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2. Provide sufficient supplies of water

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

Besides providing drinking water, water is harnessed for agriculture, energy, flood control and navigation (Figure 2). The U.S. population has grown from 5.3 million people in 1800 to over 313 million people in 2012 and our thirst for water has grown significantly. Withdrawals for thermoelectric-power generation and irrigation have decreased since their peaks in 1980, while withdrawals for public supply and domestic uses have intensified. The U.S. Climate Change Science Program identified significant challenges for water management because of climate change. Research and development from the federal government and states has allowed geoscientists and engineers to understand and map water sources, measure and protect quality and quantity within each source, and understand the effect of climate variability on water resources. It is primarily the responsibility of the individual states to assess and manage their water resources.

Geoscientists working within and across societal and political entities are needed to understand and cooperatively manage water resources within watershed, aquifer, and ecosystem boundaries rather than within solely political boundaries.


Figure 2: Surface water accounts for 80 percent of fresh water withdrawals and the rest comes from groundwater. On the basis of estimates from 1995, about 70 percent of withdrawals were returned to surface water bodies. Less data is available about current water withdrawals and consumption, making water management more challenging. Figure is generated from data provided by “Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2005”, a 2009 report by the U.S. Geological Survey.

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What Are The Policy Recommendations?

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

  • Prioritize and enhance the enactment of the Secure Water subtitle of the Public Lands Omnibus of 2009 (Public Law 111-11) Priorities of the Secure Water subtitle include:
    • Surface and subsurface water assessments at local, regional and watershed levels.
    • Monitoring of surface and subsurface water quantity and quality with a focus on enhancing the National Streamflow Information Program and building the National Groundwater Monitoring Network.
    • Modeling and assessment of the hydrologic effects of water use and 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, and local entities that manage water resources.
    • Ensure that federal initiatives are focused on the impact of land management on soil and water quality.
  • Implement the National Ocean Policy of 2010, which includes the Great Lakes, and integrate the policy with other federal initiatives.
  • Increase the use of recycled/reclaimed water through R&D and federal-level incentives for local, state, and regional water managers.
  • Develop water policy that:
    • Emphasizes incentives to more effectively manage and conserve water resources.
    • Strengthens watershed-level management and cooperation.
    • Provides regular comprehensive assessments of water resources.
  • Increase investment in basic research in the geosciences to better understand the hydrologic cycle and water resources.
  • Focus some applied research on emerging water science issues, including:
    • Enhance monitoring and research on emerging contaminants, such as pharmaceuticals, endocrine disruptors and nanoparticles.
    • Consider short-term and long-term water resources management and planning for multiple uses.
    • Improve modeling and assessment of point and non-point sources of contamination.
    • Consider saline water use and advances in desalinization.
    • Improve water conservation and efficiency for water-use processes, including extraction and manufacturing processes
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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 Geoscience Policy.

    Posted on October 17, 2012; Last Updated on Octorber 17, 2012


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