Water Resources Research

research on water resources

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  • Water Science and Technology


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19447973, 00431397


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research on water resources

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National Academies Press: OpenBook

Confronting the Nation's Water Problems: The Role of Research (2004)

Chapter: 3 water resources research priorities for the future, 3 water resources research priorities for the future.

The pressing nature of water resource problems was set forth in Chapter 1 . The solution to these problems is necessarily sought in research—inquiry into the basic natural and societal processes that govern the components of a given problem, combined with inquiry into possible methods for solving these problems. In many fields, descriptions of research priorities structure the ways in which researchers match their expertise and experience to both societal needs and the availability of research funding. Statements of research priorities also evolve as knowledge is developed, questions are answered, and new societal issues and pressures emerge. Thus, the formulation of research priorities has a profound effect on the conduct of research and the likelihood of finding solutions to problems.

Statements of research priorities developed by a group of scientists or managers with a common perspective within their field of expertise can have a relatively narrow scope. Indeed, this phenomenon has resulted in numerous independent sets of research priorities for various aspects of water resources. This has come about because water plays an important role in a strikingly large number of disciplines, ranging from ecology to engineering and economics—disciplines that otherwise have little contact with each other. Thus, priority lists from ecologists emphasize ecosystem integrity, priority lists from water treatment professionals emphasize the quantity and quality of the water supply, and priority lists from hydrologists emphasize water budgets and hydrologic processes. In recent years, the limitations of discipline-based perspectives have become clear, as researchers and managers alike have recognized that water problems relevant to society necessarily integrate across the physical, chemical, biological, and social sciences. Narrowly conceived research produces inadequate solutions to such problems;

these in turn provide little useful guidance for management because critical parts of the system have been ignored. For example, the traditional subdivision of water resource issues into those of quality and quantity is now seen as inadequate to structure future research, given that water quality and quantity are intimately, causally, and mechanistically connected. Similarly, theoretical studies of water flows (hydrology) and aquatic ecosystems (limnology) can no longer be viewed as independent subjects, as each materially affects the other in myriad ways. Finally, the physical, chemical, and biological aspects of water cannot adequately be investigated without reference to the human imprint on all facets of the earth’s surface. Thus, the challenge in identifying water resources research needs is to engage researchers in novel collaborations and novel ways of perceiving the research topics that they have traditionally investigated.

Water resources research priorities were recently extensively considered by the Water Science and Technology Board (WSTB) in Envisioning the Agenda for Water Resources Research in the Twenty-first Century (NRC, 2001a). This resulted in a detailed, comprehensive list of research needs, grouped into three categories ( Table 3-1 ); the reader is referred to NRC (2001a) for a detailed description of each research need. The category of water availability emphasizes the interrelated nature of water quantity and water quality problems and it recognizes the increasing pressures on water supply to provide for both human and ecosystem needs. The category of water use includes not only research questions about managing human consumptive and nonconsumptive use of water, but also about the use of water by aquatic ecosystems and endangered or threatened species. The third category, water institutions , emphasizes the need for research into the economic, social, and institutional forces that shape both the availability and use of water.

After review and reconsideration, the committee concluded that the priorities enumerated in the Envisioning report constitute the most comprehensive and current best statement of water resources research needs. Moreover, successful pursuit of that research agenda could provide answers to the central questions posed in Chapter 1 . However, the list of research topics is not ranked, either within the three general categories or as a complete set of 43. An absolute ranking would be difficult to achieve, as all are important parts of a national water resources research agenda. Furthermore, the list of research priorities can be expected to change over time, reflecting both changes in the generators of such lists and in the conditions to which they are responding. This chapter, thus, provides a mechanism for reviewing, updating, and prioritizing research areas in this and subsequent lists. It should be noted that the 43 research areas in Table 3-1 are of varying complexity and breadth. In addition, the committee expanded research area #21 (develop more efficient water use) from the version found in the Envisioning report to include all sectors rather than just the agricultural sector.

