Reasons to support the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program in the third decade echo those that originally motivated the creation of the program. Indeed, the needs articulated by the National Research Council (NRC) in 1987 (NRC, 1987), needs that NAWQA was designed to meet and has met, remain ongoing and unchanged:
• characterize water quality over time,
• develop tools to evaluate why water quality has changed,
• provide water-quality data comprehensively to the nation in an accessible form,
• understand aquatic ecosystems, and, ultimately,
• forecast water-quality changes in the future.
More than 20 years after the 1987 NRC report was written, an additional reason to support NAWQA is its record of success and impact. Furthermore, as water-related issues become more complex because of changing climate, land use, and demographics the continued need for a national water-quality assessment becomes even clearer. Water-quality impairments will continue to be a complex issue, and resolving water policy debates will require more water science, not less (NRC, 2009).
The beginning of Cycle 3 is when the program can begin to achieve a new level of understanding and analysis capability even as it continues to document the status and trends of the nation’s water-quality. NAWQA has evolved from a program emphasizing water quality data collection and trend assessment to one having the potential to forecast contaminant occur-
rence and aquatic degradation trends under multiple scenarios at nationally significant scales. In other words, NAWQA is poised, both within the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the federal government, to understand the interplay between the complex factors that affect water quality through the continued requisite sampling of the nation’s waters (NRC, 2011a). The program’s scientific investments are maturing, enabling NAWQA to move beyond water-quality monitoring toward understanding the dynamics of water-quality changes and using that understanding to forecast likely future conditions under different scenarios of change. These are advances that the nation needs and the committee strongly supports (NRC, 2011a). The need for a national water-quality assessment is as important, if not more so today, as it was when NAWQA was first established.
A successful national water-quality assessment in Cycle 3 would be a national-scale water-quality surveillance program that evaluates and forecasts how changing land use conditions and climate variability may affect water quality in different settings, and that serves as a tool for water policy-and decision-makers as they evaluate policy options impacting the nation’s water resources. Many efforts exist to assess water quality in the United States at universities and other federal and state programs at the local and regional levels. As the nation’s water-quality regulator, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a particularly critical role. However, NAWQA is unique in its focus on water-quality assessment at the national scale and its inclusion of a large number of water-quality parameters. This corresponds with the committee’s sense of the unique niche of a national program, a program that takes on work that states cannot do alone or work that crosses jurisdictional boundaries. For example, NAWQA would take on regional studies that can be extrapolated to other areas of the country, or studies that answer regional water-quality questions that are extremely important to the nation. Program efforts would cross state lines, such as water quality assessments of the Mississippi River.
Yet it is unrealistic to consider a way forward while ignoring fiscal realities and the difficult programmatic decisions that NAWQA will face. The committee sees many challenges ahead for NAWQA in Cycle 3, challenges that are related to the Statement of Task:
• How does NAWQA remain a national program in the face of resource decline?
• How should NAWQA balance new status activities against the need to maintain long-term trend networks and understanding studies?
• How can NAWQA use ancillary data and maintain a high level of quality?
• How can NAWQA maintain focus amidst numerous and competing stakeholder demands?
Chapter 3 should serve as a reminder to the program of a deep history of success to draw upon as it faces the challenges listed above. This chapter is framed in terms of priorities and trade-offs in order to be the most useful to the program and USGS.
NAWQA has produced a rich national database of chemical, physical, and biological water-quality information that covers a diverse range of water resources through a robust monitoring design. These data are essential for assessing the status and trends of the nation’s water quality and are used by a large and varied number of stakeholders from other federal agencies to citizens. These data are used to develop, calibrate, and validate models that allow USGS and others to forecast future conditions under a variety of scenarios and extrapolate specific data points in order to a complete a “picture” of a given condition. NAWQA’s basic sampling networks are critical.
Why does the nation continue to need long-term monitoring? Monitoring over many years to decades is critical to assess whether the quality of the nation’s waters is improving or degrading, because of lag times in environmental responses and year-to-year variability. Monitoring is also essential to assess whether management strategies are working to improve water systems in, for example, the Chesapeake Bay (NRC, 2011b) or California’s San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary (NRC, 2011c). Long-term, continuous collection of water-quality data serves an even broader-scale purpose by identifying changes in water quality caused by changes in the landscape condition, contaminant sources, and variations in climate. Calibrating water-quality models requires measures of both quantity and quality, along with a fundamental understanding of chemical and biological processing. Models that are produced to make predictions can only be validated through monitoring. Despite these and other reasons to support the need for long-term monitoring, observational networks to measure various water-quality characteristics in the United States have been on the decline for a number of years (Entekhabi et al., 1999; NRC, 1991, 2002, 2004b). It is important that NAWQA continue to help determine if policy changes related to water quality have been effective, particularly with respect to delivery of excess nutrients and contaminants to water supplies and important ecosystems.
The continuity of national water-quality measurements in time and space is fundamental to meeting the goal of national water-quality assessment and is something that no other entity in the United States has the capacity or charge to do. First and foremost, NAWQA’s primary focus should be on continuing the monitoring needed to support the national status and
trends assessments of the nation’s water-quality. Budgetary constraints and the need to fulfill the primary mission of the program make this focus even more critical. Once lost, such a perspective can be very difficult to reestablish resulting in a “break” in the long-term status and trends data set that NAWQA has established. Also, if basic monitoring data collection is reduced too far NAWQA could fall below the tipping point where it can be considered a national program in scope. This has been discussed in previous NRC reviews of the NAWQA program, noting that NAWQA could be nearing this tipping point where it is no longer a national program (NRC, 2002). Thus, the committee supports efforts in Cycle 3 that not only reach beyond the focus of basic monitoring, discussed below, but also recognizes that these other goals can only be accomplished if the basic data collection continues.
A tipping point for NAWQA is a point where, once crossed, the program as currently organized, scaled, and operated can no longer provide a national assessment of water quality. Restoration of resources will not reverse this inability to achieve the program’s core mission, once the tipping point is crossed. Scaling the program up to what it once was would be inhibited by the break in the long-term monitoring record and the erosion of programmatic infrastructure. However, there may be other scales, modes or organization, and scientific effort that would still allow water-quality monitoring to be achieved. Yet this water-quality monitoring would lack a key feature of the program—national scale—or the ability to say something meaningful about the nation’s water quality as a whole.
The committee cannot quantify an exact tipping point for NAWQA. Metrics for identifying the point at which the tipping point is crossed, perhaps built into the network design, would be required. However, the committee can reflect on how to assess proximity to the tipping point through the critical question, how much could uncertainty increase in NAWQA outputs before relevant national conclusions could no longer be drawn, and the program suffered irreparable harm? Similarly, does NAWQA have adequate water-quality monitoring data to support its water-quality models?
Measurements can only provide a snapshot of condition for the time they are taken, and they cannot be used by themselves to forecast future conditions or understand water quality in unsampled areas. Models are tools that can be used for forecasting, as well as to construct scenarios for assessing the impacts of climate and land use change, and likely consequences of different policy options. A focus of NAWQA efforts in Cycle 3, second only to basic monitoring activities, should be support of NAWQA modeling initiatives.
NAWQA water-quality models initially are calibrated, matched—to data collected in the present—and usually used to “forecast” or to determine what trends would occur under different scenarios of demographic, land use, and climate change in order to address national issues and extrapolate to a national picture. This includes but is not limited to new initiatives involving the Watershed Regression for Pesticides (WARP) and SPAtially Referenced Regressions on Watershed Attributes (SPARROW) models (Box 4-1). These same models can be used, if desired, to “backcast,” or to start with defining what water quality is desired in the future, and then identify what actions would control, say, nutrient loading to achieve that end result. These modeling and decision-support tools need to be accessible to researchers, water managers, and policy makers.
Land use and climate change call into question the efficacy of using historical data to assess hydrologic and ecologic conditions because both introduce nonstationarity into the hydroclimatologic record (Milly et al., 2008). Reconciling changing factors and trends in key observed variables is an important challenge for the detection and attribution of change. Reconciling nonstationarity will be challenging for models like SPARROW and WARP—indeed, for any model using historical data.
