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Opportunities to Improve the USGS NAWQA Program - A summary

In 1999, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)/National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program asked the National Academy of Science-National Research Council's (NRC) Water Science and Technology Board to convene a committee of experts to provide guidance on the continued development of NAWQA. This was the fifth time the NRC has provided such assistance since the conception of NAWQA in 1985. The committee's task was "to provide guidance to the U.S. Geological Survey on opportunities to improve the NAWQA program." The statement of task also requested an assessment of general accomplishments and identified four specific technical areas for review. This review came as NAWQA was completing Cycle I, its first decade of nationwide monitoring, and refining plans for its second decade- Cycle II. The NRC Committee assessed the past accomplishments as background for a focused review of the evolving Cycle II plans, to provide recommendations on "opportunities to improve NAWQA." The findings are presented in the 2001 NRC report, Opportunities to Improve the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Assessment Program. Most of the report focuses on technical analysis and recommendations, but also discusses various programmatic issues as needed. Some recommendations go beyond NAWQA's responsibilities and/or capabilities, and these should be addressed to the broader programs of the USGS. The following information summarizes a few major conclusions and recommendations from the report.

From its earliest concept, to the current plans for the future, three goals drive NAWQA's design and development-Status, Trends, and Understanding. Cycle I focused on determining the Status of water quality in the United States. Cycle II must now move beyond Status to the assessment of water-quality Trends and further our Understanding of the "why" and "how" behind water quality. All three goals are central to the charge that Congress and policy makers have placed on NAWQA since its pilot-scale origins in the 1980s. However, Trends and Understanding are the crux of the questions originally posed by Congress - "Is the quality of water across the nation getting better or worse? and Why?"

In the last decade, NAWQA has evolved from a sound concept to a mature program of exemplary quality and importance. NAWQA has led the way, to begin the critical, sound scientific assessment of the quality of the Nation's waters. With its initial success, NAWQA now carries with it high expectations from many other Federal, State, and local agencies, as well as policy makers and legislators. In the Committee's view the design and management of NAWQA and its past, present, and future success, is intertwined with resolving an ongoing struggle for program balance. Some examples. NAWQA must continue to work to find the appropriate balance of resources among its three primary goals of Status, Trends, and Understanding as it enters Cycle II. The Committee fully expects that NAWQA will continue to exhibit foresight, taking a lead in studying emerging water-quality issues, yet avoid expending unwarranted resources on a "contaminant of the day" approach. As discussed below, while NAWQA must strive to be responsive to water-quality policy and regulatory needs, it cannot be driven by, nor controlled by these needs- epitomizing the struggle of doing "good science" in the public policy arena. NAWQA is providing important information to the non-scientific community, for resource management, as well as policy development and assessment, yet it must first and foremost stay true to its scientific design if it is to meet its goals. The Committee hopes it has reflected this need for balance in its findings and recommendations.

National Scope-Representativeness of NAWQA

National coverage and representativeness are issues fundamental to the success of NAWQA. The Committee was very concerned with how representative of the Nation's waters NAWQA would be with the ongoing reduction in study units (SUs). Will this reduction prohibit NAWQA's ability to make inferences about "national" water quality? Cycle I was planned for 59 SUs, but 8 were not initiated because of budget constraints. Continuing budget constraints have dictated that the number of SUs in Cycle II be reduced to 42 (plus the High Plains Ground Water study). Despite the significant reduction in Cycle II, the Committee concluded that NAWQA will still maintain good coverage of the Nation's stream and ground water resources, largely because of the commendable, rigorous planning effort it employed. However, representativeness issues should continue to be explored and documented in Cycle II.
While the Committee concluded that NAWQA has done an exemplary job of downsizing to 42 planned SUs for Cycle II, it cannot continue to downsize and still be considered a national water quality assessment. Though NAWQA could certainly be redesigned, this would likely undo the basis for trends assessment, and waste a decade or more of effort. To address long-term trends in water quality across the Nation, we must recognize the importance of long-term support to allow for consistency in the data gathering and analyses efforts.

Independence-Cooperation And Program Design

NAWQA is playing a vital role in balancing its good science with responsiveness to policy and regulatory needs. It has long been a policy maxim that good water-quality monitoring is needed to assess status, trends, and understanding, and that such monitoring is best performed by a science agency rather than a regulatory agency. Once such monitoring is tied to regulators it becomes suspect (i.e., the analogy of the fox guarding the hen-house) and regulatory monitoring typically cannot have the breadth and foresight (nor often any authority) to address emerging water-quality problems. Independent monitoring and data analyses are vital to provide unbiased input to "government performance and review." Congress and the Department of the Interior need to ensure support for such independent science, even when it reports data and information that are unpleasant or unexpected.

In the Committee's view, NAWQA has done an excellent job of establishing cooperative relationships within USGS and with external programs. NAWQA data and information have become widely valued. The use of NAWQA information and the linkages many other organizations continually seek to make with NAWQA are an illustration of the important void that NAWQA has filled in the national scope of water-quality investigations. Many agencies are funding "add-on" studies linked to NAWQA. Such linkages often occur, however, in conjunction with attempts to influence the design of NAWQA or to broaden NAWQA's coverage.