The increasing urgency of water-related issues has stimulated a number of scientific societies and governmental entities, in addition to the WSTB, to produce

TABLE 3-1 Water Resources Research Areas that Should Be Emphasized in the Next 10–15 Years

their own lists of research priorities. For example, the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography recently convened a workshop to draft a list of emerging research issues (ASLO, 2003). These issues included the biogeochemistry of aquatic ecosystems, the influence of hydrogeomorphic setting on aquatic systems, the impacts of global changes in climate and element cycles, and emerging measurement technologies. This list builds on the comprehensive analysis of research priorities for freshwater ecosystems set forth in The Freshwater Imperative ( Box 2-1 ; see also Naiman et al., 1995). Another list of research priorities was recently assembled by the European Commission (2003), Task Force Environment–Water, which emphasizes water availability and water quality and the social, economic, and political aspects of water management. Like the NRC (2001a) report, this research agenda sets forth broad areas of research, with more specific “action lines” within high-priority areas. However, the approach differs from NRC (2001a) in that water quality is separated from water availability, and the socioeconomic and political research agenda is oriented toward crisis management. The U.S. Global Change Program also identified interrelated issues of quantity, quality, and human society as key research needs (Gleick et al., 2000);

this research agenda emphasizes the development of models and methods of prediction as well as data collection and monitoring systems, and it emphasizes research on the socioeconomic and legal impacts of climate change.

This brief review of selected contemporary lists of research priorities, as well as the lists of research priorities shown in Box 2-1 , illustrates that the articulation and the ranking of research topics vary with the entity charged to develop a research agenda. It can be anticipated that future lists of priorities will also differ from these.


The business of setting priorities for water resources research needs to be more than a matter of summing up the priorities of the numerous federal agencies, professional associations, and federal committees. Indeed, there is no logical reason why such a list should add up to a nationally relevant set of priorities, as each agency has its own agenda limited by its particular mission, just as each disciplinary group and each committee does. There is a high probability that research priorities not specifically under the aegis of a particular agency or other organization will be significantly neglected. Indeed, the institutional issues that constitute one of the three major themes in Table 3-1 are not explicitly targeted in the mission of any federal agency. This is the current state of affairs in the absence of a more coordinated mechanism for setting a national water resources research agenda.

A more rigorous process for priority setting should be adopted—one that will allow the water resources research enterprise to remain flexible and adaptable to changing conditions and emerging problems. Such a mechanism is also essential to ensure that water resources research needs are considered from a national and long-term perspective. The components of such a priority-setting process are outlined below, in the form of six questions or criteria that can be used to assess individual research areas and thus to assemble a responsive and effective national research agenda. In order to ensure the required flexibility and national-scale perspective, the criteria should also be applied to individual research areas during periodic reviews of the research enterprise.

Is there a federal role in this research area? This question is important for evaluating the “public good” nature of the water resources research area. A federal role is appropriate in those research areas where the benefits of such research are widely dispersed and do not accrue only to those who fund the research. Furthermore, it is important to consider whether the research area is being or even can be addressed by institutions other than the federal government.

What is the expected value of this research? This question addresses the importance attached to successful results, either in terms of direct problem solving or advancement of fundamental knowledge of water resources.

To what extent is the research of national significance? National significance is greatest for research areas (1) that address issues of large-scale concern (for example, because they encompass a region larger than an individual state), (2) that are driven by federal legislation or mandates, and (3) whose benefits accrue to a broad swath of the public (for example, because they address a problem that is common across the nation). Note that while there is overlap between the first and third criteria, research may have public good properties while not being of national significance, and vice versa.

Does the research fill a gap in knowledge? If the research area fills a knowledge gap, it should clearly be of higher priority than research that is duplicative of other efforts. Furthermore, there are several common underlying themes that, given the expected future complexity of water resources research, should be used to evaluate research areas:

the interdisciplinary nature of the research

the need for a broad systems context in phrasing research questions and pursuing answers

the incorporation of uncertainty concepts and measurements into all aspects of research

how well the research addresses the role of adaptation in human and ecological response to changing water resources

These themes, and their importance in combating emerging water resources problems, are described in detail in this chapter.

