon, and it quickly became the major agency in the regulation and enhancement of water quality (following congressional actions described below). During this time Congress moved aggressively to place the federal government in a more central role as promoter and regulator of environmental protection.

The federal Water Pollution Control Act, originally enacted in 1948, was totally reshaped by the amendments of 1972 and 1977 (P.L. 92-500, P.L. 95-217) (Copeland, 2002). It ultimately became known as the Clean Water Act (CWA). This legislation declared all discharges into the nation’s waters to be unlawful, unless such discharges were specifically authorized by permit. The act set ambitious objectives to restore and maintain the physical, biological, and chemical integrity of the nation’s waters and to implement treatment of municipal and industrial wastewater (“point sources”), so that mandated standards could be met. Congress charged the EPA with determining the best available pollution control technologies for all major sources of discharges. Later amendments (1987) mandated the use of best management practices to control nonpoint sources of pollution.

In 1974, Congress enacted the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA, P.L. 93-523), which established national standards and treatment requirements for public water supplies, controls on underground injection of waste, protections for drinking water sources, and provisions for financing needed infrastructure. Congress enacted major amendments in 1986 to accelerate the schedule for regulating additional contaminants in water and to increase the protection of groundwater. Additional amendments in 1996 subsequently changed the way new contaminants would be addressed, focusing on new risk-based approaches, emphasizing the use of the best available science, and increasing the focus on pollution prevention through source water protection.

Other environmental legislation was also enacted during this period. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was passed in 1976, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or “Superfund”) was passed in 1980. Both of these laws had implications for new research on water quality and health issues. The Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 linked the water quality protection efforts of EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and required that coastal zone planning and management be coordinated with the CWA.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
×

Through all these laws, EPA was directed, both explicitly and implicitly, to establish new national programs of research (1) on the effects of pollutants on human and ecological health and (2) on improved technologies and management approaches for the prevention and reduction of pollutants. The most recent directive came in 2002, when Congress added requirements for EPA to conduct research on the security of public water supplies and on prevention and response to terrorist or other attacks (Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, P.L. 107-188).

The national policy focus on protecting and enhancing the environment led to legislative mandates regarding activities that contributed to environmental degradation and the protection of unique ecosystems and species diversity, not all of which were based on regulation. Beginning in the mid 1980s, Congress included conservation provisions in the Farm Bill that were intended to minimize agriculture’s role in degrading water quality and adversely impacting other environmental features. A Conservation Reserve Program was created that authorized payment to landowners who temporarily retired lands that were highly erodible or environmentally sensitive. The Wetlands Reserve Program made payments available to farmers who were willing to return croplands to wetlands for at least 30 years. The 1990 Farm Bill added provisions for retiring croplands adjacent to waterbodies that would be managed as filter or buffer strips. A Water Quality Incentive Program (now part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program) offered technical and financial assistance to farmers willing to modify their agricultural practices in a manner that would reduce nonpoint source pollution.

In addition to this greatly heightened interest in water quality protection, other laws reflected a growing interest in protecting the scenic, recreational, and ecological values of water. In 1968 Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (P.L. 90-542), establishing a national system of rivers that would remain free of federal water development. The landmark Endangered Species Act of 1973 (P.L. 93-205) was intended to halt and reverse the trend toward increasing, human-caused extinction of plant and animal species. Because of the essential role played by aquatic and riparian environments in the life cycle of many species, water-related impairment of such environments has become a major focus of Endangered Species Act implementation. In 1986, Congress amended the Federal Power Act to require that issuance (or renewal) of licenses for hydroelectric power facilities give “equal consideration” to energy conservation; protection, mitigation of damage to, and enhancement of fish and wildlife (including spawning grounds and habitat); protection of recreational opportunities; and preservation of other aspects of environmental quality along with the traditional considerations of power and development (16 USC §797(f)).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
×

FEDERAL SUPPORT OF WATER RESOURCES RESEARCH

The previous section illustrates that since the early 19th century, the nation’s water policies have evolved from emphasizing navigation and settlement, to emphasizing physical development of water supplies to ameliorate scarcity, and finally to emphasizing the protection and enhancement of the environment. It is useful to consider how these policies were manifested in federally funded water resources research over the last 100 years.

The Beginnings

Some of the earliest examples of water resources research in the United States include the Gallatin Report of 1807, which detailed infrastructure conditions and needs of the nation’s inland navigation routes, and the 1850s Ellet Report, which described conditions on the Mississippi River. Another early effort was the Humpheys and Abbot Report of 1861, which was recognized internationally for its pioneering research on the hydraulics of the Mississippi River. The next significant program of government-funded research specifically related to water was Powell’s survey in the 1880s. The USGS gradually expanded its program of hydrographic surveys while individual researchers conducted investigations of groundwater, sediment transport, and water pollution (Langbein, 1981). Shortly after the turn of the century, the USBR began to measure flows in rivers in which it intended to construct storage facilities. The 1908 Inland Waterways Commission promoted the concept of comprehensive development of the nation’s rivers, and the 1909 National Conservation Commission recommended large-scale hydrologic research in support of such comprehensive development (Holmes, 1972, p. 6). In the early decades of the 20th century, the role of the Corps expanded to include more planning and analysis related to its projects. Furthermore, the Federal Power Commission carried out surveys to determine potential locations for federally constructed hydroelectric power facilities, although authorization to construct and operate such facilities did not come until much later. The underlying purpose of all this federal research was to support water development and management programs and ensure that they contributed to regional economic development.

