One of the most critical issues facing the United States today is the proper management of our water resources. Water availability and quality are changing due to increasing population, urbanization, and land use and climate change, and shortages in water supply have been increasing in frequency in many parts of the country. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has entertained the Water and Environmental Research Systems (WATERS) Network as one possible initiative whereby NSF could provide the advances in the basic science needed to respond effectively to the challenge of managing water resources.
The WATERS Network, a joint initiative of the Engineering, the Geosciences, and the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorates at NSF, is envisioned as an integrated national network of observatories and experimental facilities supporting research, outreach, and education on large-scale, water-related environmental problems. The proposed observatories would provide researchers with access to linked sensing networks, data repositories, and computational tools connected through high-performance computing and telecommunications networks. Because of the magnitude of this envisioned network, NSF proposed that the WATERS Network be built using funds from the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) appropriation, which is available to NSF to support the acquisition, construction, and upgrading of major research equipment and facilities.
In 2006, NSF requested that the National Research Council (NRC) Water Science and Technology Board convene a committee to provide advice as the WATERS Network navigates the multiyear planning process for MREFC funding. In 2006, a previous NRC committee considered potential research questions that the network might address (NRC, 2006). This current committee, formed in 2007, was tasked to review the WATERS draft conceptual design and its science plan and provide ad-
vice on integrating the WATERS Network with other related observational systems (see statement of task in Box 1-1). The committee previously authored two reports: (1) an interim report that evaluated the Draft Science, Education, and Design Strategy for the WATERS Network (Task #1; NRC, 2008) and (2) a letter report issued in July 2009 that summarized the committee’s assessment of whether the Science Plan “sets forth a vision of what could be accomplished with an observing network to transform water science and engineering research and education” and “whether the Science Plan makes a compelling case for establishing the WATERS Network with Major Research and Facilities Construction (MREFC) funding” (Task #2; NRC, 2009). This report, the committee’s final, provides a more detailed review of the Science Plan (Task #2) and provides advice on collaborating with other federal agencies (Task #3).
ASSESSMENT OF THE SCIENCE PLAN
The Science Plan was intended as a broad vision document, and in this light, the document succeeds in communicating a high-level vision for transforming water science and engineering research through the establishment of an observatory network. The plan outlines the opportunity to collect, analyze, and integrate hydrologic, environmental science and engineering, and social science data at a level that has not previously been possible. Overall, the committee finds that the presentation of the overarching science question and the three grand challenges in hydrology, engineering, and social sciences provides compelling arguments in support of the WATERS Network.
The integration of social sciences with engineering and hydrology is a key benefit of the WATERS Network. The committee commends the WATERS team for its efforts to bring together the community of researchers and encourages the team to continue to nurture the integration of multiple disciplines.
While the Science Plan makes a convincing case that the WATERS Network will likely lead to strong, transformative science in its individual pieces, it is not clear that a collection of such pieces will meet the MREFC criterion that the WATERS Network will “exhibit systems characteristics greater than inferred simply by the connectivity of its parts” (NSF, 2005). Each of the three hypothetical examples of regional, theme-based science in the Science Plan (i.e., snow hydrology, eutrophication of estuaries, and urban water systems) illustrates how our under-
standing of particular issues could be significantly advanced. However, there do not appear to be clearly articulated, compelling questions or hypotheses in the Science Plan that require integration across individual observatories at the same time. The document also does not explain clearly why any of the three major questions cannot be approached regionally and, in fact, why some current efforts are not addressing the science questions, at least in part. As the WATERS team goes forward, it should bolster its case that a national network of observatories is required to address the science questions that are posed. The committee believes that such a case can be made, especially with a strong social science component as part of the interdisciplinary water science network. However, the persuasiveness of the argument for WATERS as a unified facility also requires a strong case for the scientific and engineering knowledge to be gained from a national network. Alternatively, a different funding mechanism within NSF might be considered, if feasible, for establishing a phased network of observatories that could address the questions posed in the WATERS Science Plan while taking better advantage of advances in technology over time.
The committee finds the high-level vision for science to be well done in the Science Plan, but as the WATERS Network moves ahead through conceptual design phase, a much more detailed “science plan” will need to be developed in parallel with the design. Additional development and refinement of the Science Plan will be needed in the future to make sure that the necessary coordination between the desired science and the feasibility of network construction is accomplished. That is, the natural progression from high-level vision to detailed description of scientific objectives will have to occur. In support of this anticipated need, the committee in Chapter 2 offers some guidance with regard to cyberinfrastructure—a critical element of the WATERS Network to link the local observatories and to enable multiscale and networkwide analyses by a wide array of researchers. Additionally, issues to be considered in the development of a network of observatories, including factors that facilitate intersite comparisons, are discussed in Chapter 3.
INTEGRATION AND COORDINATION
The WATERS Network could serve as a catalyst for bringing agencies together to contribute to a broader integrated agenda. Descriptions of federal and state agency water-related activities tend to provide a picture of projects that are compartmentalized and directed by
agency mandates and authorities. Given the breadth of the WATERS agenda, the program will gain from interactions with these diverse agency programs. Interagency collaboration could entail at least four possible levels of coordination: (1) interaction among researchers so that the WATERS Network team stays abreast of the objectives and findings of related programs and can learn from the experience of agency staff working at similar large-scale data collection and management projects, (2) development of policies for sharing data collected through independent initiatives, (3) coordination of future data acquisition plans, and (4) development of cyberinfrastructure for data sharing and other collaborative activities. Many possible benefits from improved coordination and integration have been summarized in Chapter 5. The degree of coordination that can reasonably be achieved, however, may depend upon the data sharing and cyberinfrastructure challenges encountered, as discussed in Chapter 2.
To enhance coordination and integration, the WATERS team should involve appropriate federal agencies, state and local governments, organizations, and international programs at an early stage. Interactions and relationships that are developed in a coordinated and planned way will have more impact than ad hoc opportunism by individual scientists.
The WATERS Network Science Plan outlines a compelling vision for ways in which new, integrative hydrologic, environmental science and engineering, and social science research can help address pressing water management concerns while advancing water science and education. The argument for construction of a simultaneously operated national observatory network with funding from the MREFC program is not as convincing in the Science Plan, and the WATERS team should consider whether the case for a national network can be strengthened or whether another funding mechanism can be considered. Many design challenges remain to be addressed in future planning efforts, including selecting observatory sites, determining second-level research questions, and developing a cyberinfrastructure plan. As the details of the WATERS Network evolve, the Science Plan should be developed and refined in parallel. To optimize the potential contributions of the WATERS Network, the team should coordinate and collaborate with related