WASHINGTON -- The United States needs to make a new commitment to research on water resources in order to confront the increasingly severe water problems faced by all parts of the country, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Academies' National Research Council. In particular, a new mechanism is needed to coordinate water research currently fragmented among nearly 20 federal agencies, said the committee that wrote the report.
"Water crises are not confined to western states," said committee chair Henry J. Vaux, professor emeritus and associate vice president emeritus, department of agricultural and resource economics, University of California, Berkeley. He cited as an example the recent conflict between Maryland and Virginia over Potomac River water rights that had to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. To be sure, semiarid western states are still in need of new water supplies for fast-growing populations, a problem that has been complicated by recent drought. And regulation of water levels and flows in the Klamath and Missouri rivers have sparked considerable debate as well. "Decision-makers at all levels of government are going to have to make difficult choices in the coming decades about how to allot limited water supplies, and they need sound science to back them up," Vaux added.
Given the competition for water among farmers, environmental advocates, recreational users, and other interests -- as well as emerging challenges such as climate change and the threat of waterborne diseases -- the committee concluded that an additional $70 million in federal funding should go annually to water research, with the aim of improving the decision-making of institutions that control water resources and better understanding the water-use challenges that lie ahead. The committee noted that overall federal funding for water research has been stagnant in real terms for the past 30 years, and that the portion dedicated to research on water use and related social science topics has declined considerably. For example, while other fields such as the health sciences have seen large funding increases over the last three decades, per capita spending on water-resources research has dropped from $3.33 to $2.44, despite the growing number of water conflicts around the country.
Federal agencies and the states -- to which the federal government has deferred much water-resources research in recent decades -- have tended to focus on short-term research likely to yield more immediate results. But it is long-term, basic research that will provide a solid foundation for applied science a decade from now, the committee said. It urged the federal government to commit one-third to one-half of its water research portfolio to long-term studies.
The government also should improve monitoring of water conditions and levels over the long term, and archive this data, the committee added. In recent years, there have been substantial declines in the measurement of stream flow, groundwater levels, water quality, and water use, the committee found; in some areas measurements have been completely eliminated.
A new entity is needed to coordinate water research at the national level because no structure is in place now that adequately prioritizes research for funding purposes, evaluates progress, or shifts priorities as new challenges arise. Either an existing interagency body, a neutral organization authorized by Congress, or a public-private group led by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) could serve as the coordinating mechanism, the committee said. The coordinating group should regularly advise Congress and OMB, and also provide guidance on the establishment of a new competitive grants program.
The best statement on current research needs, the committee said, can be found in the 2001 Research Council report Envisioning the Agenda for Water Resources Research in the 21st Century. However, the research areas recommended by that report should be re-evaluated as circumstances and knowledge change. The new report identifies a set of principles that can be used to help set priorities in the future. For example, officials should ask whether proposed research is of national significance, and whether it complements the overall research portfolio on water resources. Research projects should involve scientists from multiple disciplines, study systemwide effects, consider uncertainties, and address how humans and ecosystems can adapt to changes in water resources.
The report was sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows. Copies of Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research will be available later this summer from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu.
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