How well is this research area progressing? The adequacy of efforts in a given research area can be evaluated with respect to the following:

current funding levels and funding trends over time

whether the research area is part of the agenda of one or more federal agencies

whether prior investments in this type of research have produced results (i.e., the level of success of this type of research in the past and why new efforts are warranted)

These questions are addressed with respect to the current water resources research portfolio in Chapter 4 .

How does the research area complement the overall water resources research portfolio? The portfolio approach is built on the premise that a diverse mix of holdings is the least risky way to maximize return on investments. When applied to federal research and development, the portfolio concept is invoked to mean a mix between applied research and fundamental research (Eiseman et al., 2002). Indeed, the priority-setting process should be as much dedicated to ensuring an appropriate balance and mix of research efforts as it is to listing specific research topics. In the context of water resources, a diversified portfolio would capture the following desirable elements of a national research agenda:

multiple national objectives related to increasing water availability, improving water quality and ecological functions, and strengthening institutional and management practices

short-, intermediate-, and long-term research goals supporting national objectives

agency-based, contract, and investigator-driven research

both national and region-specific problems being encompassed

data collection needs to support all of the above

Thus, the water resources research agenda should be balanced in terms of the time scale of the effort (short-term vs. long-term), the source of the problem statements (investigator-driven vs. problem-driven), the goal of the research (fundamental vs. applied), and the investigators conducting the work (internally vs. externally conducted). An individual research area should be evaluated for its ability to complement existing research priorities with respect to these characteristics. Definitions of these terms are provided in Box 3-1 , and the appropriate balance among these categories is addressed in Chapters 4 and 6 .

Furthermore, it is important to consider whether the research fills gaps in the desired mix of water availability, water use, and institutional topics (as demarcated in Table 3-1 ). A final level of evaluation would consider how well the research responds to the four themes described in this chapter (interdisciplinarity, broad systems context, evaluation of uncertainty, and adaptation).

To summarize, a balanced water resources research agenda will include items of national significance for which a federal role is necessary; fill knowledge gaps in all three topical areas (water availability, water use, and institutions); incorporate a mixture of short-term and long-term research, basic and applied investigations, investigator-initiated and mission-driven research, and internal and external efforts; and build upon existing funding and research success. As noted above, some of these issues are addressed in subsequent chapters, with respect to the current water resources research agenda (see Table 3-1 ). The remainder of this chapter expands upon the four overarching themes that should form the context within which water resources research is conceptualized and performed.


There are several common underlying themes that should be used to (1) integrate and reconcile the numerous lists of research priorities currently being generated by agencies and scientific societies and (2) provide some overall direction to the multiple agencies and academic entities that carry out water resources research. These themes are interdisciplinarity, a broad systems context, uncertainty, and adaptation in human and ecological response to changing water resources.

The term interdisciplinarity refers to the fact that no question about water resources can be now adequately addressed within the confines of traditional disciplines. The research community recognizes that the physical, chemical, and biological/ecological characteristics of water resources are causally and mechanistically interrelated, and all are profoundly affected by the human presence in the environment. Therefore, it is necessary to understand water resources with reference to a range of natural and social scientific disciplines.

The phrase broad system context refers to the perception that all properties of water are part of a complex network of interacting factors, in which the processes that connect the factors are as important as the factors themselves. Both interdisciplinarity and broad systems context place water resources within the emerging field of complex systems (Holland, 1995; Holland and Grayston, 1998).

Uncertainty —the degree of confidence in the results and conclusions of research—has always been an important component of scientific research. All measurements and observations entail some degree of error, as do methods of data analysis, estimation, and modeling. Understanding the sources and amounts of uncertainty attached to estimates of flow, water quality, and other water resource variables is crucial, because so many practical and often expensive decisions hinge on the results. In short, understanding and measuring uncertainty are central to making informed decisions about water resources. Furthermore, an emphasis on uncertainty also implies attention to the extent and quality of the data available for generating estimates of important variables; this attention in turn implies a need to improve technologies for research and monitoring. Finally, an understanding of the uncertainties in data, models, and scientific knowledge lies at the heart of risk analysis and the development of policies and strategies to handle complex environmental problems (Handmer et al., 2001).