The Science Plan provides a forward-thinking vision (Box 4-2) for the next decade of assessing the nation’s aquatic resources. The Science Plan reflects many recommendations and suggestions from this committee’s two letter reports. It outlines a well-connected conceptual model for the program in Cycle 3 linking status and trends to understanding sources of stressors and effects and then ultimately linking this to modeling efforts. The Science Plan is organized into four goals for the program, which constitute the logical maturation of the program and are wise choices for leveraging the previous two decades of monitoring.
The committee lacks the specifics to probe in great detail the technical soundness of specific methodologies and technologies to be used in Cycle 3; the Science Plan is a high-level planning document, and many details were not included. However, to respond to the Statement of Task,
Review strategic science and implementation plans for Cycle 3 for technical soundness and ability to meet stated objectives.
an assessment of the technical soundness of the Science Plan and its ability to meet stated objectives follows.
The overall scope of the Science Plan is broad. Opportunities exist for NAWQA to gain efficiencies by reaching out to a broader technical com-
An Evolving SPARROW in Cycle 3
Previous versions of the SPARROW model were calibrated and used at a national scale to assess nutrient conditions in surface waters across the United States. Currently, NAWQA is expanding the use of the SPARROW model by calibration to encompass new scales and contaminants and by making all SPARROW models available to the public. For example, to obtain a more accurate assessment of water-quality conditions, NAWQA is currently calibrating the SPARROW model to six of the eight Major River Basins of the conterminous United States.
NAWQA is exploring the types of contaminants that can be modeled by SPARROW. The program is developing a national-scale organic carbon model that will simulate the national carbon balance. This naturally leads the SPARROW modeling effort to dissolved oxygen in surface waters and to a national-scale temperature model, the two of which are conceptually linked because dissolved oxygen responds quickly to temperature. Program scientists are also contemplating a national-scale dissolved solids and salinity model, which will have numerous practical applications, for example, in tracking the presence and impact of deicing road salt.
Finally, the SPARROW Decision Support System (DSS) is a new, USGS-maintained repository for SPARROW models that are made available for public use. This tool makes SPARROW available to the public via a USGS web-based system.1 The DSS allows users to choose a desired model, craft water-quality scenarios, manipulate the models locally, and share and upload the information at a later date. The system has a mapping interface that can be manipulated to show a variety of results. Datasets that calibrate the models will be available as well.
When considering these developments together—the expansion of contaminants, scale, and bringing SPARROW to the public through the DSS—it is clear that NAWQA personnel envision an enhanced SPARROW for the future. This is a vision the committee supports.
munity for innovation, monitoring, and analysis. Thus, with respect to Statement of Task 1b,
Are there issues not currently being substantially addressed by NAWQA that should be considered for addition to the scope of NAWQA?
The committee recommends that no other issue(s) should be considered for addition to NAWQA in Cycle 3. NAWQA has identified the major water-quality issues facing the nation in the Science Plan that fall within its purview.
The Guiding Vision for Cycle 3
“Science-based strategies can protect and improve water quality for people and ecosystems even as population and threats to water quality continue to grow, demand for water increases, and climate changes.”
SOURCE: Design of Cycle 3 of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program, 2013-2023: Part 2: Science Plan for Improved Water-Quality Information and Management
Effectiveness of Presentation
The opening chapter of the Science Plan provides a compelling description of NAWQA’s vision for Cycle 3. The chapter continues to successfully articulate how NAWQA is uniquely positioned to address some of the nation’s most pressing water-quality issues, including an assessment of the nation’s water quality and the stressors that place water quality at risk of decline. The connections among the four goals of Cycle 3 are clearly articulated, as are the benefits of the Cycle 3 plan to the nation. The chapter explains why Cycle 3 is needed now and how partnerships are needed to address the nation’s need for clean water and to address problems due to shifts in population, changes in land use, and climate change.
However, the subsequent chapters of the Science Plan that expand on the main themes presented in Chapter 1 could be more clear and succinct. As a result, the committee’s positive impression of the Science Plan comes more from the first chapter of the Science Plan and from presentations given by the NAWQA leadership team during the committee’s deliberations rather than from the more detailed chapters in the Science Plan. More specifically, the presentation of the goals is unbalanced; Goal 1 is very long and provides significant detail on each subobjective (30 pages), while Goals 2-4 are described by far less text and appear less well-developed. In addition, redundancies exist among the chapters and ultimately detract from the message. The description of each goal lacks the requisite preface needed to identify the data gaps addressed by the activities described for each goal (e.g., model inputs). Subobjectives are not prioritized in their order of appearance (Goal 1).
Although the committee is confident in the overall Science Plan and the direction for Cycle 3, in places the presentation and development of the written document does not instill the same level of confidence. This point is made not to be prescriptive about specific revisions to the Science Plan, but to encourage NAWQA to continue to be mindful of its presentation of
the Science Plan and even the forthcoming Implementation Plan. These are planning documents of a more internal nature; yet, a correlation to program impact does exist in any public document that NAWQA produces. This is particularly true in documents guiding the vision for the future.
Linking Groundwater and Surface Water
NAWQA plans to, in part, assess groundwater quality as a source of drinking water in Cycle 3. Although understanding the contamination of the nation’s source water for drinking water supply is important, this coverage of and primary focus on a single use seem inadequate to meeting the stated NAWQA mission (see also, NRC, 2010, Appendix B). Understanding groundwater flows and articulation of the interconnectedness of groundwater and surface water is an important theme. For years, USGS and NAWQA have been educating the scientific community and the public about this relationship and have been conducting seminal research to establish and explain these relationships. The committee concludes that NAWQA should be mindful of this role in Cycle 3.
The Science Plan is structured around four goals, each of which:
relate to the underlying program principles of status, trends, and understanding. These goals are: 1) Assess the current quality of the Nation’s freshwater resources and how water quality is changing over time; 2) Evaluate how human activities and natural factors, such as land use and climate change, are affecting water quality over time; 3) Determine the relative effects, mechanisms of activity, and management implications of multiple stressors in aquatic ecosystems; and 4) Predict the effects of human activities, climate change, and measurement strategies on future water quality and ecosystem condition (Design of Cycle 3 of the National Water Quality Assessment Program, 2013-2023: Part 2: Science Plan for Improved Water-Quality Information and Management).
The four goals in the Science Plan are consistent with the guiding vision, and they contribute to meeting the vision in a synergistic, interconnected, and balanced manner (although not communicated equally well, as noted above). The goals are used to guide development of activities that address priority “stressors” and their impact on water quality (Figure 4-1).
Then, the Science Plan lists 20 objectives under the auspices of the four main goals that outline the scientific work planned to achieve each goal. The several specific objectives that are described under each of the four
goals in the Science Plan are not necessarily equal in their contribution to meeting the central or core principles of the Science Plan, or to meeting the overall program mission. Not only do these various objectives differ in their potential impact and in their contributions to the programmatic goals, but also they differ in the effort and resources they will require, the clarity of how they are presented, how well they are justified, and the consequences of pursuing them with higher or lower priority.
The committee provides a discussion of the goals and objectives in the Science Plan to help inform NAWQA as it moves forward into Cycle 3 and adapts to changes in the future, speaking to Statement of Task 1. The committee is not charged with assessing the budgetary dimensions of NAWQA’s goals and objectives as part of this review of the program, nor is it qualified to do so. Yet to be sensitive to the impact of available funding on programming, this guidance is provided as a discussion of trade-offs and consequences should the funding for implementing the Science Plan not be provided in full, with the overarching purpose of ensuring that NAWQA remains a national program.
Considerations Used in the Evaluation of Trade-offs for Cycle 3
The Cycle 3 Science Plan offers a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s needs for understanding status and trends in surface and groundwater quality and developing a portfolio of multi-scale models to forecast changes in water quality in response to changes in demography, land use, and climate. The Science Plan articulates an ambitious agenda of 4 goals and 20 objectives that drive data collection, model development, and products for public dissemination.