Concern about fisheries indirectly led to early research efforts on water topics. At the urging of Spencer Baird, a respected scientist who eventually directed the Smithsonian Institution, Congress established a Fish Commission in 1871 and made Baird the unpaid head (Dupree, 1957, p. 236). He established the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, with nonfederal funding in 1888. In 1903 the independent commission became the Bureau of Fisheries in the Department of Commerce and Labor. In somewhat similar fashion, Congress supported formation of a new division within USDA that eventually became the Division of the Biological Survey in 1896, with a program of research surveying the nation’s biota (Dupree, 1957, pp. 238–239).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
×

Water quality problems, especially related to drinking water, also motivated research efforts during the 19th century. Materials such as iron and new technologies such as steam-powered pumps, high-pressure systems, and filtration systems (slow sand, sand, and gravel) were first used to clean and distribute water (Rosen and Walker, 1968; Rosen, 1993; Webster, 1993; Embrey et al., 2002). By the middle of the century, several investigators in England and the United States had linked water contamination with certain infectious diseases. This finding spurred many remedial actions during the Sanitary Reform Movement, which was often effective in protecting public health even though it was not necessarily founded on scientific rationale (Rosen and Walker, 1968).

It was the discovery of bacteria and the development of scientific methods (not all of which were federally funded) that provided the objective bases for more advanced, technically based water treatment and distribution systems. In the 1860s and 1870s, the research of Louis Pasteur, Ferdinand Cohn, and Robert Koch led to significant conceptual breakthroughs and standardized scientific criteria and methods. These innovations laid the foundations of microbiology, which yielded new knowledge about bacteria and their roles in causing disease. Extensive public health benefits resulted (Rosen, 1993). In 1880, the German scientist Karl Eberth discovered the typhoid bacillus, leading to the linkage between polluted drinking water and typhoid fever (Goddard, 1966). By the late 1800s, many pathogens had been identified, public health laboratories such as the Lawrence Experiment Station in Massachusetts had been established, and experiments had been conducted to determine how bacteria could be killed. As knowledge grew about pathogens in drinking water, chlorination became the new standard for assuring safe water supplies for human consumption, spearheaded by American engineer Abel Wolman (Wolman and Gorman, 1931).

Several of the early federal research efforts occurred in the U.S. Public Health Service, which in 1910 conducted a two-year study of sewage pollution in streams around the Great Lakes and later investigated the role of pollution in the transmission of infectious disease. In 1913 the service established the Ohio River Investigation Station to conduct basic research on stream pollution and water purification. A pollution study of the Ohio River Basin, conducted jointly by the service and the Corps, served as the model for additional work authorized by the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 (Goddard, 1966).

Funding for research on water problems came more slowly to other federal departments. Thus, for example, it was not until the 1930s that the USDA initiated a research program (through the Soil Conservation Service) to investigate techniques for controlling soil erosion. This early research evolved into the comprehensive water research program that is carried out by the USDA today, which focuses on the connection between agriculture and water resources.

The importance of federally sponsored scientific research to the country’s World War II efforts prompted President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 to ask Vannevar Bush to examine possible federal roles in supporting scientific research

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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and development in the aftermath of the war. Bush’s report (1950) concluded that the country would benefit greatly if the kind of government-sponsored research that had been so critical to the war effort was now brought to bear on important problems of public health and welfare. He recommended that federal support be provided for basic as well as applied scientific research. Bush’s report is generally credited with providing the impetus for significant expansion of federally supported research in all areas of endeavor in the post-World War II period.

Post-World War II

In the immediate postwar period, water resources research continued at relatively modest levels and tended to be piecemeal among the federal agencies. It was focused primarily on issues related to the evaluation of water project proposals and improvements in planning techniques. The problems of water pollution and issues related to the management of fish and wildlife were also prominent. The 1948 Water Pollution Control Act increased the federal role in research related to water pollution and set the stage for even bigger increases that were to come 25 years later. In 1957 Congress appropriated funds for the USGS to establish for the first time a national-level program of core research related to hydrology.

The modern era of water resources research had its beginnings with the report of the Senate Select Committee on Water Resources (1961). This committee was the first to examine water resources research priorities in a comprehensive fashion. The committee recommended a coordinated scientific research program on water that would explore ways to increase available supplies and identify methods of increasing the efficiency of water use in the production of food and fiber and manufactured goods. The committee also noted the importance of expanding basic research into “natural phenomena” associated with water in all its forms. This latter finding would represent a significant broadening of scope for federally supported water research. Perhaps most important, the committee requested the executive branch to review existing water research programs and to develop a coordinated program of research aimed at meeting the needs identified in its 1961 report. The committee’s work ultimately led to a broad, comprehensive vision of water resources research and was the first attempt to coordinate water resources research across the federal enterprise.

The newly elected John F. Kennedy and his administration responded by initiating studies at the National Academy of Sciences and the Federal Council for Science and Technology (FCST). Professor Abel Wolman prepared a report on water resources for the National Academy (NRC, 1962). In the report, he emphasized the need for more basic research related to water, stating that “less than one-fourth of one per cent of the total funds spent on water-resources development is allocated for basic research in water,” and he identified a number of areas in need of additional research. The FCST Report to the President on Water Research (summarized in U.S. Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs,

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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1969) acknowledged the need for increased research, both within and outside the federal agencies. It provided an inventory of existing agency research programs, and it proposed that federal research be coordinated by a committee of representatives from each relevant agency, chaired by a senior official. Thus, in late 1963, FCST established a Committee on Water Resources Research (COWRR), chaired by a representative of the President’s Office of Science and Technology and including representatives from nine federal departments and commissions.3 This committee was charged with:

  • identifying technical needs and priorities in various research and data categories

  • reviewing the overall programmatic adequacy in water resources research in relation to needs

