Assessing the World of Water

Imagine you were born rich -- so rich that you never had to consider where money comes from.

Imagine you were born rich -- so rich that you never had to consider where money comes from. It flows into your life, and flows out. It the most natural thing in the world. And then, one day, some stranger calls to say your account is overdrawn.

“But that can’t be! I have a huge amount of money,” you exclaim. And the stranger responds: “You HAD a huge amount of money, but you didn’t have an endless supply.”

While water managers in the arid west and other parts of the country know they don’t have an endless supply of water, most Americans turn on their water faucets each day without a thought about where their water comes from.

The National Science and Technology Council believes it’s time for a serious accounting of water availability in the United States today and into the future.

The Subcommittee on Water Availability and Quality, reporting to the council’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, recently released its first report: “Science and Technology to Support Fresh Water Availability in the United States.”

The goal of the subcommittee is to take a close look at water availability on a national level. One of the first steps is to bring together the wealth of information already available. While nearly a dozen federal agencies study water in various ways, the information they collect is not easily shared and therefore doesn’t give a clear picture of the world of water on a national level.

According to the report’s authors, the U.S. has no systematic process to track its water “accounts” or rates of use. In fact, the last time national water availability and use was comprehensively assessed was 25 years ago. A lot of things have changed since then. At the time, the assessment focused on how much water was available for human activity, and estimated how much water was being used. Today, we know that water needs go beyond human activity and include the requirements of the natural environment.

To help plan for the future, water managers need a more accurate and comprehensive assessments of water resources. This will allow them to better set appropriate limits on the amount of water withdrawn, so as not to overtax or endanger the resource. They also need more information on the water needs of ecosystems and on the natural flows of rivers and aquifers, and their interconnection, in order to ensure flows will protect and support the entire ecosystem.

To that end, we need improved methods for tracking changes in the water stored in lakes, rivers, aquifers, ice and snow, and even in the air. New technologies such as remote sensing using microwave radar and microgravity measurements of groundwater are already being used to help better understand water storage changes.

This report describes high-priority science and technology efforts needed to improve the information base for decision making on these issues. The author’s acknowledge that improved information for water assessment and management will require coordinated research, monitoring, and information sharing among federal, state, and local agencies.

The report is available on the Internet at www.ostp.gov/NSTC/html/swaqreport_2-1-05.pdf.

James Laughlin, Editor

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