It is critical to keep in mind that Cycle 3 should build on the existing two decades of data, experience, and products. The committee believes the Science Plan does that well. It is also important to keep the perspective that the Science Plan for the coming decade is important not only to NAWQA, or to USGS or the Department of the Interior, but also to the nation. The federal government will not be able to answer the question “Is the nation’s water quality getting better or worse?” without NAWQA. In an ideal world, the Cycle 3 Science Plan would be implemented in full. All 20 objectives have scientific merit. However, given the current federal fiscal climate and the scale of the Science Plan, full-scale implementation of the Science Plan is unlikely.1
The committee carefully considered the Science Plan objectives in light of NAWQA’s mission, capabilities, and resources and considered whether objectives were critical to the program mission and associated trade-offs. The committee developed criteria for determining which objectives are “essential” to NAWQA as a national program. An objective is essential if it contributes to one or more of the following:
• monitoring status and trends of surface and groundwater quality and relevant aquatic ecosystem indicators on a national scale;
• providing modeling capabilities to understand the effects of multiple water quality stressors on humans and ecosystems, and the impacts of climate change, land use practices, and demographic changes;
• assessing regional-scale effects of climate change, changing land use practices, and demographic changes;
• forecasting consequences of future scenarios with regional (multi-state) and national implications.
Implicit in the consideration of “essential” modeling objectives is that NAWQA would embed rigorous model validation processes preceding full-scale deployment of models.
1 This supposition is derived from conversations with NAWQA leadership and a set of fiscal scenarios crafted in the Science Framework. These scenarios estimate low, moderate, and high funding levels (compared to fiscal year 2009 levels) and the correlation to what activities the program could pursue in Cycle 3.
In a second category, the committee identified objectives that can provide important benefits to the nation and would have consequences if they were not accomplished, but are not essential to NAWQA’s achievement of its core mission as a national water-quality program (i.e., “important but not essential”). In some cases, these objectives are being addressed by other entities. For these objectives, the committee believes that NAWQA should play a contributing role, or work closely in partnership with other organizations with complementary capabilities. The discussion identifies partners; Chapter 5 explores this further. In other cases, despite scientific merit, the committee concluded that the magnitude of resources necessary to achieve the stated objective would detract from other, program-critical, goals.
Finally, in a third category, the committee identified one objective for which the Science Plan does not provide sufficient justification for its value to the nation and its place within NAWQA (i.e., needs “further justification”). Consequently, the objective in this third category is of least importance to the program. This determination, along with the categorization of the other objectives, does not imply that this objective is without scientific merit; quite the opposite. The following discussion is a practical exercise in an attempt to assist NAWQA leadership in making difficult decisions regarding future priorities.
Below, the committee discusses the placement of the Science Plan objectives in these three categories, beginning with the first. Many objectives in the Science Plan overlap both conceptually and in how NAWQA will achieve the goal in the Cycle 3 program design. Thus, the discussion is framed not only around objectives that are “essential,” “not essential,” and also need “further justification” but why the scientific thrusts embedded within each are particularly critical.
Objectives That Are Essential to Cycle 3
The committee advises that these objectives are crucial to NAWQA’s mission and to remaining a national program.
Goal 1 Status and Trends: Objectives “a” (surface water), “d” (groundwater), “e” (stream ecosystems), “f” (contamination of receiving waters), and “g” (biological condition)
The essence of this goal is the very reason the program was established: the need to develop long-term, nationally consistent information on the quality of the nation’s streams and groundwater (Box 4-3). The data and analyses associated with the Goal 1 objectives continue the original NAWQA objectives of assessing the status and trends of the nation’s water quality and the factors that affect water quality and aquatic ecosystems. In
NAWQA Science Plan, Goal 1 and Objectives
Goal 1: Assess the current quality of the Nation’s freshwater resources and how water quality is changing over time.
1a. Determine the distributions and trends of contaminants in current and future sources of drinking water from streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs.
1d. Determine the distributions and trends of contaminants of concern in aquifers needed for domestic and public supplies of drinking water.
1e. Determine the distributions and trends for contaminants, nutrients, sediment and streamflow alteration that may degrade stream ecosystems.
1f. Determine contaminant, nutrient, and sediment loads to coastal estuaries and other receiving waters.
1g. Determine trends in biological condition in relation to trends and changes in contaminants, nutrients, sediment, and streamflow alteration.
Important but Not Essential Objectives:
1c. Determine the distributions and trends in microbial contaminants in streams and rivers used for recreation.
Objectives That Need Further Justification:
1b. Determine mercury trends in fish tissue.
SOURCE: Design of Cycle 3 of the National Water Quality Assessment Program, 2013-2023: Part 2: Science Plan for Improved Water-Quality Information and Management; January 28 2011.
addition, the data collected for this goal are needed to meet the objectives and other Cycle 3 goals and will contribute much information to related USGS science mission areas, especially the Climate and Land-Use Change and Ecosystems Mission Areas. Water-quality constituents to be monitored for characterizing surface water quality include:
- major ions,
- nutrients (N, P, and C),
- suspended sediment,
- volatile organic compounds,2
- human and veterinary drugs,3
- semi-volatile organic chemicals,4
- algal toxins, and
Water-quality constituents to be monitored for characterizing groundwater quality include:
- geochemical indicators,5
- age-dating tracers,
- major ions and nitrate,
- trace elements,
- volatile organic compounds,
- human and veterinary drugs,
- semi-volatile organic chemicals,
- radionuclides,6 and
NAWQA has defined seven objectives for this goal; most of the Goal 1 objectives are viewed as central for NAWQA by the committee. However, status and trends networks consume more resources than other NAWQA activities, so cautionary advice is also included in the following discussion (Figure 2-10). Objective 1a is the long-term status and trends assessment of surface water, and Objective 1d is the long-term status and trends for groundwater. NAWQA cannot meet its core mission, let alone Cycle 3 Goals, without collecting these data. Objective 1g is the status and trends assessment of the biological condition of the nation’s surface waters, which provides an assessment of water quality beyond what chemical measurements alone can provide. Relating biological condition to chemical and physical conditions can provide insight into likely factors causing degradation. Objective 1f is the assessment of contaminant loads to receiving waters. Given the importance of water-quality issues such as, for example,
2 This constituent group includes disinfection byproducts, select high production volume chemicals, and volatile organic compounds.
3 This constituent group includes antimicrobials, pharmaceuticals, and hormones.
4 This constituent group covers a wide variety of trace organic chemicals, some occurring naturally but most associated with waste and wastewater. Chemicals include those found in detergents, flame retardants, and personal care products.
5 These include basic properties such as temperature, pH, specific conductance, and other indicators of redox conditions such as dissolved oxygen.
6 This constituent group includes uranium, radon, lead, and polonium.
Gulf Coast hypoxia, Objective 1f is considered essential. NAWQA stakeholders also expressed the essential nature of this objective at the 2009 meeting of the National Liaison Committee. Furthermore, the data collected in pursuit of this objective are the foundation for SPARROW.
For these essential Goal 1 objectives, NAWQA has identified informational needs that were not addressed during Cycles 1 and 2 and expanded each goal. An example is the addition of sediment, one of the four major water-quality stressors (Figure 4-1) to the long-term, national status and trends assessments of surface water (mentioned specifically in Objectives 1f and 1g). This includes adding sediment as a national synthesis assessment topic (NAWQA leadership, personal communication, October 26, 2010). The NRC (2002) presented a compelling discussion on the importance of conducting sediment monitoring, including suspended sediment, excess sedimentation, and particle-associated contaminants, and interpretation of this monitoring. National-scale sediment assessment was not pursued in Cycle 2 because of limited funding.7 This committee encouraged the program to pursue sediment monitoring (NRC, 2010), noting it was a valuable scientific pursuit. However, given the magnitude of resources likely required to pursue sediment monitoring at the scale and detail proposed in the Science Plan, caution is advised. NAWQA would be well served by strategic investment in sediment monitoring, for example, through pursuit in select watersheds, choosing top priority topics related to sediment, and/or using SPARROW as a central tool.
Objective 1a, while representing the long-term status and trends surface water network, includes lakes and reservoirs. NAWQA, by design, does not sample many lakes or reservoirs, but it has been encouraged to probe these water bodies in the past (NRC, 1990, 2002). NAWQA has not followed these suggestions because of limited funding. In light of the current fiscal climate, the committee advises caution when considering this part of Objective 1a. The Great Lakes, for example, are considered coastal systems and so often fall under the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In addition, under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada, EPA is the official party to address water-quality issues.8 Other units of USGS are active in the Great Lakes, however, and there is a USGS Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan (part of the former Biology Division, now the Ecosystem Mission Area9). Many large water suppliers
8 The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement commits the United States and Canada “to restore and maintain the chemical, biological, and physical integrity of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem;” see http://www.epa.gov/glnpo/glwqa/1978/index.html.
that take water from lakes or reservoirs have some data about their source water. However, data for small systems are much less likely to be available, although the national significance of data from small systems is questionable because contaminants in those water bodies, if present, likely come from local sources.