  • recommending programs and measures to meet these needs

  • advising on desirable allocations of effort among the agencies

  • reviewing/making recommendations on the manpower and facilities of the program

  • recommending management policies and procedures to improve the quality and vigor of the research effort

  • facilitating interagency communication and coordination at management levels

In 1966, COWWR published A Ten-Year Program of Federal Water Resources Research (COWWR, 1966, often referred to as The Brown Book). The committee defined two goals of the national water resources program. The first was “to manage our natural water resources and to augment them when necessary so as to meet all necessary requirements for water, both in quantity and quality.” The second was “to minimize water-caused damages to life and property.” The committee then specified the goal of federal water research to be the provision of knowledge necessary to meet the national water goals (listed above) as efficiently as possible. To accomplish these objectives, seven research areas were identified:

  1. Develop methods for conserving and augmenting the quantity of water available.

  2. Perfect techniques for controlling water to minimize erosion, flood damage, and other adverse effects.

  3. Develop methods for managing and controlling pollution to protect and improve the quality of the water resource.

3  

The Office of Science and Technology and the Federal Council for Science and Technology transitioned in the 1970s to the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Office of President and its Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology (FCCSET).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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  1. Develop and improve procedures for evaluating water resources development and management plans to maximize net socioeconomic benefits.

  2. Understand the nature of water, the processes which determine its distribution in nature, its interactions with its environment, and the effects of man’s activities on the natural processes.

  3. Develop techniques for efficient, minimum-cost design, construction, and operation of engineering works required to implement the water resources development program.

  4. Develop new methods for efficient collection of the field data necessary for the planning and design of water resources projects.

It is noteworthy that only one of these objectives (objective 5) mentions better understanding the environmental uses of water. This is symptomatic of the fact that The Brown Book was a creature of the era of development when augmentation of supply was the principal national strategy for addressing water scarcity. Environmental concerns had not yet manifested themselves on a national scale.

Within The Brown Book, existing federal water resources research was organized under eight topical headings, which were further subdivided into 44 areas (the original FCST subcategories, discussed in more detail in Chapter 4). In addition, 14 “major problem areas” needing additional research were identified. These included improved water planning, the ecological impacts of water development, problems of water pollution control, and the economics of water development. The report recommended nearly tripling the funding for water resources research by 1971.

The Senate Select Committee also had recommended comprehensive planning for water development in the nation’s river basins, with the federal government taking the lead in cooperation with the states. Again, the Kennedy administration responded with strong interest, and the Water Resources Planning Act of 1961 was introduced in the 87th Congress. This bill proposed the creation of a Water Resources Council, comprised of the heads of the primary water-interested federal agencies. It proposed creating river basin commissions to carry out the planning. It offered the states substantial funding to carry out their own comprehensive water planning. In 1965 such a bill finally became law (P.L. 89-80).

The work of the Senate Select Committee had also elevated interest in promoting water research, leading to the enactment of the Water Resources Research Act of 1964. Inspired by the model of federally supported agricultural research stations in all 50 states, Title I of the act called for the creation of a Water Resources Research Institute in each state and Puerto Rico (eventually expanding to include the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the District of Columbia, the Federated States of Micronesia, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands). It offered basic support of up to $100,000 per institute and authorized an institute-only competitive grants program requiring a 1:1 match. Title II created a competitive grants program, to be administered by the Secretary

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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of the Interior, to encourage water research. An Office of Water Resources Research, reporting directly to the Secretary of the Interior, was established to administer the new law. In 1971 Congress increased the basic institute appropriation to $250,000. In 1974 the Office of Water Resources Research merged with the Office of Saline Water to form the Office of Water Research and Technology.

Ten years after the establishment of the Water Resources Research Institutes, the Congressional Research Service made an assessment of their effectiveness (Viessman and Caudill, 1976), which concluded that

Considering the limited funding provided, the objectives of the Water Resources Research Act of 1964, as amended, have been met surprisingly well. Effective State water resources research centers have been established and have played an increasingly important role in State, regional, and national programs for water resources planning and development. A strong national research network is available, which has the potential for problem identification and solution prior to “crisis” situations. Funding levels have been meager, however, and unless increases are forthcoming, it is doubtful if the momentum achieved by the program can be sustained.

In addition to recommending increased funding, the report suggested establishing a national research strategy to guide research activities funded by the program, and it urged improved efforts to disseminate research results. Thus, in an effort to further strengthen the program, Congress passed the Water Research and Development Act of 1978 (P.L. 95-467), replacing the 1964 act. The new law required the creation of five-year research and development goals and objectives for the institutes. It required that funds provided to the institutes be at least 50 percent matched from nonfederal sources. It authorized an allotment of $150,000 per institute in 1979, increasing to $175,000 in 1980. In 1980, Congress authorized $150,000 per institute for 1981 and $160,000 for 1982.

Thus, COWWR, related agency research activities, the Water Resources Research Institutes, and the associated competitive grants program traced their origins to the Senate Select Committee. Most of the resulting research was focused on supporting physical water development activities.

