Changing Planet

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

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 the Birdsall-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 #1. We 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,

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.

Jay Famiglietti is a hydrologist and Senior Water Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is also a professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, where he was Founding Director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling. Jay's research group uses satellites and develops computer models to track changing freshwater availability around the globe. Jay is a frequent speaker and an active science communicator. His team's research is often featured in the international news media, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, CNN/Fareed Zakaria GPS, Al Jazeera, National Public Radio, BBC Radio and others. Jay also appears in the water documentary called 'Last Call at the Oasis.'
  • […] Central Valley by enough water to fill Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir. Now, in a new post for National Geographic, Famiglietti lays out what we don’t know about the dynamics and […]

  • claire

    my fear is that if it is known where and how much water there is, every last drop will be comodified. we should take this momentum for wanting to protect our water for ourselves,agriculture, and future generations and begin mandating more responsible practices with the water we already know about, and know is polluted or wrongly-used

  • Louis J

    Jay: You’re looking for solutions on a very broad scale; in the long run I concern myself with America. In the short run, my concern is Las Vegas, Nevada where we depend on Lake Mead for 90% of our water, with the current drought and heat we are losing more to evaporation and nearing the point of no return which means no water from Lake Mead. I have addressed this and hope to announce it very soon; the system I have created collects water five different ways from rain, snow pack, run off from the culverts, condensation and thermal dynamics. Because this is an election year, I am withholding the method, the means of financing and collection area until the proper time. However, you are a hydrologist with insights and experience beyond my ability, we have the same interests and I would like to discuss them with you, understanding my desire for momentary confidentiality. In the meantime please go to my sight make sure you pull up the tab on drought. I can be reached at 702 743-8297

  • Allan Sanford

    I have a Patent Pending on a proven technology that will

    1. Desalinate water inside a pipeline, making the building of billion dollar desal plants unnecessary.

    2. Be able to transport the water hundreds or thousands of miles ECONOMICALLY, which is not possible with present pumping equipment and generate green electricity by installing turbines inside the pipes. This is the true problem that no amount of conservation, reuse or figuring out how to better collect rain or how to use our ground water resources better, will solve. Desalination is the only stable, long term solution to the water crisis worldwide but without the ability to move that water to Nebraska or Kansas or even parts of the states that do desalinate water but can’t get it to their own residents, it is chained to a small area around the desalination plant because of the high cost of moving it.

    3. Insert turbines inside the pipes to generate green electricity.

    My technology has no moving parts, no pumps, needs no fuel of any kind.

    Rational people might think that, for example, the Governor of California would take a look at what I have communicated to him twice. Nope. Once I got no response and the second time I got a printed, unsigned form letter thanking me for my suggestion. The mayors of at risk cities around the country have not responded either, to my suggestion that they have the material on the technology evaluated by their own engineers. Never has happened.

  • Louis James Baker

    Jay: on july 4th 2012, I replied to your invitation, to date i have never received a reply. As a conservative I understand the need and value of water availability for the future, yet few people think this vital resource can be taken from us or understand the consequences like what happens when a catastrophic event ten times worse then the Oklahoma Dust Bowl takes place, if we cannot manage our water supplies, understand the population explosion or the additional demands on our resources,we are likely to see history repeat itself. I like to believe that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure,I applaud your efforts. I suggested you check out my website 2 1/2 years ago. If you haven’t given up hope, wanting to contribute to mankind and the future of America, contact me, water is essential few people understand they are dead without it.. My phone number is 702 808-1586 web

  • Anna Weber

    America’s founding values and the leadership traits that embodied them gave rise to the greatest nation on earth. It is through the resurrection of these essential qualities in every American—and a rejection of the pervasive attitude of entitlement and culture of complaint—that the spirit of America will once again empower its citizens and inspire the world. Chris Salamone works to improve the lives of young people around the world through his many philanthropic endeavors. To this end, he functions as chairman of the Lead America Foundation and extends a considerable amount of financial support to fund the education of 300 children in Haiti. As the young leaders of tomorrow, you have the passion and energy and … a global vision.

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