Jay Famiglietti tells it like it is

Wanted: Vision and Leadership to Ensure a Sustainable Water Future for America

Posted by Jay Famiglietti of University of California, Irvine in Water Currents on July 2, 2012


Animation of groundwater water storage changes in California from the NASA GRACE mission. Video courtesy of NASA/UCI/JPL.
I recently wrote a piece for the Hydrology Newsletter of the American Geophysical Union — the international professional society of Earth and Space scientists based in the United States — and I thought that the modified version presented here would be important to share with the readership of Water Currents.
Here’s the set-up. A critical problem that we face in the U.S. is that as a country, we lack the vision and leadership to clearly articulate our fundamental water issues, and to implement a comprehensive plan to tackle them. As usual, my focus is on water quantity for large regions such as nations and continents, which is my area of expertise.
I’m talking about big picture issues here – the forest, not the trees – because many of our local, state, and federal agencies are doing a superb job with their targeted missions.  The USGS, NASA, NOAA, DOE, the National Weather Service, the Army Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation, etc., are all doing great things with the limited resources that they have.
But we need to step up and recognize that there’s a lot that we don’t know about water availability, and even more that we can’t predict. The general public and our elected officials need to know the issues so that we can make the investments that we need today, in order to propose technologically advanced, science-based management and solution strategies for tomorrow. The forest is in trouble, and the trees are already dying off.  It’s time to act.
To illustrate my point, here are a few of what I’ve been calling the ‘unfortunate realities’ of modern hydrology. I’ve been elaborating on these this year in a series of lectures, called theBirdsall-Dreiss Distinguished Lectureship, sponsored by the Geological Society of America.  The lecture tour has provided a rare opportunity to visit with colleagues in the U.S. and abroad, and to construct a holistic picture of the water landscape of the 21st century.
Unfortunate Reality #1We don’t know how much fresh water we have on land. Not stored as groundwater, or surface water, as soil moisture, or as snow.
How much snow do we have in the Rocky Mountains right now? We have a guess, but we can’t really measure it. So…we don’t know.
How much groundwater is stored beneath California’s Central Valley, and how much of it is potable?  Well, we don’t really know that either.
Believe it. It’s true. And not just in the U.S., but all over the world.  Many estimates, for example, of national groundwater supplies, are simply guesses based on ad hoc assumptions.  Others are reports of water storage in man-made reservoirs.
If you have any notion of how we can address sustainable water management as a nation, without knowing how much water is actually there, please let me know.
Unfortunate Reality #2. Our knowledge of Earth’s water environment at the surface and shallow subsurface remains appallingly insufficient. We know very little about the topography that we can’t see beneath the water surface, for example, the bathymetry of hundreds of thousands of river channels, floodplains, and lakes.
Nor do we have any idea how deep our soils are, at least at larger regional, national, and global scales. While two-dimensional maps of global hydrogeology are now available, the third dimension, as well as basic aquifer parameters, remain a mystery for large areas like nations and continents.

Two-dimensional map of global hydrogeology from WHYMAP, https://whymap.org
Why is this important? Well for one, we need the information to quantify how much water we have.  Second, we need to include its digital description in our computer models so that we can better predict floods, drought and water availability in the future.
How, for example, can we predict global change impacts on groundwater resources, if we can’t realistically represent the characteristics of the soil and groundwater reservoirs in our computer models?  The answer is of course, that we cannot.
Unfortunate Reality #3. Our nation’s hydrologic modeling assets — the computer models that we use to understand and forecast water availability, flooding, and drought —  are simply not up to the task of addressing our most pressing societal issues of food, energy, water, and national security. We are behind where we need to be, and we are falling behind other nations.
Don’t get me wrong: we are making slow, steady progress. Our computer models are running at higher resolution, with greater fidelity, and are providing unprecedented insights into issues of water quality and quantity.  But the list of what these tools can’t, yet need to do, is long, and current levels of investment won’t get us there any time soon.
If you thought that we had state-of-the-art, comprehensive computer models that could seamlessly ingest satellite observations and measurements on the ground to help monitor and forecast snowpack, river flows, soil water and groundwater levels; or that could accurately reproduce the realities of water landscape that are emerging from satellite programs like the GRACE mission…well, we don’t.

Groundwater depletion in India from GRACE. Image courtesy of NASA/UCI/JPL. After Rodell et al., 2009, Nature.
Let’s face facts. We can’t really manage water sustainably now, nor can we predict water availability in the future, without dealing with these issues first.   It is absolutely essential that we determine how much water we have, as snow, surface water, soil moisture and groundwater;  how much water we need, for humans and for the environment; and how these quantities will change with time, as climate and population changes, and as we adapt to a resource-limited future.  We need to move forward with core observations and models that can utilize them to answer these questions, to advance prediction and to help prepare for the future.
How can we accomplish this?  Since we lack a national water czar, policy, or agency in the U.S., much of what I’m writing about here has fallen through the cracks for too long.  There’s no one there to take ownership.
Consequently, vision and leadership are sorely needed.  We need champions.  Our elected officials must embrace this sustainable water challenge through awareness, commitment, and focus.
Research leadership, from our funding agencies through communities of investigators, must also take responsibility for making it happen.  Communication of key results and research needs to elected officials and to the general public, though atypical for this group, is becoming increasingly important to heighten awareness
There’s a grand challenge on the table.  We must aggressively tackle the frontiers of:
1) Exploration and mapping of Earth’s shallow crustal water environment, including its freshwater bathymetry, soils, hydrogeology, its water quantity and quality, and synthesis of available information.
2) Advanced digital water data and information system capabilities for archiving and disseminating these data, with open, easy access to all information.  New policies for sharing environmental data across political boundaries are also required.
3) Development of next-generation computer models that readily exploit this new information, as well as capabilities to evolve with rapid advances in computer power and the structure of the internet.
4) Clear pathways to transfer newly developed tools, observations and research results to water managers and practitioners, environmental decision makers, and a plan for communication to the public.
National research programs, like NSF’s EarthCube, and innovative activities led by hydrology’s university consortium, CUASHI, are all part of what could be a national strategy for accelerating the development of advanced monitoring and prediction capabilities for water availability.  Meanwhile, individual teams of principle investigators are making important strides towards synthesizing available information on continental and global-scale water availability.

Estimated groundwater storage in Africa as a) depth in mm, with recharge as solid lines for comparison; and b) volume by country with error bars. From MacDonald et al., 2012, Environmental Research Letters..
However, we cannot escape the reality that our national investment in arguably our most fundamental resource lags embarrassingly far behind similar investments in other disciplines (weather and climate prediction; space exploration) or resources (energy and minerals).  We must plan for major, new investments in the tools and resources — namely models, observations, and data products and information systems — to enable the critical understanding and solution strategies that society demands, and that the research community is capable of delivering.
Finally, communication and public education are essential to achieve broad awareness and consensus.  People care deeply about water.  The environment requires it to maintain its health and function.  Both will be best served only when our critical water issues are elevated to the level of everyday understanding.  Only then can we make a complete commitment to a sustainable water future for America.