Coordinating River Science Activities at the USGS
Within the USGS organizational structure, all the disciplinary building blocks exist for a USGS river science initiative. Still, bringing together these elements to create a USGS river science initiative is a challenging task. How effectively the USGS does this will play a large part in determining the success of its river science activities. This chapter identifies institutional challenges for the USGS in implementing a river science initiative, and provides some recommendations to help guide this process.
Today, research on rivers at the USGS takes several forms, namely bottom-up, top-down, and customer driven. It can be bottom-up, driven by individuals or small teams of investigators, often from the National Research Program (NRP). A recent example of this is the “so-called Lagrangian study,” which followed a slug of water as it moved down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico to test whether nitrate is transported conservatively, without denitrification, in large rivers (Goolsby and Battaglin, 2001). This study was initiated as part of the larger National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program to address gaps in our understanding of the Gulf hypoxia problem. USGS river science research is also top-down, as in the case of the Platte River Priority Ecosystems Science study (http://mcmcweb.er. usgs.gov/platte/index.html). Here, a team of scientists from several USGS disciplines was formed to better understand the physical and ecological changes affecting endangered species within the river. Finally, USGS river research can be customer-driven. This includes much of the science done to support multiagency regional efforts such as CALFED, the Everglades, coastal Louisiana, the upper Mississippi River, and the Chesapeake Bay, where the USGS contributes river science and measurement expertise. This customer-driven research also includes
numerous, more focused research projects supported by management agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service and their state equivalents, and primarily carried out in the Biological Resources Discipline (BRD) Science Centers.
All of these kinds of river science activities can be part of a coherent and successful USGS river science initiative. Furthermore, each approach presents opportunities for close coordination and interdisciplinary collaboration among the USGS disciplines as well as useful linkages with the work of other federal agencies. The challenge for a USGS river science initiative will be to engage all disciplines within its structure to do integrative multidisciplinary research.
Serious institutional obstacles within the USGS impede collaboration among disciplines. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is that the local or district offices of each discipline are usually not colocated. Most geology discipline scientists are in the three regional centers in Reston, Virginia, Denver, Colorado, and Menlo Park, California, and many geography discipline scientists are at the Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) Data Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or the Mid-Continent Geographic Science Center in Rolla, Missouri. Water resources discipline scientists, in contrast, are located at these regional centers but also in 54 water science centers throughout the country. Most of the biological resources scientists are located at 18 science and technology centers and to a lesser extent in cooperative research units at 40 universities around the country. Thus, despite goodwill and interest in collaborative work, the opportunities for the kinds of informal discussions that often lead to interdisciplinary projects are limited.
There are a few places in the USGS organization where several disciplines are colocated in a meaningful way. For example, the BRD’s Fort Collins, Colorado, Science Center and Columbia Environmental Research Center have five and three hydrologists, respectively. The Southwest Biological Science Center’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center has a staff that although modest in number, has nearly equal numbers of biologists, hydrologists, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists/geographers. Other centers are not as well supplied, such as the Leetown, West Virginia, Biological Science Center, which lists no hydrologists on staff (http://www.lsc.usgs.gov/stafflist.asp) even though it has major research projects in and around rivers. Similarly, only geographers staff the Mid-Continent Geographic Science Center, even though it is working on hazards and land changes. Likewise, the Upper Midwest Environmental Science Center has no hydrologists on staff, although it does have four statisticians, four chemists, and three physiologists along with specialists in contaminants, limnology, sediments, and GIS (Barry Johnson, USGS, written communication, March 2006).
Of the approximately 4000 Water Resources Discipline (WRD) employees, there are about 24 whose title is ecologist, and slightly over 100 whose title
includes biologist (USGS, 2006a). Half or more of these positions presumably reside in the water science centers; each center has at least one biologist or ecologist. Most of these were hired to work on NAWQA projects, where ecological studies are being conducted in 42 study units. However, increasingly they have been involved in cooperative projects with corresponding state and local governments (Donna Myers, chief, NAWQA program, oral communication, March 2006). Recent examples include “Streamflow Characteristics and the Basis for Ecological Flow Goals” (New Jersey), “Landforms and Ecology” (Tennessee), “Characterization of Natural Flow Regimes for Rivers in Southern New England” (Massachusetts), “Wetlands in Central Florida,” “Shamokin Creek Acid Mine Drainage [Land-use, Hydrologic, Chemical, and Ecological] Assessment” (Pennsylvania), “Nanticoke Creek Restoration” (Pennsylvania), and Good Hope Dam Removal (Pennsylvania). This trend will likely continue.
Each of the four WRD regions has a regional biologist, and at headquarters the Ecological National Synthesis Section has five scientists whose expertise and responsibilities are primarily ecology. The National Water-Quality Laboratory includes a Biological Unit with three biologists and a chemist supervisor who analyze biological samples from NAWQA and other programs. Ecology is one of six disciplines in the National Research Program (NRP) and includes 22 projects (USGS, 2006b).
Thus, many building blocks to foster a successful environment for river science are already in place, and different disciplines appear to be working together on a wide variety of projects wherever the institutional framework permits. However, to be successful in pursuing a broader river science initiative, the USGS must continue to build the institutional capacity for such work. The USGS must find ways to integrate its river science research efforts to provide avenues for bottom-up, top-down, and customer-driven research activities to flourish. Facilitating the development of interdisciplinary teams should be imperative.
River science would not have to be a formal program at the USGS, although it could be justified as one based on its centrality to the USGS’s mission. As noted in Chapter 3, interdisciplinary USGS activities include programs, such as the Science Impact Program; less formal initiatives such as the Priority Ecosystems Science (PES) Initiative (includes effective collaborative projects in rivers, estuaries, and wetlands) and the Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative; and highly decentralized but coordinated themes, such as global change research and human health activities. In the following discussion, we use the term “initiative” without any presumption about the degree of the institutional formality of such an initiative.
