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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.