In Objective 1d the Science Plan proposes addressing spatial gaps in knowledge of principal aquifers and ancillary data to interpret some changes in water quality. The spatial gaps may indeed be critical to understanding the principal aquifers, while some of the ancillary data needs should be evaluated for cost-effectiveness and benefit to understanding water quality. Likewise, embedded in the objectives in Goal 1 is monitoring of contaminants of emerging concern. The committee echoes the cautionary advice from NRC (2010)—define scientific concerns with respect to monitoring these compounds and not get caught up in the “contaminant of the day.” In summary, although many of these objectives in Goal 1 are “essential,” NAWQA should understand the trade-offs associated with pursuing the newer components of this goal.
Goal 2 Stressor Effects: Objectives “a” (hydrologic factors), “b” (sources), “d” (susceptibility), and “e” (effectiveness of practices)
Goals 2 and 3 represent the planned extension of Cycle 3 into “understanding” water-quality status and trends, per the original program design (Cycle 1, status; Cycle 2, trend assessment; Cycle 3, understanding). Recall the aforementioned advice that, first and foremost, “the NAWQA program should continue the basic monitoring needed to maintain the national status and trends assessment.” Understanding studies, while valuable, cannot be done without the basic status and trends monitoring. It is clear that the objectives within this goal are intimately tied together and almost need to be viewed as a unit when discussing trade-offs.
The committee considers most of the objectives in Goal 2 to be core to the program mission (Box 4-4). Objectives 2a, 2b, 2d, and 2e directly address the “understanding” component of NAWQA. They relate to how hydrologic systems as well as sources, transport, and fluxes of contaminants, nutrients, and sediment are affected by land use, climate, and natural factors. Specifically, Objective 2a can be called the “hydrology matters” objective, pursuing understanding of how hydrology impacts water quality. This is a concept that was originally pursued in NAWQA’s Agrochemical Sources, Transport and Fate topic study in Cycle 2, and emphasizing this as a larger program objective coincides with research challenges and opportunities facing the field of hydrologic science at the nexus between hydrology and water quality (NRC, 2012). Hydrology is a basic area of expertise within NAWQA and USGS; linking hydrology to water quality is an important and logical undertaking for the program.
NAWQA Science Plan, Goal 2 and Objectives
Goal 2: Evaluate how human activities and natural factors, such as land use and climate change, are affecting the quality of surface water and groundwater.
2a. Determine how hydrologic systems—including water budgets, flow paths, travel times and streamflow alterations—are affected by land use, water use, climate, and natural factors.
2b. Determine how sources, transport, and fluxes of contaminants, nutrients and sediment are affected by land use, hydrologic system characteristics, climate and natural factors.
2d. Apply understanding of how land use, climate, and natural factors affect water quality to determine the susceptibility of surface-water and groundwater resources to degradation.
2e. Evaluate how the effectiveness of current and historic management practices and policy is related to hydrologic systems, sources, transport and transformation processes.
Important but Not Essential Objectives:
2c. Determine how nutrient transport through streams and rivers is affected by stream ecosystem processes.
SOURCE: Design of Cycle 3 of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program, 2013-2023: Part 2: Science Plan for Improved Water-Quality Information and Management; January 28 2011.
Intimately linked with Objective 2a is Objective 2b, which deals with understanding how contaminants are tied to large drivers or parameters such as land-use change, climate change, and geology. The committee previously identified these as the important drivers for NAWQA to consider (NRC, 2010). Objective 2d deals with building the process-level understanding achieved in Objectives 2a and 2b into models—a “cause and effect” analysis. Recalling the previous advice, a focus of NAWQA efforts in Cycle 3, second only to basic monitoring activities, should be support of modeling initiatives. At its core, Objective 2e is the impact piece of Goal 2, simulating environmental scenarios and evaluating how different management practices and policy translate to water-quality changes. The outcomes
and products from meeting these objectives will be a series of models, maps, and web-based tools that describe these complex relationships and communicate them in a clear and useful manner. They can be used to evaluate management choices and inform policy decisions; thus, the committee finds Objective 2e essential.
Goal 3 Multiple Stressors: Objectives “b” (nutrient levels that initiate impairment), “c” (sediment and impairment), and “d” (effects of stream flow alteration)
The essence of Goal 3 is examining the effects of water-quality parameters, what is causing changes in water-quality, and the relative influence of each stressor (Box 4-5). Like Goal 2, Goal 3 represents the “understanding” piece of the Cycle 3 design and should be viewed in the context of the earlier recommendation about status and trends monitoring. Also, the objectives in Goal 3 are intimately linked and should almost be viewed as a unit when evaluating trade-offs.
The committee views Objective 3b as a core objective. It addresses a water-quality problem of national significance, and the resulting products will have clear relevance for policy decisions (e.g., EPA or states to which EPA has given primacy establishing numeric nutrient criteria under the Clean Water Act). The work proposed is primarily intensive studies, but studies for this objective should also capitalize on the wealth of nutrient and biological data available from Cycles 1 and 2 and the work proposed under Goal 1 of the Science Plan. Although biological responses may not be directly related to observed nutrient concentrations, as the Science Plan argues, numeric nutrient criteria are based on concentrations; hence the work proposed for this objective will be more relevant to policy decisions if concentrations are an essential component of the analyses.
The committee considers Objective 3c to be a core objective despite minimal pursuit of this topic in the past because of funding constraints. Excess sediment is a nationally significant source of water-quality impairment, USGS has unique expertise to address this issue, and the understanding promoted from intensive studies will be used to develop a predictive ecological model that can be used to assess the impact of excess sedimentation at regional scales. Indeed, the NRC (2002) supported the inclusion of sediment in the NAWQA portfolio, as did the two previous letter reports from this committee (NRC, 2009, 2010).
The committee also views Objective 3d as a core objective. Streamflow has been considered a “master variable” in stream ecosystems (Poff et al., 1997), and anthropogenic alteration of streamflow is widespread with impacts on stream biota and ecosystem processes (Carlisle et al., 2011; H. John Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment, 2008).
NAWQA Science Plan, Goal 3 and Objectives
Goal 3: Determine the relative effects, mechanisms of activity, and management implications of multiple stressors in aquatic ecosystems.
3b. Determine the levels of nutrient enrichment that initiate ecological impairment, what ecological properties are affected, and which environmental indicators best identify the effects of nutrient enrichment on aquatic ecosystems.
3c. Determine how changes to suspended and depositional sediment impair stream ecosystems, which ecological properties are affected, and what measures are most appropriate to identify impairment.
3d. Determine the effects of streamflow alteration on stream ecosystems and the physical and chemical mechanisms by which streamflow alteration causes degradation.
Important but Not Essential Objectives:
3a. Determine the effects of contaminants on degradation of stream ecosystems, which contaminants have the greatest effects in different environmental settings and seasons, and evaluate which measures of contaminant exposure are the most useful for assessing potential effects.
3e. Evaluate the relative influences of multiple stressors on stream ecosystems in different regions that are under varying land uses and management practices.
SOURCE: Design of Cycle 3 of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program, 2013-2023: Part 2: Science Plan for Improved Water-Quality Information and Management; January 28 2011.
Studies described under this objective not only are relevant to current issues of altered streamflow, but also will be an essential component of NAWQA’s analyses of impacts of climate change on water quality and stream ecosystems. These studies capitalize on the extensive body of streamflow data unique to USGS and include collaboration with others working on this issue at different scales.
Goal 4 Future Predictions: Objectives “a” (evaluate suitability of existing models for future scenarios) and “b” (develop decision support tools)
NAWQA Science Plan, Goal 4 and Objectives
Goal 4: Predict the effects of human activities, climate change, and management strategies on future water quality and ecosystem condition.
