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2. Water

Will there be enough fresh water and where will it come from? The geoscience community provides the knowledge, experience and ingenuity to meet society's demands for natural resources, environmental quality and resilience from hazards. Here we outline the critical water needs of the nation and the world at the outset of the twenty first century and provide policy guidance to grow the economy while sustaining the Earth system.

What Is The Need?
What Are The Policy Recommendations?
Additional Resources
What Is The Need?

Clean, fresh water is essential for life and is our most precious commodity. Only about 2.5% of Earth’s water is fresh water, the rest is salt water. Fresh water comes from lakes, rivers, streams and ground water. Maintaining healthy ecosystems that support these sources is crucial.

Besides providing drinking water, fresh water is harnessed for agriculture, energy, flood control and navigation (Figure 3). The U.S. population has grown from 5.3 million people in 1800 to over 300 million people in 2008 and our thirst for fresh water has grown significantly. The U.S. Climate Change Science Program detailed significant challenges for fresh water management because of climate change. Research and development from the federal government and states has allowed geoscientists and engineers to understand and discover fresh water sources, measure and protect quality and quantity within each source, and understand the effect of climate variability on fresh water resources. It is the state and tribal role to assess and manage their fresh water resources. Geoscientists working within communities, between municipalities and across the nation are needed to understand water quality and quantity within ecosystem boundaries rather than within management boundaries.


Figure 3: Surface water accounts for 79% of fresh water withdrawals and the rest comes from groundwater. On the basis of estimates from 1995, about 70% of withdrawals were returned to surface water bodies. Much less data is available about current water withdrawals and consumption, making water management far more challenging than is necessary. Figure is from “A Strategy for Federal Science and Technology to Support Water Availability and Quality in the United States”, a 2007 report of the President’s National Science and Technology Council.

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What Are The Policy Recommendations?

Fresh Water: Given the critical need for fresh water for a growing population in a changing environment, the geoscience community suggests the following national policy directions.

  • Require a National Water Census to assess water availability, quality and human and environmental uses on a regular basis. Priorities of the census should include:
    • Surface and subsurface water assessments at local, regional and watershed levels.
    • Monitoring of surface and subsurface water quantity and quality. The national monitoring network should be enhanced.
    • Short-term and long-term water resources management and planning for multiple uses.
    • Modeling and assessment of point and non-point sources of contamination.
    • Modeling and assessment of the hydrologic effects of climate change.
  • Establish the U.S. Geological Survey as the lead water science agency for the federal government, to:
    • Ensure integration of water R&D and monitoring for water planning across federal agencies.
    • Ensure that federal initiatives are integrated with regional, state, local and tribal entities that actually manage fresh water resources.
    • Ensure that federal initiatives are focused on the impact of land management on soil and water quality.
  • Ensure that the U.S. Ocean Action Plan of 2004, which includes the Great Lakes, is integrated with other federal initiatives.
  • Increase the use of recycled/reclaimed water through R&D and federal-level incentives for local, state, tribal and regional water managers.
  • Develop a federal water policy that:
    • Emphasizes incentives to more effectively manage water resources;
    • Strengthens watershed-level management and cooperation;
    • Provides regular comprehensive assessments of all water resources.
  • Significantly increase investment in basic research in the geosciences to gain a better understanding of the hydrologic cycle and water resources.
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Additional Resources

Links to references, supplementary, and/or updated information.

Full Report (PDF)

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With a burgeoning human population, rising demand for natural resources and a changing climate, it is critical to more fully integrate Earth observations and Earth system understanding into actions for a sustainable world.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted on June 30, 2009; Last Updated on September 22, 2009


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