In this regard, NAWQA must stay firm in its design to meet its national goals, and should not change critical design plans to meet the diverse needs of the many Federal, State, and local agencies that seek to participate in the program or utilize its data and information. Thus, NAWQA must maintain its careful balancing act to uphold its design principles that draw other agencies to NAWQA, while finding ways to collaborate that improve NAWQA. Perhaps more importantly,
such collaboration should strive to improve and strengthen other water-related programs to enhance the total knowledge of the Nation's water resources. Other agencies that want to utilize NAWQA or coordinate programs with NAWQA also have a responsibility to fully collaborate with the program (i.e., to "give," not just "take"). As large as NAWQA is, its program resources are too constrained to fully meet its national goals or to provide the information that Congress and other agencies desire

The Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) assessment is an area where some users, such as State cooperators, have suggested that NAWQA should alter designs and do more. This would, in many areas, compromise NAWQA's design. USGS scientists (i.e., other than NAWQA) should support opportunities to use NAWQA analyses, sampling protocols, the SPARROW model, and other tools with their State cooperators for the development of TMDLs. TMDLs, however, are the states' responsibility. NAWQA cannot and should not prepare TMDLs for States. NAWQA resources and scientists should not be diverted to working on TMDLs beyond the data and technical assistance that they can provide to the States.

National Synthesis Priority Issues

The Committee strongly supports the established national synthesis topics-pesticides, nutrients, volatile organic compounds, and trace elements-and commends NAWQA for its groundbreaking work in these areas. The Committee also strongly supports the added priority of ecological synthesis that began late in Cycle I. This represents another important area where NAWQA can make significant contributions.

USGS/NAWQA is in an excellent position to make a meaningful contribution to the debate on which biological indices provide the most meaningful assessments of water-quality conditions. This should be a top priority of the Ecological Synthesis Team. In addition, it is critical to explore quantitative relationships, and potential threshold responses among biotic indices and other measures of water quality.

The Committee also strongly recommends that NAWQA should make sediment in surface waters a future national synthesis topic. While NAWQA may not currently have the sediment data it might desire, nor the resources to fully address this issue, it should do the most it can with the data it has already collected, and plans to collect in Cycle II. Further, USGS should provide a leadership role with other agencies to find collaborative ways to address this important national water-quality issue.

New Contaminants and Approaches For Cycle II

The Committee reviewed proposed additions and changes for Cycle II and deliberated many recommendations. A few are summarized below.

All three groups of pesticides proposed for Cycle II monitoring (important organophosphate insecticides and degradates, several sulfonyl urea herbicides, glyphosate) are appropriate and warranted and should be added. NAWQA should not add pharmaceuticals or additional high-production volume industrial chemicals to the contaminants list until more reliable protocols and methods are validated. These would be better handled by the USGS Toxics Program during the validation period.

Pathogens, Risk Assessment-Toxicology
The Committee strongly supports the addition of waterborne pathogens and indicator microorganisms to the monitoring list for Cycle II. However, NAWQA should reconsider their previous, more detailed design, because waterborne pathogens are of such importance to human health. More detailed efforts might be targeted to a subset of sites to contain costs. The Committee strongly recommends, however, that USGS not get into the problematic area of human health risk assessment or expend resources on ecotoxicology programs.

Modeling Efforts
Despite the continuing importance that this Committee (and past NRC committees) places on the appropriate use of models in NAWQA, a major recommendation is that NAWQA (and USGS water programs in general) redirect its modeling efforts. Many current modeling efforts are rapidly becoming too ambitious, complex, and over-parameterized. NAWQA/USGS should focus on simple, parsimonious process models; i.e., models that are not over-parameterized, and where parameters and mechanistic expressions can relate to available data.

Understanding Cause-And-Effect
At this important juncture, beginning Cycle II, the Committee concludes that the USGS has several major opportunities to advance scientific understanding of factors that affect water-quality conditions-the Understanding goal of NAWQA. However, the Committee is concerned whether or not sufficient staff, resources, and expertise are available to ensure that modeling efforts and targeted studies can be adequately developed and implemented. Fewer well-designed cause-and-effect studies within Study Units may be better than more studies. The Cycle II "Understanding" studies represent a prime area that NAWQA may benefit from cooperative work with other Federal agencies, and particularly with State, local, and academic collaborators.

NAWQA has evolved into an exceptional program. It has significantly contributed to the understanding of the quality of the Nation's waters, providing new knowledge to better manage our vital water resources. This Committee, and nearly all NAWQA users it has interacted with, want to recommend that NAWQA do more, not less-yet NAWQA has already exceeded its resources, exemplified in its redesign for Cycle II. As discussed here and throughout the report, the future success of NAWQA in the water policy environment is entwined with the struggle for balance between its resources and scientific endeavors. Current and future demands for water-quality information already exceed NAWQA's capacity, but hopefully policy makers, Congress, and program managers can strike the necessary balance that will allow NAWQA to continue to provide important water-quality data and information for the Nation.

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