4a. Evaluate the suitability of existing water-quality models and enhance as necessary for predicting the effects of changes in climate and land use on water quality and ecosystem conditions.
4b. Develop decision-support tools for managers, policy makers, and scientists to evaluate the effects of changes in climate and human activities on water quality and ecosystems at watershed, state, regional, and national scales.
Important but Not Essential Objectives:
4c. Predict the physical and chemical water-quality and ecosystem conditions expected to result from future changes in climate and land use for selected watersheds.
SOURCE: Design of Cycle 3 of the National Water Quality Assessment Program, 2013-2023: Part 2: Science Plan for Improved Water-Quality Information and Management; January 28 2011.
thrust of Cycle 3, which the committee supports. Objective 4a is essentially a study of how to enhance existing water-quality models. Without suitable models, the ability to gain understanding and forecast with greater precision is jeopardized. Models like SPARROW and WARP, two NAWQA mainstays, have proven themselves suitable but have to be enhanced to account for dynamic conditions and nonstationarity (Milly et al., 2008). Thus, Objective 4a is essential. Yet models that are as yet untested or even non-existent will likely be required. As an example of the former, a potentially significant quantitative tool for assessing ecological condition is the current effort to quantify the extent and severity of streamflow alteration (Carlisle et al., 2009); understand the relationships among land use, climate change, and streamflow alteration; and quantify relations between stream-flow alteration and biological impairment (Carlisle et al., 2011). Time will tell if this approach has merit, but the work to date appears promising.
Objective 4b, calling for the development, calibration, and validation of decision-support tools, is essential to maintaining and enhancing NAWQA’s policy relevance. Decision-support tools are essential to water quality and water resources management in general. USGS and NAWQA in particular
have not been known for the development of decision-support tools, mainly because it is a new pursuit for the agency. NAWQA should identify clients for which it can develop and test decision support tools. Evolving SPARROW to be a dynamic rather than a steady state model should be an aspect of this goal.
Objectives That Are Important but Not Essential to Cycle 3
The committee advises that the following objectives are important but not essential to NAWQA’s mission and to its role as a national program. For these objectives, the committee believes that NAWQA should play a contributing role or work closely in partnership with other organizations with complementary capabilities (for additional information, see Chapter 5). These are identified in Boxes 4-3 through 4-6, above.
Goal 1 Status and Trends: Objective c (status and trends of microbial contaminants)
In Cycle 1, indicator bacteria were collected at study unit monitoring sites, but the data were never synthesized at the national level. At the end of Cycle 1, a pilot study was conducted to evaluate the occurrence of indicator organisms in stream and groundwater sites (Francy et al., 2000). This pilot was intended to support and inform larger-scale monitoring of microbial contaminants in Cycle 2, which while supported by NRC (2002), was not pursued because of limited funding.
Although Objective 1c (determine the distributions and trends in microbial contaminants in streams and rivers used for recreation) is a valuable scientific effort, it is not considered core to NAWQA. In NRC (2010), the committee questioned whether NAWQA’s pursuit of microbial contaminants (then, articulated as a water-quality stressor in the Science Framework) was within the scope of its vision. The committee reiterates that concern here. Furthermore, assessing the status and trends of microbial contaminants at the scale proposed in the Science Plan is a formidable task. The committee questions whether NAWQA has the capacity to proceed with this objective; this could be a resource-intensive effort, and it may be inappropriate to proceed at the expense of core efforts, given limited funding.
Yet this objective would have consequences if not undertaken. The essence of this goal is a human health issue, the result of which would establish the quality of recreational waters. Not only is the societal benefit clear, but also assessing microbial contaminants can be a highly visible activity for the program, clearly demonstrating program impact. NAWQA needs to examine the costs and benefits of obtaining these data when determining whether to pursue this objective. States have also been monitoring micro-
bial contaminants in streams and rivers used for recreation, with some of the resources for these activities coming from EPA; collaborative opportunities exist. The USGS Energy and Minerals, and Environmental Health Mission Area is a logical partner. Finally, microorganisms have a major impact on the many chemical constituents that are the focus of NAWQA’s core monitoring. The cautionary advice regarding Objective 1c is not to be interpreted as suggesting that NAWQA ignore the role of microbes in biogeochemical processes, for example, the importance of denitrifying bacteria to nitrate levels.
Goal 2 Stressor Effects: Objective “c” (stream processes on nutrient transport)
Objective 2c is intended to determine how nutrient transport through streams and rivers is affected by stream ecosystem processes. This is a relatively specific objective, representing an extension of the Effects of Nutrient Enrichment in Stream Ecosystems topical study in Cycle 2. This is an important but not essential understanding to have, although it is similar to the processes considered of core importance (Objectives 2a and 2b) because it addresses the feedback loops of how ecosystems affect nutrients rather than how nutrients affect ecosystems. If this objective has the same importance as Objectives 2a and 2b and is central to designing NAWQA models, then it needs to be more clearly justified. Other programs are addressing similar objectives (e.g., the National Science Foundation’s STReam Experimental Observatory Network or STREON,10 academics), so this is one of the objectives that may be best addressed in conjunction with other programs in a leadership role.
Goal 3 Multiple Stressors: Objectives “a” (effects of contaminants on stream ecosystems) and “e” (multiple stressors in different regions)
The committee considers Objective 3a to be a secondary objective for NAWQA. The committee recognizes that streams are subjected to multiple stressors, which is an issue of national importance; however, the committee is concerned that the level of effort required to adequately address this problem could consume most of NAWQA’s resources. The scale of studies being proposed is not adequate to assess this problem at a national scale, and the studies proposed are being done by other agencies (e.g., EPA)
10 STREON sites are a subset of the National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). The STREON experiment is designed to study nutrient dynamics in streams across the United States.
and academics. Furthermore, the toxicological laboratory studies proposed seem outside the core mission of NAWQA.
Objective 3e is worthwhile, but the committee considers it to be secondary for NAWQA. The use of structural equation modeling and Bayesian network analysis are innovative and appropriate approaches for trying to understand the relative importance of multiple stressors on aquatic ecosystems. One concern with this objective is the scale at which the studies are to be conducted. The Science Plan does not articulate how this work would be used to provide a national assessment.
Goal 4 Future Predictions: Objective “c” (predictions of water quality and ecosystem condition for specific watersheds)
Objective 4c is important to scientific understanding and to policy and decision-making, so a discussion of trade-offs and the need for partnerships is particularly relevant in this case. Predicting changes in water quality and ecosystem conditions in response to changes in climate and land use are relevant in Cycle 3 with its forecasting emphasis. Those issues are being addressed in the modeling conducted per Objective 4a. Hence, the ability of NAWQA to make progress in Objective 4c is dependent on the level of success achieved with Objective 4a and the scale at which the models are developed.
The essence of Objective 4c, while laudable, is ambitious. In the Science Plan, NAWQA has listed watersheds in which these studies would occur, and most importantly, identified specific partners with whom these studies proposed in Objective 4c would be conducted (Table 4-1). The Science Plans notes that “within each study area, the study will focus on a crucial issue which will be identified by one of NAWQA’s partners.” Furthermore, the Science Plan mentions the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as critical partners in all objectives in Goal 4. The committee agrees that working with partners in data-rich watersheds will be essential for accomplishing this objective. This objective was placed in this category because the committee acknowledged the need for partnerships and that NAWQA does not necessarily have to lead these efforts.
The Science Plan is not clear about what “ecosystem conditions” will be considered per this objective, although a hypothetical example is given in the text that outlines a model that forecasts nutrient transport to Chesapeake Bay under different climate and land use scenarios. That seems a realistic modeling objective, but forecasting other “ecosystem conditions” (e.g., macroinvertebrate populations, primary productivity) does not; hence the committee’s ability to further evaluate this objective was limited by a lack of clarity in what is meant by “ecosystem conditions.”
TABLE 4-1 Potential Study Areas and Primary Partnerships Proposed in Objective 4c of the Cycle 3 Science Plan
|Basin study areas||Primary Partnerships|
|Chesapeake Bay||Chesapeake Bav Program|
|Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force,|
|Mississippi River||Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium|
|Great Lakes Restoration Initiative,|
|Great Lakes||Great Lakes Commission|
|SOURCE: Design of Cycle 3 of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program, 2013-2023: t 2: Science Plan for Improved Water-Quality Information and Management.|
Objectives That Need Further Justification in Cycle 3
Finally, in a third category, the committee identified an objective for which sufficient information to determine their value to the nation and their place within NAWQA is lacking, particularly when compared to those objectives labeled as “core.”