The above-mentioned entities that sprang from the original Senate Select Committee were not the only ones to promote and manage water resources research. In the late 1960s, concerns arose over a number of proposals that entailed significant transbasin diversions. In response, Congress authorized the establishment of the National Water Commission to study the entire range of water resource issues and make recommendations on the scope and substance of a national water policy. The commission’s report, which was issued in 1973, included discussion and recommendations about water resources research. Finding that water research had generally been successful at meeting past needs, the commission identified two concerns: (1) the need to develop closer ties between

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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planning and research and (2) the need for a more “broadly based and intensive research and development effort to increase usable water supplies and to handle growing volumes of wastes” (National Water Commission, 1973). The commission organized federal water research into four general categories: (1) agency mission research, (2) earth science research, (3) research grant programs, and (4) research directed at new technologies. It found that about a third of the federal water research funding was going to water quality problems, followed by research related to the hydrologic cycle, water supply augmentation and conservation, and planning. It identified six areas of needed research, with priority being given to assessing impacts of water resources development, improving wastewater treatment, and evaluating water for energy production. (The other three areas were nonpoint source pollution, more efficient water use, and development of new technologies.) The report of the commission was completed coincident with events that led to the dissolution of the Nixon administration. For this reason, it was never formally transmitted to Congress and its recommendations languished.

As discussed earlier, the 1970s national strategy for managing water resources evolved away from a focus on physical development of water supplies toward environmental issues related to the development and management of water resources. Consistent with this evolution, the research agenda increasingly emphasized water quality and other environmental research to support the development and implementation of new environmental regulations. Congress authorized a number of significant programs of new research. Thus, for example, one section of the CWA directs EPA to conduct research on harmful effects of pollutants, effects of pesticides in water, effects of pollution on estuaries, the structure and function of freshwater systems, the effects of thermal discharges, and pathogen indicators in coastal recreational waters (33 USC § 1254). Moreover, EPA was to investigate ways to improve sewage treatment, improve water quality of lakes, and address oil pollution, waste oil, and agricultural pollution. Establishment of field laboratories was authorized in this provision, as was the creation of a Great Lakes water quality research program. Similarly, one section of the Safe Drinking Water Act authorized a general program of research related to drinking water protection, but it also specifically directed that research be undertaken on polychlorinated biphenyl contamination of drinking water, virus contamination of drinking water sources, and the reaction of chlorine and humic acids (42 USC § 300j-1). As part of both RCRA (42 USC § 6981-82) and CERCLA (42 USC § 9660), Congress established programs of research aimed at problems of solid and hazardous waste remediation, focusing on groundwater contamination.

These congressional directives focused research on the support of regulatory activities to maintain and enhance environmental quality. One result was that the broader and more coordinated and comprehensive multiagency water resources research agenda envisioned by COWRR and by the National Water Commission was ignored and ultimately abandoned. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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were also important changes in the relationships between the states and the federal agencies. Both the CWA and SDWA established a federal–state relationship in which the federal agency set national standards related to the congressional agenda and the states were delegated the responsibility for implementing and enforcing the statutes. This approach fundamentally changed the role of the states from one primarily concerned with water management and development to one much more heavily focused on regulation, and it required that they devote additional resources to these activities.

COWRR, which had collected annual budget information on federal water resources research since 1965 and had survived several administrative reorganizations, included an unusually candid analysis of The Brown Book’s effectiveness in its 1977 report (COWRR, 1977). It stated: “judging from the history of financial support devoted to water research as reported in COWRR annual reports, the long-range plan had little impact, even indirect, on the course of water research activities during the decade from 1966 to 1976.” In particular, actual funding for water research had fallen well short of that recommended. Within the general categories, funding for research on the nature of water, for manpower grants and facilities, and for scientific and technical information declined significantly. Only the areas of water quality and resources data showed an increase in funding (likely caused by the creation of EPA and the passage of the CWA). The committee stated that “overall the only conclusion that can be reached is that the federal water research program has fared poorly in the Congress and with the Office of Management and Budget.”

Concluding that the primary reason for this lack of success was a failure (1) to provide “an objective, defensible analysis of the critical national problems which involve water resources” and (2) to identify the “deficiencies in knowledge and understanding which must be eliminated for the development of effective resolution of these problems,” COWRR offered a “refocused” water research program for the next five years (COWRR, 1977). Toward this end, six national issues motivating the need for water research were identified: energy, food and fiber production, the environment and public health, population growth, land use, and materials. The water problems inherent in these issues suggested six general research areas: hydrologic and hydraulic processes, water quality, planning and institutions, atmospheric and precipitation processes, hydrologic–ecological relationships, and water supply development and management. Under each of these topics, COWRR identified areas that should receive much greater attention over the next five years. In addition, COWRR highlighted the importance of financial support for data collection and for manpower and training. Finally, the report made six recommendations: (1) substantially increase funding, (2) increase efforts to develop a unified national program of water resources research, (3) better balance mission agency research programs between in-house and outside research, (4) study manpower needs for the water resources field, (5) give careful attention to COWRR’s suggested areas of research in formulating federal agency research

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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programs, and (6) coordinate the programs of the Intergovernmental Committee on Atmospheric Sciences with the water resources research community.

COWRR was abolished during a far-reaching reorganization of its parent body FCCSET in 1977. There was nonetheless an interest in sustaining the federal role in water resources research, as evidenced by the 1978 Water Research and Development Act, which called for the Secretary of the Interior to prepare a five-year water resources research plan.4 The Department of Interior enlisted the support of the National Research Council (NRC) to review a draft of the five-year plan in 1980. In now familiar fashion, the NRC committee provided yet another view of the nation’s water problems and the related needs for research, and it offered its own classification system for water research, according to the five categories below (NRC, 1981):

  • Category I: atmospheric, hydrologic, and hydraulic processes

  • Category II: ecological and environmental relationships in water resources

  • Category III: water-quality protection and control

  • Category IV: water resources management

  • Category V: institutional analysis

The NRC committee then presented its research priorities under each of the five categories.

