Water quality refers to the suitability of water for particular human and ecosystem uses, and operationally it can be defined by federal and state regulatory agencies that establish the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics to adequately meet a particular use. By any measure, water safe to drink, suitable to sustain agriculture, and available to maintain valued natural ecosystems constitutes a fundamental national need. Water quality naturally changes spatially and temporally across the nation because of different climates, seasonality in weather, sources of dissolved and particulate substances, and variability among local and regional hydrologic and geomorphic settings. As would be expected, in some places natural water quality may be insufficient to provide all desired services. However, where suitable water quality does occur, it logically needs to be maintained for the public good.
Failure to maintain water quality occurs throughout the world. In the United States, excess dissolved nutrients from applications of agricultural fertilizer have caused pervasive anoxia where the Mississippi River discharges to the Gulf of Mexico1 (Osterman et al., 2006). Similar “dead zones” are found throughout the world in marine environments near large river mouths (Diaz and Rosenberg, 2008; Helly and Levein, 2004). Excess nutrients to Chesapeake Bay’s estuarine system caused the near collapse of natural fisheries, which only now seem to be returning because of suitable watershed management practices (Harding et al., 1999; NRC, 2004a, 2011c). Finally, excess nutrients from sugar plantations have also com-
promised the water quality of the Everglades ecosystem in Florida (NRC, 2008a). The evaporation of water used to irrigate soils in arid western landscapes has caused salinization of western soils and agricultural yields (Schoups et al., 2005).
Prior pervasive surface-water and groundwater contamination of waters in the United States led to the Clean Water Act of 1972,2 the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974,3 and other legislation dealing with water quality. Fortunately, the nation’s community water treatment infrastructure remains robust enough to ensure potable, high-quality tap water from rural areas to cities, despite remaining contamination in some places (Moran et al., 2004, 2005, 2007). But, in rural areas, many shallow aquifers no longer are used for drinking water supplies because of nitrate and bacterial contamination originating from agricultural practices and septic systems (Embrey and Runkle, 2006; Nolan and Hitt, 2006). Furthermore, in the north central and northeastern United States, the accumulation of millions of tons of road salt in the unsaturated soil threatens salinization of surface water and shallow groundwaters (Kaushal et al., 2005). Despite these problems, water quality in the United States remains high compared to many other parts of the world, but maintaining this high water quality for human and ecosystem health and prosperity is critical.
Established in 1879, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has a distinguished history of leadership, serving the nation by providing scientific data to describe and understand Earth systems and unbiased assessments to facilitate management of the nation’s natural resources. Hydrologic research and hydrologic data collection and analyses are performed through the USGS Water Mission Area, one of six broad earth science mission areas around which USGS is organized: Energy and Minerals, and Environmental Health; Climate and Land-Use Change; Ecosystems; Natural Hazards; Core Science Systems; and Water.4 The administrative structure of water-related activities at the USGS has evolved throughout the history of the agency, yet the mission has remained constant: “to provide reliable, impartial, timely information needed to understand the nation’s water resources.”
Because USGS is a science agency with no regulatory or management responsibilities, the Water Mission Area (along with the entirety of the agency) has been widely recognized as a source of unbiased scientific information and hydrologic data. USGS research, studies, and data are used by other
2 Public Law 92-500, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, or Clean Water Act, is the principal federal law governing contamination of the nation’s waters.
3 Public Law 93-523, the Safe Drinking Water Act, is the principal federal law intended to ensure safe drinking water for the public and applies to every public water system in the United States.
4 The Office of Science Quality and Integrity is tasked with improving and monitoring the quality of USGS science conducted by the six mission areas.
federal agencies; state, local, and tribal governments; the private sector; and academia as a basis for a wide range of water resources research and water planning and management decisions, including water infrastructure design and maintenance, flood monitoring and emergency notification, drought monitoring, water rights administration, water-quality management, and other related services. USGS carries out its water resources mission through several individual programs spread throughout the agency (Box 1-1) that cumulatively support the nation’s hydrologic data network and provide hydrologic assessments at the national, regional, state, and local scale. One of these is the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program.
NAWQA was designed and tested in the late 1980s and was implemented at full scale in 1991 to assess historical and current water quality and future water quality scenarios in representative river basins and aquifers across the country. NAWQA’s primary objectives are to assess the status of the nation’s groundwater and surface-water resources; evaluate trends in water quality over time; and understand how and to what degree natural and anthropogenic activities affect water quality. Taken together, NAWQA’s goal is to provide a national synthesis of the interaction between natural factors, human activities, and water-quality conditions to define factors that affect national water resources.