In the Cycle 2 Topical Study, Mercury in Stream Ecosystems, NAWQA provided data on availability of mercury in streams in targeted areas around the country and how mercury makes its way into fish and other organisms in stream ecosystems (Brigham et al., 2009; Chasar et al., 2009; Marvin-DiPasquale et al., 2009). Objective 1b (determine mercury trends in fish) proposes that NAWQA continue this work and expand the effort to capture long-term monitoring of mercury status and trends in fish. Yet it is not clear that NAWQA should expand this work to the scale proposed in Cycle 3.
Should NAWQA choose not to pursue Objective 1b in Cycle 3, there is a clear trade-off in terms of program impact. The Cycle 2 mercury work gained significant public attention; when it was released, the USGS Office of Communications commented on the 2009 mercury study and received 20,000 “tweets” in response and discussion. The public took a particular interest in understanding if fish were safe to eat. Figure 3-2 also shows the uptick in website use when the mercury work was released. Also, further understanding of water-column chemistry and mercury stream dynamics is a valuable scientific pursuit.
Many states collect and analyze fish tissue (Food and Drug Administration standard fillet) from water bodies, over time, to provide consumption advice. For example, the state of New York has been analyzing fish tissue for mercury since the 1960s, and from 1999 to 2008 it obtained mercury data for more than 12,000 fish; these data document trends in many New
York waters.11 Many other states also collect mercury data.12 If NAWQA does not undertake these activities, the states, other federal agencies, and possibly academia might provide data, and in some cases, significantly more data, than NAWQA.
It is essential that the evaluation of trade-offs continues as the Science Plan evolves and throughout Cycle 3. The discussion presented here has merely scratched the surface and provides only a high-level evaluation of science priorities, because the actual details of Cycle 3 will be developed as part of the Implementation Plan. The NAWQA team should continue to evaluate what is essential for the program and why during Cycle 3, and use this evaluation to guide investments and effort.
The Statement of Task (bullet 4) reads:
Review strategic science and implementation plans for Cycle 3 for technical soundness and ability to meet stated objectives. [Emphasis added]
Although the Implementation Plan for Cycle 3 was not yet prepared at the time of this review, the Science Plan contained a preliminary discussion of how to implement the scientific agenda within. The preliminary design elements of Cycle 3 appear to be technically sound (NRC, 2010 and the discussion below). In the Science Plan, NAWQA proposes to increase coverage (i.e., increase the number of sampling sites) to better meet national needs assessment (Table 4-2, Cycle 3 (planned)). This increased coverage would bring the NAWQA sampling network closer to the number of sites proposed in the original design. But, the design elements for collecting data in Cycle 3 should also be cast in the context of the inevitable trade-offs that will occur to implement the program under current fiscal conditions.
Robust Sampling Plan for Status and Trends Monitoring in Cycle 3
11 The state of New York analyzed data from a New York State Department of Health comprehensive database of mercury levels in New York State sportfish (analyzed as standard fillets). The New York State Department of Health database compiles data sets provided by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York State agency that monitors contaminant levels in fish.
13 The NFSN is defined in the Science Plan as “a national network of monitoring sites that serves as the foundation for systematic tracking of the status and trends of stream and river water quality and for supporting and linking shorter-term studies at smaller scales.” In Cycle 2, this network was referred to as the National Trend Networks.
analysis (primarily linked to Goal 1 objectives) and anchoring more detailed understanding assessments. In Cycle 1 there were approximately 500 NFSN sites, later reduced to approximately 140 sites and then to 113, often with decreased sampling frequency. The Science Plan proposes increasing the NFSN by monitoring sites every year (rather than a rotational schedule of intense monitoring every 2 to 4 years), real-time monitoring of select parameters such as turbidity, and additional sites to fulfill the expanded Cycle 3 goals (the Science Plan proposes increasing from 113 to 313 sites; Table 4-2).
The Science Plan justifies yearly monitoring using the example of diazinon concentrations in stream water responding to bans on the indoor and outdoor use of this pesticide. This provides one of many examples of how increased sampling has resulted in major insights into regulatory actions (Box 4-7), a justification that the committee finds compelling. In this case, the response to and assessment of a policy decision would not have been possible with samples taken at 2- or 4-year intervals. Furthermore, enhanced spatial coverage will facilitate ecological and climate change analysis. Continued status and trends assessment using sites near coastal areas will improve assessment of contaminant loads to hypoxic estuaries. The NFSN shares sites with other national programs, and Cycle 3 proposes to expand these collaborative efforts supported by the National Stream-Quality Accounting Network (NASQAN), the Hydrologic Benchmark Program, the Global Change Program, and the interagency National Monitoring Network. However, the expansion to coastal monitoring sites (sites situated farther into the coastal zone than those intended in Objective 1f) and, particularly, sites for drinking water source evaluation are not essential to NAWQA’s core mission.
Although sampling the NFSN every year appears necessary to obtain an understanding of policy actions, the Science Plan does not provide adequate justification for adding the number of sampling sites that have been proposed, 313. Given the cuts that were made to the program in Cycle 2 to the point that the network is significantly reduced compared to original size, the committee believes that there is a need for additional sites. One indicator is that the SPARROW model was originally calibrated in 1992 with approximately 500 surface water sites that, at that time, were the combination of NAWQA and NASQAN surface water networks. In testimony to this committee, NAWQA scientists noted that calibration of the updated SPARROW modeling efforts is becoming more and more difficult because of the loss of sampling sites and the corresponding impact on model prediction error. (The use of other agency data is alleviating some of this difficulty, see Chapter 5.) However, a justification for the number of sites to be added and the criteria that will be used for choosing which sites to add are critical. Some analysis is needed of what would be gained by adding
TABLE 4-2 A Summary of NAWQA Program Design by Cycle Showing the Evolution of Program Design Since 1991
|Cycle 1||Cycle 2||Cycle 3 (planned)|
|Number of Study Units (SUs) or Integrated Watershed Studies
|51 (SU)||42 (SU); transition to Major River Basins and Principal Aquifers beginning in 2004||20 (IWS)a|
|Number of Multi-year, Regional Assessments||n/a||n/a||8 Major River
19 Principal Aquifers
|8 Major River Basins; 19 Principal Aquifers||8 Major River
24 Principal Aquifer
|Number of Regional Synoptic Studies||n/a||n/a||n/a||n/a||10-20|
|Number of surface water sampling sites in Fixed Site Monitoring Network||505||145||84||113||313b|
|Sampling frequency of fixed surface water sampling sites||One-third of SUs sampled intensively every 3 years with 18-30 samples per site per year, only one-fourth of sites continued to be sampled after-intensive period ended||6-30 samples per year (most sites sampled 8 times per year), all years||6-26 samples per year (most sites sampled 6 times per year), all years||6-26 samples per year (most sites sampled 16 or more times per year), with most sites monitored 1 out of every 4 years||18-24 samples per year, all years|
|Number of aquatic ecology sitesc||416||125||75||58
(6 sites are ecology-only)
|Sampling frequency of aquatic ecology sites||At least once; subset of sites were sampled annually during 3-year high-intensity phase||Annually, beginning 2002||Annually (biennially for fish), 2005-2006||Every 2 years (invertebrates and algae annually at reference sites)||Annually|
|272 networks, 6,307 wells||137 networks, 3,698 wells||170 networks, 6,450 wells|
|Additional studies||High Plains Aquifer study||Topical Studies; Source Water Quality Assessments||Regional Synoptic Studies; Intensive Studies;d Regional Groundwater Studies;e Local Groundwater Studiesf|
a IWS can be considered surface water focused “study units” where an emphasis on understanding hydrologic linkages bewteen contaminant sources and transport both in surface water and groundwater are studied. NAWQA plans for 1-2 IWS in each Cycle 2 Major River Basin. The IWS will consist of core assessment activities but will also be customized to address location conditions.
b Includes 70 drinking-water intakes, with 20 on streams and 50 on reservoirs.
c The ecology sites are included in the total number of surface water sampling sites.
d Regional Synoptic Studies are short-term, targeted water-quality assessments of specific regional and (or) water-qulality conditions that generally overlie one or more IWS areas. Intensive Studies are interdisciplinary studies ranging in scale from individual stream reaches to small watersheds and are planned to be nested within the IWS. Both are surface-water focused.
e Regional Groundwater Studies are nested within Principal Aquifers and designed to contribute to assessment of status and trends at the regional to national scale and also, by the use of regional flow models, insights into regional groundwater contributions of water and contaminants to streams.
f Local Groundwater Studies mimic Cycle 1 and 2 Flow System Studies and are designed to improve understanding of groundwater quality at a more specific, local flow-path scale. The Intensive Studies and Local Groundwater Studies will be co-located and nested within Regional Groundwater Studies and the IWS and are intended to provide insights regarding surface water and groundwater interactions.