Because the COWRR practice of collecting annual budget data on water resources research ended in 1975, the NRC committee had limited information from which to draw conclusions about the adequacy of funding in each of these five categories. Thus, the NRC committee was compelled to rely mainly on ad hoc explanations of each agency’s research. Nevertheless, it was able to conclude that funding was inadequate for Categories I, II, and V; excessive for Category III; and adequate for Category IV. Among its many other suggestions, the NRC committee noted the need to address research priorities and to discuss the linkage between water problems and research, the need to provide for interagency coordination and elimination of duplication (for which it found no evidence), and the need to address the policy issues implicit in many aspects of water research. Finally, the NRC committee offered three alternative organizational arrangements: a managed multiagency research program to be operated by an independent office, the creation of an interagency committee in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or placing organizational responsibilities within the Water Resources Council.

4  

The act directed the secretary to seek cooperation and advice from federal agencies, state and local governments, and private institutions and individuals to ensure that suggested research will supplement and not duplicate existing research, will stimulate research and development in needed areas, and will establish a comprehensive, nationwide program of water resources research and development.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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Water Resources Research from the 1980s and Beyond

The administration of President Ronald Reagan, particularly in its early years, espoused a limited role for the federal government in many spheres, including scientific research. Thus, for example, the 1981 Science and Technology Report to Congress (OSTP, 1981) stated:

The inception of the new Administration’s programs early in 1981 brought a philosophical change to the natural resources area. Rather than trying to solve national problems through extensive Federal programs, the decision was made to rely wherever possible on the private sector for natural resources development.

A second guiding premise of the Administration’s policies is that many functions previously held by Federal agencies really belong to State and local governments. For example, the States will be expected to support research efforts dealing with their own water resource problems and development projects.

More specifically, the Reagan administration defined its policy on water resources research rather narrowly. The policy had three goals: (1) enhancing the capability of state governments to manage water, (2) encouraging nonfederal investment in water-related research, and (3) building collective national technical capability to solve water problems. In addition, the administration acknowledged that there was a federal role in coordinating and facilitating the flow of information generated from research to state water resources managers, planners, and policy makers. Moreover, it supported the proposition that the federal government should continue to fund important basic research and continue to carry out programs mandated by statute while seeking to transfer these activities to the states where appropriate (Tom Bahr, Office of Water Policy between 1982 and 1984, personal communication, 2003).

In 1981 the Reagan administration’s Office of Management and Budget decided not to request funding for either the state Water Resources Research Institute program or the competitive grants program under the Water Resources Research Act. Congress ultimately funded the institute program, but at a reduced level, and it elected not to fund the competitive grants program. In 1982, Secretary of the Interior James Watt abolished the Office of Water Research and Technology, placing the institute program under an Office of Water Policy in the Department of the Interior and the matching grants program under the USBR. In its fiscal year 1984 Appropriations Act, Congress recommended that the institute program be placed under the USGS, where it remains to this day. In 1984, the Reagan administration again opposed reauthorization of the Water Resources Research Institute and competitive grants programs, arguing that such research should be financed by the beneficiaries, whom they identified as the states and industry. Despite this opposition, Congress reauthorized the programs and even overrode a presidential veto of the bill (Water Resources Research Act of 1984, P.L. 98-242).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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Concerned by the Reagan administration’s move to reduce the federal role in water research, the Universities Council on Water Resources obtained a grant from the National Science Foundation to hold a National Conference on Water Resources Research. In total, 15 papers were prepared, circulated for review, and discussed at a conference in 1985. In the conference proceedings (Universities Council on Water Resources, 1985), three “immediate needs” were identified: (1) improved coordination among universities, federal and state agencies, and the private sector, (2) strengthened organizational and fiscal arrangements, and (3) a regular review of expenditures and priorities. According to the report, there was “substantial agreement” that a committee of the NRC should recommend a national water research agenda. Participants concluded that it was difficult to make an adequate assessment of existing research because of the absence of standardized categories of problems and associated research and because of the absence of uniform definitions. Considerable discussion centered on the relationship between policy and research, how to make research relevant to policy users, and how to ensure that research results are transmitted in usable forms. The report emphasized the need for education and training to be considered a fundamental part of a national water research agenda. Work groups proposed an extensive agenda of important water research priorities for the next three to five years, and the report included six “themes” that run through this agenda.5

The administration of President George Bush continued to view water resources research in the context of specific agency responsibilities, such as water quality protection, or in relation to larger problems of which water was a part, such as global change. In 1990, Congress passed and the President signed the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-606), the purpose of which was

to require the establishment of a United States Global Change Research Program aimed at understanding and responding to global change, including the cumulative effects of human activities and natural processes on the environment, to promote discussions towards international protocols in global change research, and for other purposes.

The Bush administration continued the Reagan policy of opposing federal funding for state Water Resources Research Institutes. However, Congress continued to affirm its support, and in 1990 Congress authorized funding of $10 million annually. Congress also reinstituted a regional competitive grants program requiring a 1:1 match.

There have been other significant events in the world of water resources research, although they have been more sporadic and on a much smaller scale

5  

These are (1) the need for critical information, (2) the importance of institutional research, (3) the importance of financing, budgeting, and pricing, (4) scientific understanding of water regimes, (5) technology improvements, and (6) ecosystem research.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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than what occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. The NRC’s Water Science and Technology Board produced a 1991 report Opportunities in the Hydrologic Sciences “to help guide science and educational policy decisions and to provide a scientific framework and research agenda for scientists, educators, and students making career plans.” The report made the case for viewing hydrologic science as a multidisciplinary field that focuses on water’s role in many of the physical, chemical, and biological processes regulating the earth’s system, noting that the “field needed sounder scientific underpinnings, particularly as we begin to take a more global and system-oriented view of our environment” (NRC, 1991). In response, the National Science Foundation created a new research program for hydrologic sciences within the Geosciences Directorate (James, 1995). This effort was one of the first to consider water resources research as a basic rather than applied science.