Having a river science initiative in no way implies that all river science projects would be run out of a central office. River science projects have evolved independently within the NRP, the BRD Science Centers, the WRD Science Centers, the PES Initiative, and elsewhere. It is unrealistic to assume that adding,
for example, biological monitoring to an existing hydrologic monitoring study in a WRD Water Science Center, or vice versa in a BRD science center, should immediately move a project administratively to a new program.
Even initiatives run nominally from the director’s office are generally coordinated by one of the disciplines (e.g., the PES Initiative is coordinated out of the associate director for biology’s office). Given the modest staff of the director, it is reasonable to assume that river science would be no exception to this model. Like the PES, however, whose team leaders are sometimes from the WRD (e.g., Chesapeake Bay) and sometimes from the BRD (e.g., Everglades), future river science initiatives would logically involve the water resources and biological resources disciplines, with supplemental involvement from the geology and geography disciplines as well.
Although all the scientific disciplines would contribute to a USGS river science initiative, the Water Resources and Biological Resources Disciplines are clearly the most involved in river science projects. The WRD has several unique organizational and programmatic elements that could facilitate implementation of a river science effort. Outside the USGS, the WRD is perhaps best known for operating the network of nationally consistent stream gages that make up the National Streamflow Information Program (NSIP). The organizational structure of NSIP involves coordination among water science centers and provides invaluable connections and robust partnerships (including funding through the Cooperative Water Program) for information delivery and technology transfer to meet local, state, and regional needs. Overlaid on core data collection functions, the science centers also combine interdisciplinary technical expertise supporting the analysis of hydrologic, chemical, biological, and geomorphological data, and information generation through interpretive studies tailored to meet the needs of local and regional partners and decision makers.
The national network of water science centers is the “ground-based” location of day-to-day service delivery. The presence of members of the Water Resources Discipline in the science centers provides a rich infrastructure to deliver the interdisciplinary capabilities of USGS to local partners, cooperators, stakeholders, and decision makers. Moreover, the science centers programs link the NRP to local needs through a two-way exchange of information, which is often enhanced by partnerships with state-based networks through the State Water Resource Research Institute Program (http://water.usgs.gov/wrri/). As described in the NRC report on hydrologic hazards science at the USGS (NRC, 1999c), the science centers provide cooperators with science information on local problems through interpretative studies, which integrate their data collection and research The BRD also brings strengths to the table for coordinating river science projects. Its regionally distributed biological science centers often bring decades of experience on individual rivers, estuaries, and lakes. The Great Lakes Science Center traces its origins to 1927, the Leetown Science Center to 1931, and the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center to 1935. Centers such as the Upper Midwest Environ-
mental Sciences Center, the Columbia Environmental Research Center, and the Fort Collins Science Center are doing important work on the relationships among river flows, levels, and water quality and the habitat availability and biotic responses of riparian and aquatic species. Hydrologic monitoring and research have been, and will continue to be, added to the historic research on wildlife biology and habitat at these centers.
The Cooperative Research Units Program of the BRD also has considerable interdisciplinary experience. Created in 1935, these units are a partnership among the BRD, state natural resource agencies, Land-Grant universities, and the Wildlife Management Institute. Because they are located on university campuses, they not only conduct research on renewable natural resource questions but also participate in graduate education, provide technical assistance and consultation to natural resource agencies, and provide continuing education for natural resource professionals. The connection to universities is particularly noteworthy, as it permits the training of some of the river science professionals that the USGS will need in decades to come, especially in the field of natural resources management.
As with any new concept, the quality of leadership of a river science initiative will be vital to its success. Aside from being highly competent in their own fields, leaders should have a track record of working well across disciplines within and outside of the USGS. They should also have experience and interest in both basic and applied science.
A range of funding mechanisms also needs to be found if a healthy, dynamic initiative is to be begun and continued. Experience has shown that many natural scientists are enthusiastic about participating in interdisciplinary projects. However, many such endeavors have foundered from inadequate funds to support monitoring, modeling, and analysis of the multiple parameters necessary to achieve understanding of complex river systems. Such funding could come from internal or external sources, or both.
In conclusion, there probably is no single best institutional place for a river science initiative. River science covers a wide variety of basic and applied research with a broad range of federal, state, and local partners. The approach to dealing with river science must be born of an institutional culture that fosters integrative cooperative research. Coordination mechanisms within the USGS should take into consideration these different circumstances, and take advantage of the unique strengths of the many WRD and BRD river science programs and the related programs of the other disciplines. Whatever the approach taken, the fragmented nature of the USGS’s current approach to river science needs organization and focus. A river science initiative that contributes fully to national needs will likely require innovative managerial approaches that form interdisciplinary research teams/groups that, if not housed together, are regularly brought together to plan, direct, and execute a USGS river science program.
Recommendation: The USGS should employ innovative managerial approaches to combine the best elements of existing Water and Biological Resources river programs, and other USGS programs, and refocus a portion of existing research and field team efforts around examining and answering nationally important river science questions.
This refocusing can and should take advantage of the outstanding two-way flow between WRD research groups and local offices as well as place-based experience and long-term datasets of some of the BRD Science Centers and PES sites. It should build on the consistent data collection standards, mapping, and national synthesis strengths of the USGS.
A USGS river science initiative should be the core of a multistakeholder cooperative effort. It is essential that the leadership of this initiative embrace and foster existing and new relationships with other federal agencies, state and local agencies, and educational institutions.