The Importance of Increased Sampling
Beginning in the mid-1990s, NAWQA collected samples and probed the presence of the insecticide diazinon in an urban stream. Samples were collected annually, rather than on the 4-year rotational sampling design commonly employed by NAWQA during Cycle 2. NAWQA continued sampling as diazinon was phased out for both indoor and outdoor residential use in the early 2000s, and developed a reliable time-series model to assess long-term changes in diazinon concentrations as residential use declined. The model showed a rapid water-quality response to eliminating outdoor uses in 2002 and a continued decline in diazinon concentration through 2004. NAWQA then reanalyzed the same data using only the information that would have been available if the 4-year rotational sampling design had been employed, i.e., if the model was based on sampling every fourthyear. The resulting trend indicated an increase in diazinon in streams through 2004, rather than the decrease in concentration that had actually occurred. If NAWQA had not sampled annually, then the effectiveness and environmental benefits of the regulatory decision to phase out diazinon would have been called into question.
SOURCE: Modified from NRC, 2010.
different numbers or some combinations of sites, with clear explanation of the criteria used for those choices.
Furthermore, with the basic study design changes since Cycle 1, the 313 sites used under the proposed study design may not be the most appropriate for the design and objectives of Cycle 3. The committee has a similar concern regarding groundwater sampling design; there is insufficient information to evaluate whether the number of sites (3,000 monitoring wells, 2,500 domestic wells, and 700 public wells) is too few or too many to meet the Cycle 3 objectives. NAWQA is correctly mindful of maintaining sites where long-term trend data have been collected, and this commentary is not to be interpreted as discontinuing these valuable sites. However, given the planned emphasis on modeling in Cycle 3 it is important that the design corresponds to this emphasis.
NAWQA used both a linear programming approach and an expert judgment based on semiquantitative analysis to select the reduced number of study units at the beginning of Cycle 2. When used in conjunction, these approaches ensured that the Cycle 2 status and trends network would account for at least 50 percent of the nation’s drinking water use,14 a cross-
14 When completed, the final group of study units accounted for 61 percent of the national drinking water use.
section of the nation’s hydrologic settings and ecological regions, the top 10 regions representing major contaminant sources (urban, agriculture, and natural), and major aquifer systems. The study units were prioritized based on these criteria, and those not evaluated as top priority were revisited to ensure that they did not possess characteristics that would warrant their inclusion in the priority list. These approaches are discussed extensively in NRC (2002); the 2002 NRC committee concluded that these approaches were “commendable.”
Following a similar path, NAWQA’s Surface Water Status and Trends Redesign Committee was created in the mid-2000s to modify the Cycle 2 design and operation of networks because of concerns about rising program costs in an environment of stable or declining appropriations. In making recommendations for the redesign, the committee considered the fiscal environment, scientific evidence, and maintenance of established sites with a relatively long trend record, all within the framework of remaining true to the original objectives of the program. The redesign committee made two major recommendations on which NAWQA acted: (1) the program should take full advantage of the use of models to define agricultural status and trends and answer large-scale questions by extrapolation and (2) the program should emphasize the national and regional scales through Major River Basins (NAWQA leadership, personal communication, March 19, 2012).
These efforts and NAWQA’s flexibility during Cycle 2 are commendable, and they can be of use to the program both in the implementation of Cycle 3 and if the program faces similar challenges in the future. NAWQA should determine the number of sampling locations and frequency using a similar process that was used in Cycle 2, adapted to the objectives for Cycle 3, with particular consideration of the certainty required for Cycle 3 modeling efforts. This approach can aid an explicit determination of the budgetary implications of these decisions and options. This is likely the purview of the forthcoming Implementation Plan for Cycle 3, and this advice is to be taken in this context.
In the second letter report, the committee recommended that the NAWQA monitoring and modeling design should reflect a dynamic sampling strategy, overlain on top of a periodic sampling design. By “dynamic,” the committee means a design that is flexible to capture specific events (such as spring melt, or the first few inches of rainfall as runoff) or geographic scales (intensive sampling in a targeted area to capture a specific process). Such flexibility might be needed to provide optimal data for model calibration and validation, or to reduce uncertainty in certain model processes. Because monitoring is expensive, dynamic sampling should be used judiciously and where it will best reduce uncertainty in outputs. This monitoring may be done with collaborators (states, academics, etc.), taking full advantage of real-time measurement technologies.
NAWQA has always used a nested hierarchy of sites, or design elements, in both surface water and groundwater studies to enable spatial and temporal extrapolation. For surface waters, this nesting involves locating smaller watersheds within larger watersheds at different scales by sharing key sites. Nesting groundwater sites spatially and at different depths contributes to a three-dimensional understanding and permits spatial extrapolation. The design proposed in the Science Plan for Cycle 3 is no exception. Another basic design element used by NAWQA is retrospective analysis, compiling historical data, assessments, and insights gained from these analyses. Given its success, NAWQA should continue using nested sites and retrospective analyses of program data, and also data from federal, state, and local partners, to maximize the coverage of their assessments.
Regional Synoptic Studies (RSS) are targeted to address spatial gaps related to contaminant status and trends. The use and addition of RSS sites should be closely evaluated with respect to their necessity in answering regional and national questions and their contribution to model development. Use of sites maintained by other agencies and academic organizations should be explored because such collaboration could help reduce resource requirements and/or enhance the utility of NAWQA data.
Integrated Watershed Studies (IWS) are long-term water-quality assessments and are typically anchored by one or more NFSN sites. These sites are similar to the former study units in concept and represent the reincarnation of these former building blocks in the Science Plan. The committee supports the IWS but recognizes that pursuit might be limited to a pilot phase in the challenging fiscal climate. Potential IWS should be closely evaluated to ensure that the sites selected will clearly contribute to solving regional and national questions and/or meeting key model development needs. Some IWS may be well-suited for developing collaborative support with local, state, and federal agencies, such as EPA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and perhaps even academic research teams.
Intensive Studies (IS) focus on individual small-scale watersheds (or even stream reaches) to address details of hydrologic and/or biogeochemical processes. Because of their scale, IS sites are ideally suited for developing collaborative interactions with local, state, and federal agencies, and academic research teams. NAWQA could very well defer these sites to others and collaboratively use their data. Such sites could, for example, be operated by groups such as the Toxics Substances Hydrology Program, the Global Change Program, or non-USGS programs like the National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).15
15 The National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network is a research instrument consisting of infrastructure distributed across the United States designed to conduct continental-scale ecological research.
With respect to groundwater, Cycles 1 and 2 focused on shallow groundwater, or younger, recently recharged waters. Cycle 3 proposes to build on this assessment and add further observations of deeper ground-waters within Principal Aquifers with the focus being on drinking water. The Principal Aquifer Assessments will be the primary unit for groundwater studies in Cycle 3 to assess the status and trends of groundwater on a national scale. Regional Groundwater Studies (RGS), nested within a Principal Aquifer, will be collocated with IWS surface-water studies. The third proposed groundwater design element, Local Groundwater Studies, will be nested within RGS and/or may be collocated with surface-water IS, to improve knowledge on specific cause and effect to increase understanding of human activities and natural processes that affect groundwater quality. The committee’s advice to the program regarding mindfulness of the linkage between surface water and groundwater is consistent with this nested design.