NAWQA’s goals are achieved through a design that stresses long-term, standardized collection and interpretation of physical, chemical, and biological water-quality data. NAWQA is not a research program per se; it uses known tools and understanding of processes to probe relevant water-quality topics. Research conducted by USGS’s National Research Program and the Toxic Substances Hydrology Program, for example, helps define NAWQA methodologies and topics for the future, but NAWQA does not employ untested methods for probing water quality. Perennial water-quality data collection and sequential assessments in river basins and aquifers as well as regional and national syntheses are key features of the NAWQA program. These activities not only define the status of and trends in water quality, but they also build an evolving understanding of regional and national water quality achieved through careful analysis and interpretation of these long-term water resource data sets.
NAWQA’s first decade (Cycle 1, 1991-2001) focused on a baseline assessment of status of the nation’s water-quality conditions. The second decade (Cycle 2, 2002 to the present) focused on a more broad-based water-quality assessment, building on the Cycle 1 status monitoring and identifying trends in water quality. Now, USGS scientists are planning for NAWQA’s third decade of water-quality assessment (Cycle 3, 2013-2023) and approached the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Water Science and Technology Board (WSTB) for perspective on past accomplishments as well as the current and future design and scope of the program. The NRC
Water-Related Programs and Activities at the U.S. Geological Survey
National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program: Long-term assessment of water-quality conditions and trends in river basins and groundwater systems nationwide.
National Streamflow Information Program (NSIP): Collection and dissemination of streamflow information that is essential for meeting federal hydrologic information needs.
Cooperative Water Program (Coop Program): Partnerships between USGS and more than 1,500 state, local, and tribal agencies to provide water resources information.
Toxic Substances Hydrology Program (Toxics Program): Field-based research to understand behavior of toxic substances in the nation’s hydrologic environments for development of strategies to clean up and protect water quality. Ground Water Resources Program: Groundwater data collection and the evaluation of controls on regional aquifer systems due to pumping and other stresses.
National Research Program (NRP): Conduct basic and problem-oriented hydrologic research in support of the USGS mission, including investigations of small watersheds (Water, Energy, Biogeochemical Budgets Program). Office of International Programs: Hydrologic data collection and analysis in support of the global hydrologic community.
Other Water Quality Activities: Analytical capabilities (National Water Quality Laboratory) and data from major rivers (National Stream Quality Accounting Network), from pristine watersheds (Hydrologic Benchmark Network), and from atmospheric deposition (National Atmospheric Deposition Program).
Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility: Instrument development, testing, calibration, and repair; technical support, training, and equipment supply to support hydrologic field activities
Climate Variability: Understanding the variations in hydrologic conditions due to atmospheric changes and human activities.
Priority Ecosystem Studies: Integrated investigations in large ecosystems of national interest that are impacted by human activity.
Water Institutes: Support of university-based Water Resources Research Institutes in 54 states and territories through grants.
SOURCE: Modified from NRC, 2009.
responded by forming the ad hoc Committee on USGS’s National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program, appointed under the auspices of the standing Committee on USGS Water Resource Research (CWRR). The ad hoc committee’s charge, as laid out in the Statement of Task (Box 1-2), calls for a review of both past accomplishments of the program as well as the design and scope of the program as it moves into its third decade of water-quality assessments (Cycle 3).
This report is one of a series of studies that the NRC’s Water Science and Technology Board’s CWRR has organized. Through these studies, the CWRR has provided advice to the USGS on water-related issues and programs relevant to USGS and the nation since 1985. Over nearly 27 years the CWRR and related committees have overseen reviews of almost every water-related program and initiative, some on a rotating basis. Earlier studies have concerned the National Streamflow Information Program, the National Water Use Information Program, the National Research Program, and the Water Resources Discipline5 of the USGS as well as areas of research such as river science, groundwater, hazardous materials in the aquatic environment, hydrologic hazards science, and watershed research.
The CWRR has reviewed NAWQA several times in the past. In fact, NAWQA is one of the most “reviewed” USGS programs at the USGS by the NRC. The first was when NAWQA was an unfunded concept and the then chair of the WSTB, Walter Lynn, endorsed the concept of the program in a letter report to then USGS Director Dallas Peck in October of 1985. The most recent NRC advice to NAWQA was the report Opportunities to Improve the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Assessment Program, published in 2002. The current study and report was built upon these and other NAWQA reviews by the NRC:
• Opportunities to Improve the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Assessment Program (NRC, 2002);
• National Water Quality Assessment Program: The Challenge of National Synthesis (NRC, 1994);
• A Review of the USGS National Water Quality Assessment Pilot Program (NRC, 1990);
• National Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment (NRC, 1987);
• Letter Report on a Proposed National Water Quality Assessment Program (NRC, 1985).
