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FCW : August 15, 2016
14 August 15, 2016 FCW.COM The federal government does not know how much water Americans used this week, this month or even this year. Its most recent account of water consumption and availability covers 2010, before Texas entered a four-year drought (which has since ended) and before California’s drought crisis even began. The problem is data. The most com- prehensive analysis of the nation’s water consumption, compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey, is released at painfully slow intervals with sizable gaps. The 2010 data was released in a 2014 report. The agency relies almost solely on state-collected figures, often gathered via mail-in forms, and relates to infor- mation that can be hard to pin down. Figuring out groundwater withdrawals from high-capacity wells in Wiscon- sin, for instance, can come down to guessing how thirsty a cow might be. Robert Smail, a water supply spe- cialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, acknowledged that there is a “range of precision” in the water data his state collects. “About 6 percent of the high-capac- ity wells in the state do report dairy usage, but they don’t have meters so they measure it based on an estima- tion of how big their herd is or how many cows they have,” he said. The federal government has never put a priority on water data. In 2003, the Government Accountability Office noted that national water availability and use had “not been comprehen- sively assessed in more than 30 years.” That’s a big policy problem, said Charles Fishman, a water policy expert and author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.” He calls the federal water data system “ridiculously primitive.” “We are facing a whole set of very important and very expensive water problems: what systems to repair and replace, what technology to use, which water users to tap for help and to pay for what needs to be done, even what problems to tackle most urgent- ly,” he said. “We make decisions about water every day using old information or deeply inadequate information or even using educated guesses. That’s irresponsible and unnecessary.” Lawmakers have sought to change the situation. The Science and Engi- neering to Comprehensively Under- stand and Responsibly Enhance (SECURE) Water Act of 2009 endeav- ored to update the landscape of water data in the U.S. Guided by the law and the $12 million it promised to the agency, USGS officials launched a program that is among the biggest efforts to improve water data in the country’s history. The agency created the Water Use Data and Research program and last year doled out $26,000 per state to help officials write plans for improv- ing their water data. Drafts were due in June. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and one of the senators who introduced and championed the SECURE Water Act, said, “Communities across the United States are facing extraordinary water challenges, especially across the West. [The law] has helped communities plan for and respond to these chal- lenges, including in the Yakima Basin in my home state of Washington.” But she added that this is only the beginning. “Building on this foundation, we must continue to modernize and improve federal programs and advance water science and data, which are key to transforming water management and empowering com- munities to build a more water resil- ient future,” Cantwell said. HOW IT WORKS Water resources are being stretched thin in drought-riddled parts of the U.S., but the government doesn’t have the data it needs to monitor consumption and plan for the future BY SARA JEROME What feds must do to get a handle on water data 0815fcw_014-024.indd 14 7/27/16 8:36 AM
July 30, 2016
August 30, 2016