The groundwater studies particularly depend upon collaborative efforts with the USGS Groundwater Resources Program, the Water Cooperative Program, the Cooperative Geologic Mapping program (of USGS and their state partners), and other federal and non-federal partners both for data acquisition and modeling input data. These groundwater design elements and the addition of new sites should be carefully evaluated for their contribution to answering regional and national questions at NAWQA’s core, and for their contribution to key model development needs, rather than focusing on more local-scale evaluations.
NAWQA has used a wide array of approaches to communicate findings, from press releases to congressional briefings, peer-reviewed publications, and the program website. These efforts are directed by the NAWQA Communications Coordinator, an important role within the program. The committee has noted that these efforts are an accomplishment of the program (Chapter 3, Appendix C). Yet several communication challenges exist and are discussed below.
NAWQA has performed three Customer Satisfaction Surveys in the past 12 years, and each has had a slightly different format.16 In the two earlier surveys NAWQA learned that users favor downloadable graphics; as a result the 2006 Pesticide Circular invested significant resources into developing downloadable graphics. NAWQA also discovered that 50 percent of their users are “technical” or use the models and more technical
16 The first Customer Satisfaction Survey was in 2000, probing the usefulness of a specific product, The Quality of Our Nation’s Waters—Nutrients and Pesticides (USGS, 1999). The second and third were both of a more general format and were conducted in 2004 and 2010.
components of the program’s output. And of the overall audience, 80 percent found the fact sheets (which are geared to the non-technical audience; see Appendix C) useful, meaning the NAWQA fact sheets resonate with a broader audience than originally thought.
Results from the 2010 survey indicated that 90 percent of NAWQA stakeholders found the use of “email blasts” and the NAWQA website (in terms of navigation and relevance) effective. Yet, the majority of NAWQA stakeholders access the website only occasionally. NAWQA stakeholders identified sediment and contaminants of emerging concern as the two biggest information gaps in the program. The majority (95 percent) of stakeholders prefer electronic copies of NAWQA program documents. NAWQA program video casts (CoreCasts) are the least used product, and few respondents were interested in social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. Yet audience response indicates that if results are easy to understand, video podcasts are an effective means of presenting scientific information (Moorman et al., 2011). Most respondents do not use the NAWQA data warehouse (P. Hamilton, personal communication, October 26, 2010). NAWQA stakeholders indicated satisfaction with the program website, but the majority visit the site only “occasionally” (Figure 4-2).
NAWQA does, informally, measure success and feedback on a more frequent basis than Customer Satisfaction Surveys. This includes monitoring the number of website hits, the number of requests for products at the time of release, and attendance at briefings during product launches, and collecting media coverage. However, this tracking is sporadic and lacks a structured approach and cataloging system. Thus, an opportunity exists. Working collaboratively and taking full advantage of expertise in the USGS Office of Public Affairs, NAWQA should establish a formal mechanism to evaluate the success and effectiveness of all the elements in its public relations portfolio and adapt public relations efforts as needed. This would be helpful not only in directing the communication efforts of the program but also in tracking and illustrating the importance of NAWQA. Indeed, the 2010 Customer Satisfaction Survey indicated that approximately 45 percent of those accessing NAWQA data use it in policy development (Figure 4-3). This is a critical piece of information, and NAWQA needs to know more.17 Also shown by this survey was that some users of NAWQA information are dissatisfied with that information (Figure 2-14). Additional insights into the reasons for the dissatisfaction would be useful to the program.
17 NAWQA’s Customer Satisfaction Survey in 2000 showed a similar result (46 percent of NAWQA stakeholders used NAWQA information for “policy development and decision-making”) but, given the differences in the two surveys, the committee is reluctant to compare results from the two.
Beyond formal tracking of communication efforts, multiple tools are needed to capture the impact of NAWQA products and information. For example, this might include a quantitative bibliometric analysis of publications or a formal assessment of website access and downloads, building on the information in Figure 3-1 of this report. Currently, one of the primary mechanisms for tracking program impact is a document titled The National Water-Quality Assessment Program—Science to Policy and Management. This document is available to the public through a live link on the NAWQA website’s home page and is frequently updated by NAWQA personnel. Testimony in the document is a valuable indicator of program impact; indeed, information from the document is sprinkled throughout this report. However, NAWQA should further highlight this document or the information contained therein, perhaps with a designated web page on program impact, to emphasize the value of NAWQA information to a variety of users. An opportunity also exists to dovetail this type of information with that gleaned from a more formal mechanism in order to track the success and impact of the program.
In presentations to the committee, NAWQA leadership indicated a continued commitment to the NAWQA website, specifically promoting its availability such as through product-releases and links to related websites and organizations. This is a commitment the committee supports. The committee also supports continued development of innovative web-based dissemination tools such as video podcasts. Although the 2010 survey indicates they are not widely viewed, video podcasts are a new tool and the survey is only one assessment of their success. A more formalized mechanism for tracking the NAWQA public relationship portfolio will further
determine the utility of these and other web-based efforts. Given the explosion of social media, the sense of the committee is that video podcasts are worth pursuing, when appropriate.
The committee acknowledged NAWQA’s data warehouse and other tools to bring raw water-quality data to the public as an accomplishment in Chapter 3. However, the data warehouse is not nearly as user-friendly as, for example, the SPARROW Decision Support System interface (Box 4-1). Perhaps this is the reason that the Customer Satisfaction Survey respondents rarely use the data warehouse. The volume of data and the associated supporting data and metadata continue to expand exponentially, and NAWQA needs to ensure that it has a process for keeping up with these data and providing them to users (within and outside the agency) in a coherent manner. The data warehouse interface design should be evaluated and improved, with significant user input as to what should be included and how it should be presented. It will also need constant updating and adjusting. Although the committee considers development of the data warehouse to be an accomplishment, further efforts to improve the data warehouse interface are needed.
NAWQA should also look for innovative ways to ensure that data interpretation, synthesis, and publication take place in a timely manner. The committee acknowledges the difficulty of this task given the sheer size of the datasets that NAWQA scientists publish, the intense yet valuable USGS peer-review process, and resource constraints. Suggestions include the use of postdoctoral scientists, internship students, interagency collaborators, or the addition of staff dedicated to this endeavor. Perhaps increasing the availability of NAWQA data through the Internet would suffice, while the more time-intensive efforts (i.e., interpretation, synthesis, and publication) continue. Timely interpretation, synthesis, and release of NAWQA results is critical. NAWQA data used in these results should continue to be delivered to the public via an improved public database.
The committee believes it is critical to identify and document the cases where NAWQA data and analysis have influenced policy and decision making. Ultimately, tracking impact will allow NAWQA to demonstrate significance and the return on the nation’s investment. Making a slice of this information available to the public could attract new users. A unified strategy for the timely preparation, release, and subsequent tracking of the impact of NAWQA information and products is needed. The committee realizes an effort such as this will require resources during a time when resources are stretched thin and encourages the use of the USGS Office of Public Affairs, when appropriate. The benefit of this exercise will far outweigh the associated challenges.
In an ideal world, there would be sufficient resources to implement the Cycle 3 Science Plan. Recognizing that some objectives are more directly related to NAWQA’s core functions than others, the committee believed it important to parse the Science Plan into what components are essential, need further justification, and are important but not essential to NAWQA’s overall mission and goals. There are consequences of failing to implement the Science Plan in its entirety. For example, some of the activities surrounding the important but not essential objectives could be viewed as more policy relevant, intellectually challenging, and professionally satisfying than many of the activities associated with the essential objectives. This may have consequences as to the quality, productivity, and morale of the workforce. The impact of not studying all the process-oriented objectives in Goals 2 and 3 may limit the full development and accuracy of the models, because those processes may not be well characterized by current models. Objectives of least importance are those that could be addressed by others (states, academia, etc.) or are very regional in scale. Not addressing these objectives could mean they are never addressed.
Finally, the committee recognizes that this Science Plan and NAWQA itself will continue to adapt to change and some of the objectives could be phased in or addressed later in the decade. Other opportunities may arise to implement objectives through innovative collaborations with the many partners within USGS, the federal government, states, academe, and nongovernmental organizations. Given the likelihood that NAWQA will have insufficient funding to proceed with the full scope of the Cycle 3 Science Plan, these opportunities should be actively identified and pursued.