Similarly, in 1994, EPA and the National Science Foundation initiated a Water and Watersheds research grant program, the purpose of which was to “synthesize physico-chemical, biological, and social science expertise in addressing water and watershed issues.” Impetus for this program originated with The Freshwater Imperative: A Research Agenda (Naiman et al., 1995). Asserting that freshwater ecosystems are the “central component” of regional and global sustainability, this report identified four primary areas for research: restoring and rehabilitating ecosystems, maintaining biodiversity, understanding the effects of modified hydrologic regimes, and describing the importance of ecosystem goods and services provided by freshwater ecosystems. The report highlighted the importance of managing freshwater systems on the basis of “integrative and accurate measures of human and environmental conditions.” USDA joined the Water and Watersheds program as a supporter in 1996. The number of research proposals routinely overwhelmed the level of funding support during the six-year life of this program.

Efforts to support water resources research within the President’s office have also been variously resurrected over the years. In 1993 President Bill Clinton established the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) to serve as a cabinet-level mechanism for coordinating science, space, and technology policies across the federal government. The Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR), one of nine committees under the NSTC, was charged with improving coordination among federal agencies involved in environmental and natural resources research and development, establishing a strong link between science and policy, and developing a federal environmental and natural resources research and development strategy that responds to national and international issues. Using interagency task teams, CENR fostered research reports on two water-related topics: hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and science needs for Pacific salmon restoration (NSTC, 2000).

In 1995 the Clinton administration elected not to request funding for the Water Resources Research Institute program. The administration’s formal position was that the federal government should not fund programs that are not inher-

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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ently federal responsibilities. However, it appeared that no administration had an incentive to support the program, given that Congress routinely added the necessary funding with or without administration support. The regional competitive grants program was also continued at modest levels.

In the last decade, it has been recognized that resolving most of the major contemporary water problems goes beyond the capability of any single federal or nonfederal organization. Thus, multiagency, comprehensive approaches to both place-based and generic topics in water resources research have been supported to address priority problems. Examples include studies of the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes, the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, and the general problem of nonpoint source pollution. The Water Quality 2000 program of the Water Environment Federation issued A National Water Agenda for the 21st Century (WEF, 1992), which lays out various strategic options developed by representatives of more than 80 public, private, and nonprofit organizations. The National Nonpoint Source Forum was another public, private, and nonprofit initiative convened by the National Geographic Society and The Conservation Fund to develop partnership approaches to mitigate nonpoint source problems (National Geographic Society and The Conservation Fund, 1995).

In 1998, partly in response to the 25th anniversary of the CWA, EPA and the USDA jointly issued a Clean Water Action Plan at the direction of President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore (EPA, 1998). This plan involved input from, and identified key actions for, all federal agencies whose mission relates to water, including Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Interior, Justice, Transportation, EPA, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The plan calls for efforts to enhance watershed protection and strengthen ways to reduce polluted runoff, including a focus on new research. Although the plan garnered wide public support, congressional action was not forthcoming.

More recently, the Water Science and Technology Board of the NRC produced a report entitled Envisioning the Agenda for Water Resources Research in the Twenty-first Century (NRC, 2001). Envisioning, which forms the basis for the current report, outlined 43 research priorities and called for the creation of a “national water research board” to establish and oversee the national water research agenda. To guide such a board, the report offered the following principles:

  • An effective alliance with and active participation of water resources research stakeholders is required.

  • A systematic, strategic, and balanced agenda of both core and problem-driven research priorities should be set to meet short- and long-term needs. The core research agenda should develop (1) greater understanding of the basic processes—physical, biological, and social—that underlie environmental systems at different scales, (2) appropriate environmental monitoring programs, and (3) research tools to identify and measure structural and functional attributes of aquatic and related ecosystems.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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  • The national water resources research effort should be coordinated to reduce needless duplication and to ensure that gaps do not occur.

  • The research effort should be multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary.

  • The research effort should be proactive and anticipate the nation’s needs and the environmental impacts of management options.

  • The research effort should be accountable to the public to ensure that the water resources research investment has been appropriately utilized to meet the nation’s needs.

Finally, perhaps the latest recognition of the need for coordination to tackle the nation’s water problems is the 21st Century Water Commission Act of 2003. Introduced in the 108th Congress in January 2003 as H.R. 135, the proposal would establish the 21st Century Water Commission to study and develop recommendations for a comprehensive water strategy to address future water needs, particularly to ensure an adequate and dependable supply of water to meet U.S. needs for the next 50 years. As of this writing, this legislation has been adopted by the House of Representatives and awaits Senate action.

SUMMARY

Figure 2-1 summarizes the seminal events in water resources research that have been discussed in this chapter. Federal support of water-related research developed slowly because of the prevailing view during much of the 1800s that science was not a governmental function. As federal involvement in the development of rivers for navigation, flood control, and storage of water for irrigation grew, so did accompanying research (although in the early 20th century, the need was primarily for engineers, not scientists). Nevertheless, federal scientists played an important early role in the collection of information about the extent of the nation’s water resources, the nature of groundwater, and the need for protecting drinking water for public health purposes.

It was not until the 1950s that Congress committed itself to supporting a comprehensive program of water research. The commitment, which was short-lived, peaked during the 1960s when Congress and the executive branch achieved a consensus in developing and funding a comprehensive research program and in coordinating its implementation. During this period, the two branches of government shared the view that the federal role in water entailed funding its development for human use while reducing problems of pollution. By the 1970s, the growing interest in environmental protection conflicted with interests in water development, such that the policy consensus was splintered. This cast the federal government into more of a regulatory role and deemphasized the federal role in promoting economic growth through water resources development.

