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

By: Jay Famiglietti
Published: 7-2-2012
National Geographic

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.

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Published 1 year, 9 months ago under Rivers to Oceans