Once the study was underway, the USGS NAWQA Cycle 3 Planning Team asked the committee to give priority to its first task concerning
5 The Water Resources Discipline is a former unit under which USGS water-related programs were organized.
Statement of Task
Recommendations for the Third Decade (Cycle 3) of the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program
The project will provide guidance to the U.S. Geological Survey on the design and scope of the NAWQA program as it enters its third decade of water-quality assessments. The committee will assess accomplishments of the NAWQA program since its inception in 1991 by engaging in discussions with the Cycle 3 Planning Team, program scientists and managers, and external stakeholders and users of NAWQA data and scientific information. The committee will also review USGS internal reports on NAWQA’s current design for monitoring, assessments, research, and relevance to key water topics. The main activities of the study committee will be to:
1. Provide guidance on the nature and priorities of current and future water-quality issues that will confront the nation over the next 10-15 years and address the following questions:
• Which issues are currently being addressed by NAWQA and how might the present design and associated assessments for addressing these issues be improved?
• Are there issues not currently being substantially addressed by NAWQA that should be considered for addition to the scope of NAWQA?
2. Provide advice on how NAWQA should approach these issues in Cycle 3 with respect to the following questions:
• What components of the program—Surface Water Status and Trends; Ground-Water Status and Trends; Topical Understanding Studies; National Synthesis—should be retained or enhanced to better address national water-quality issues?
• What components of the program should change to improve how priority issues are addressed?
• Are there new program components that should be added to NAWQA to enable the program to better address and analyze national water-quality issues and related public policy issues?
3. Identify and assess opportunities for the NAWQA program to better collaborate with other federal, state, and local government, non-governmental organizations, private industry, and academic stakeholders to assess the nation’s current and emerging water quality issues.
4. Review strategic science and implementation plans for Cycle 3 for technical soundness and ability to meet stated objectives.
NAWQA’s scientific priorities as expressed in Design of Cycle 3 of the National Water Quality Assessment Program, 2013–2023: Part 1: Framework of Water-Quality Issues and Potential Approaches or the “Science Framework.”6 More specifically, the Science Framework set out:
to outline and describe a framework of water quality issues and priorities for Cycle 3 that reflect the unique capabilities and long term goals of NAWQA, an updated assessment of stakeholder priorities, and an emphasis on identifying potential approaches and partners.
The Science Framework represents the first of two planning documents focused on the Cycle 3 design. Eleven topical water-quality priorities were itemized within the two categories, water-quality drivers (climate change, population growth and land use change, and energy and resource development, etc.) and water-quality stressors (sediment, flow modification, emerging contaminants, etc.).
The committee responded to this request with a Letter Report Assessing the USGS National Water Quality Assessment Program’s Science Framework (Appendix A) published in January 2010. This letter report urges NAWQA to organize its activities around two overarching drivers (or “causes”) that indirectly and directly stress water supplies and related ecosystems around the nation: (1) change in land use due to population and other demographic changes and (2) climate variability and change. Under these two broad drivers, the committee encouraged the program to formulate specific, policy-relevant research questions to address and use these questions to identify its scientific priorities and demonstrate program impact. The letter report encouraged NAWQA to further define and enhance program thrusts to meet the principle of “national scale”; adhere to its original program design of probing water-quality “status, trends, and understanding”; align with the new USGS Six Strategic Science Directions; and concentrate on studies where the program can continue to make a unique and substantial scientific contribution.
In a letter dated December 14, 2010, the USGS Director Marsha McNutt asked the committee to provide additional advice on NAWQA’s progress in the Cycle 3 planning process, focusing on a second planning document, Design of Cycle 3 of the National Water Quality Assessment Program, 2013-2023: Part 2: Science Plan for Improved Water-Quality Information and Management or the NAWQA Cycle 3 or “Science Plan.”7 The purpose
6 At the time of this review, the Science Framework was a working document, available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2009/1296. In its first letter report the committee reviewed the Science Framework version from the fall of 2009.
7 In its second letter report the committee reviewed the Science Plan version from November 2010.
and scope of this Science Plan is to describe a science strategy for Cycle 3. It outlines four major goals for Cycle 3, the approaches for monitoring, modeling, and scientific studies, partnerships required to achieve the four major goals, and products and outcomes that result from planned assessment activities. The committee was asked to focus on whether the Science Plan sets forth adequate priorities and direction for the future (Statement of Task items 1 and 4).
The committee responded to this request through a second letter report, Letter Report Assessing the USGS National Water Quality Assessment Program’s Science Plan (Appendix B), published in January of 2011. The committee concluded that the Science Plan is technically sound and that NAWQA has the scientific capability to achieve its objectives. The committee also noted that the program’s scientific investments are maturing with the completion of Cycles 1 and 2, enabling NAWQA to move past the current water-quality monitoring to understanding the dynamics of water-quality changes, and using that understanding to forecast likely future conditions under different scenarios of climate and land use change.
This report addresses the entirety of the Statement of Task, augmenting the two previous letter reports. The following chapters reflect on NAWQA’s history and accomplishments (Chapter 2 and Chapter 3) and outline a way forward for the program (Chapter 4), which includes an emphasis on collaborative efforts (Chapter 5).