As broad support for national water policies that focused on development began to erode, competing interests pursued their individual objectives. Begin-

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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FIGURE 2-1 Timeline of 20th-century events, legislation, and publications in water resources research that are mentioned in this chapter.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
×

ning in the 1970s, water research became tied to programmatic “thrusts” of administrations or to statutorily defined objectives of Congress. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations asserted a more limited federal role in water resources research. In their view, research should be closely connected to helping to meet federal agency missions or to addressing problems beyond the scope of states or the private sector (such as global climate change or hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico). Congress, on the other hand, generally supported a broader approach to water resources research, but one that it could actively supervise through the legislative and appropriations processes. A consequence of the devolving of responsibility for water resources research back to the states was the neglect of long-term, basic research in favor of applied research that would lead to more immediate results.

As summarized in Box 2-1, the priority elements of a national water resources research agenda have been identified in widely varying ways by many of the organizations and reports identified in this chapter. In some respects, each agenda reflects the view of the federal government’s role that was prevalent at the time the agenda was created. Thus, early research agendas stress research that would assist comprehensive water development, balanced with an interest in better decision-making criteria for determining whether such development warranted federal support. Later, as political support for federal funding of water development weakened and as the federal role shifted to technological and regulatory protection of water quality, the emphasis of the research agendas shifted accordingly. No doubt these variations also reflect to some degree the mental frame-works and particular interests of those who developed the agendas.

And yet the general topics of scientific concern found in the agendas of Box 2-1 remain remarkably similar: water-based physical processes; availability of water resources for human use and benefit, including improving and protecting water quality; and hydrology–ecology relationships. The reappearance of the same topics over and over suggests that the nation’s research programs, both individually and collectively, have not responded in an adequate manner. Box 2-1 further-more suggests that there is no structure in place to make use of the research agendas generated by various expert groups. Indeed, at the national level there is no coordinated process for considering water resources research needs, for prioritizing them for funding purposes, or for evaluating the effectiveness of research activities. It is no surprise that common refrains within many of the reports cited in Box 2-1 are for better coordination of research efforts—a topic that is returned to in Chapter 6.

There could be several explanations for why the country has failed to mount a serious, comprehensive water resources research program in spite of more than half a dozen efforts to define national research agendas in the past 40 years. The responsibilities for water resources development and management are fragmented among a number of agencies, and it appears that the agencies have no incentive to act in concert with each other to support the development of a unified national

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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BOX 2-1
Water Research Priorities of Various Organizations, Committees, and Reports

Senate Select Committee Report (1961)

  • expansion of basic water research

  • more balanced and better-constructed program of applied research for increasing water supplies

  • an expanded program of applied research for conservation and making better use of existing supplies

  • evaluation of completed projects with a view to making them more effective in meeting changing needs and providing better guidelines for future projects

  • federally coordinated research programs to meet these objectives

Abel Wolman Report (NRC, 1962)

Arid areas research:

  • conjunctive ground-surface water management

  • evaporation suppression and transpiration control

  • salinity control and use of saline water

  • factors governing the entrainment, transport, and deposition of suspended sediment

  • factors governing snow melt

  • induced rainfall

Humid areas research:

  • developing water-purification methods

  • means of forecasting the effects of wastes on receiving water and toward quantifying pollution damages

  • means for the detection and identification of traces of pollutants and toxicological research on their possible chronic effects on public health

All areas research:

  • forecasting and controlling channel modifications

  • improving the process of approximating optimum water resources systems

  • improving streamflow forecasting

  • improving weather forecasting

  • physiological aspects of water

Committee on Water Resources Research (1966) (The Brown Book)

  • research on water resources planning

  • research on water pollution control

  • research on water conservation

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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  • ecological impact of water development

  • effect of man’s activities on water

  • costs of water resources development

  • research on “far-out” ideas

  • the problem of climatic change

  • information storage and dissemination

  • a program of problem assessment

  • water resources research laboratories

  • experimental watershed studies

  • coordination of research

  • manpower

National Water Commission (1973)

  • assessing impacts of water resources development

  • improving wastewater treatment

  • evaluating water for energy production

  • nonpoint source pollution

  • more efficient water use

  • development of new technologies

Committee on Water Resources Research (1977)

The committee identified six national issues motivating the need for water research: energy, food and fiber production, the environment and public health, population growth, land use, and materials. The water problems inherent in these issues suggested six general research areas:

  • hydrologic and hydraulic processes

  • water quality

  • planning and institutions

  • atmospheric and precipitation processes

  • hydrologic–ecological relationships

  • water supply development and management

NRC Federal Water Resources Research (NRC, 1981)

  1. Physical processes

    • hydrologic characteristics of vadose zone

    • atmospheric transport and precipitation of contaminants

    • flood frequency determination

    • hydrologic factors in water quality

    • climate variability and trends

    • erosion, sedimentation, and nutrient transport

    • weather and hydrologic forecasting

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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  1. Ecological–environmental

    • effects of waterborne pollutants on aquatic ecosystems

    • consequences of waste disposal in marshes, estuaries, and oceans

    • physical alteration of wetlands and estuaries

    • environmental degradation from water projects

  1. Water quality

    • significance of trace contaminants to human health

    • water reuse

    • control of contaminants from energy development

    • land disposal of wastes

    • monitoring for pollution control

  1. Water management

    • water problems of food and fiber production in stressed environments

    • conjunctive management of ground and surface water

    • water conservation in municipal, industrial, energy, and agricultural uses

    • control of pollution from nonpoint sources

    • management systems for water resources

    • management of resources under flood and drought hazards

  1. Institutional

    • institutional arrangements for reallocation of water

    • institutional arrangements for groundwater management

    • assignment of responsibilities for water and related resource management among federal, state, and local levels of government

    • institutional arrangements for water conservation

    • flood and drought hazard mitigation

    • resolution of conflicts over alternative courses of action

    • institutional arrangements for achieving erosion and sediment control

    • impacts of water management policies and programs

    • institutional arrangements for water resources research

Opportunities in the Hydrologic Sciences (NRC, 1991)

  • chemical and biological components of the hydrologic cycle

  • scaling of dynamic behavior

  • land surface–atmospheric interactions

  • coordination of global-scale observations of water reservoirs and the fluxes of water and energy

  • hydrologic effects of human activity

  • maintenance of continuous long-term datasets

  • improved information management

  • interpretation of remote sensing data

  • dissemination of data from multidisciplinary experiments

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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The Freshwater Imperative (Naiman et al., 1995)

  • restoring and rehabilitating freshwater ecosystems

  • maintaining biodiversity

  • understanding the effects of modified hydrologic flow patterns

  • describing the importance of ecosystem goods and services provided by freshwater ecosystems

  • developing new paradigms of predictive management based on interdisciplinary research and new models of institutional organization that can respond to novel or unforeseen problems

Envisioning the Agenda for Water Resources Research (NRC, 2001)

Water availability

  • develop new and innovative supply-enhancing technologies

  • improve existing supply-enhancing technologies such as wastewater treatment, desalting, and groundwater banking

  • increase safety of wastewater treated for reuse as drinking water

  • develop innovative techniques for preventing pollution

  • understand physical, chemical, and microbial contaminant fate and transport

  • control nonpoint source pollution

  • understand impact of land-use changes and best management practices on pollutant loading to waters

  • understand impact of contaminants on ecosystem services, biotic indices, and higher organisms

  • understand assimilation capacity of the environment and time course of recovery following contamination

  • improve integrity of drinking water distribution systems

  • improve scientific bases for risk assessment and risk management with regard to water quality

  • understand national hydrologic measurement needs and develop a program that will provide these measurements

  • develop new techniques for measuring water flows and water quality, including remote sensing and in situ techniques

  • develop data collection and distribution in near real time for improved forecasting and water resources operations

  • improve forecasting the hydrologic cycle over a range of time scales and on a regional basis

  • understand and predict the frequency and cause of severe weather (floods and droughts)

  • understand recent increases in damage from floods and droughts

  • understand global change and its hydrologic impacts

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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Water use

  • understand determinants of water use in the agricultural, domestic, commercial, public, and industrial sectors

  • understand relationship of agricultural water use to climate, crop type, and water application rates

  • develop improved crops for more efficient water use and optimize the economic return for water used

  • develop improved crop varieties for use in dryland agriculture

  • understand water-related aspects of the sustainability of irrigated agriculture

  • understand behavior of aquatic ecosystems in a broad, systematic context, including their water requirements

  • enhance and restore species diversity in aquatic ecosystems

  • improve manipulation of water-quality parameters to maintain and enhance aquatic habitats

  • understand interrelationship between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems to support watershed management

Water institutions

  • develop legal regimes that promote groundwater management and conjunctive use of surface and groundwater

  • understand issues related to the governance of water where it has common pool and public good attributes

  • understand uncertainties attending to Native American water rights and other federal reserved rights

  • improve equity in existing water management laws

  • conduct comparative studies of water laws and institutions

  • develop adaptive management

  • develop new methods for estimating the value of nonmarketed attributes of water resources

  • explore use of economic institutions to protect common pool and pure public good values related to water resources

  • develop efficient markets and market-like arrangements for water

  • understand role of prices, pricing structures, and the price elasticity of water demand

  • understand role of the private sector in achieving efficient provision of water and wastewater services

  • understand key factors that affect water-related risk communication and decision processes

  • understand user-organized institutions for water distribution, such as cooperatives, special districts, and mutual companies

  • develop different processes for obtaining stakeholder input in forming water policies and plans

  • understand cultural and ethical factors associated with water use

  • conduct ex post research to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of past water policies and projects

Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
×

water resources research agenda. Furthermore, over the last 40 years the competition for federal funds in general and research funding in particular has intensified, with water resources research not being a national priority compared to health and defense-related issues. In the face of historical failures to mount an effective, broadly conceived program of national water resources research, it is reasonable to ask “Why bother with yet another comprehensive proposal?” The answer lies in the sheer number of water resources problems (as illustrated in Chapter 1) and the fact that these problems are growing in both number and intensity. If the nation is to address these problems successfully, an investment must be made not only in applied research but also in fundamental research that will form the basis for applied research a decade hence. A repeat of failed past efforts will likely lead to enormously adverse and costly outcomes on the status and condition of water resources in almost every region of the United States.

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Suggested Citation:"2 The Evolving Federal Role in Support of Water Resources Research." National Research Council. 2004. Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11031.
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In order to confront the increasingly severe water problems faced by all parts of the country, the United States needs to make a new commitment to research on water resources. A new mechanism is needed to coordinate water research currently fragmented among nearly 20 federal agencies. Given the competition for water among farmers, communities, aquatic ecosystems and other users--as well as emerging challenges such as climate change and the threat of waterborne diseases--Confronting the Nation's Water Problems concludes that an additional $70 million in federal funding should go annually to water research. Funding should go specifically to the areas of water demand and use, water supply augmentation, and other institutional research topics. The book notes that overall federal funding for water research has been stagnant in real terms for the past 30 years and that the portion dedicated to research on water use and social science topics has declined considerably.

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