Finally, adaptation is a key component of the human, as well as ecological, response to the ever-changing environment. Human society has always changed in response to changing resources; the challenge is now to anticipate environmental changes and develop adaptive responses before catastrophe or conflict force such evolution. This is particularly pressing as research ascertains the impact of human activities on ecosystems, such as greenhouse gas release into the atmosphere and deforestation. Adaptation may involve modifying social mores and norms or forming new government policies including economic policies. For

example, there is little doubt among many researchers that emerging water scarcity will demand greatly altered expectations and behaviors in society. It may also involve new methods of managing resources in which flexibility to respond to unanticipated or rapidly occurring problems is the guiding principle.

These four themes are illustrated below, using a subset of the research priorities developed in Table 3-1 . The portfolio of existing water resources research tends not to be organized along these thematic lines.


The need for expertise from many disciplines to solve individual water resource problems is widely recognized and has produced repeated calls for collaborative, interdisciplinary approaches to research (Cullen et al., 1999; Naiman and Turner, 2000; Jackson et al., 2001). For example, aquatic ecosystems research now emphasizes the tight linkages between the traditional biological and ecological issues and both hydrology and human use of water (Poff et al., 1997; Richter et al., 1997). Similarly, the transformations of nutrients and pollutants reflect the interplay of hydrology and microbial ecology (Brunke and Gonser, 1997). Examples of several research areas from Table 3-1 are given below to elaborate on the interdisciplinary nature of water resources research.

research on water resources

outline of contaminant fate and transport makes it clear that this research priority necessitates a collaborative effort by physical chemists, soil scientists, hydrologists, geologists, microbiologists, plant scientists, and ecologists.

Similarly, wetlands are structured by water regimes in which very small variations in flow timing and amounts, in seasonal patterns of flow variation, in flow extremes, and in the duration of wet and dry events have very large effects on the biota (Mitsch and Gosselink, 2000; NRC, 2001b). Withdrawals of both groundwater and surface waters for human use can alter the flow regime, such that even subtle alterations can have large effects on the biota and function of the downgradient wetlands. Current controversy about the failure of mitigation methods and policy to meet the goal of “no net loss” of wetlands (Turner et al., 2001) is rooted in the difficulty of reproducing wetland hydrology in created and restored wetlands (NRC, 1995, 2001b). At the same time, the institutions and policies that are used to implement the goal of “no net loss” are being questioned and challenged. Wetland restoration thus demands research that integrates hydrology, plant and animal ecology, and social science.

approach is urgently needed. There are numerous factors that can confound the successful operation of irrigation projects on a sustainable basis. Problems related to climate variability, soil salinity, deterioration of the irrigation infrastructure, and social instability contributed to the collapse of the ancient empires, like the Akkadians and Sassanians who lived in the Tigris and Euphrates River valley, or the Hohokams who prospered for a millennium along the Gila and Salt rivers of now south-central Arizona (Postel, 1999). Today’s challenges are expected to be similar, because irrigation agriculture is associated with arid and semiarid environments where climate variability significantly impedes the successful long-term operation of these systems. In modern times, storage provided by large dams has reduced the impact of short-term fluctuations in climate. However, the looming prospect of global climate change, coupled with water demands of growing populations, has tremendous implications for irrigated agriculture in the next century (NAST, 2000).

The research challenges are to provide better projections of how climate might change and to improve hydrologic observation systems to document these changes (NAST, 2000). In addition, because large-scale structural solutions for water supply for irrigated agriculture are difficult to justify on social and economic grounds (Pulwarty, 2003), social science research on determinants of water use in the agricultural sector and agronomic research on improved crop varieties for dryland agriculture are needed. The problem of sustaining irrigated agriculture becomes even more interdisciplinary when one considers the need to understand the response of soils and surface water systems (in terms of chemistry and ecology) to alterations in irrigation return flows and the need to understand how economics might produce flexible strategies for irrigation. Assessments like those relating to the restoration of the Colorado River delta (Luecke et al., 1999) or the San Francisco Bay delta (McClurg, 1997) make clear the inherent multidisciplinarity of developing water supply systems for irrigated agriculture within an environment of competing demands and constraints.

Efforts are underway to reduce the nonpoint source contamination of the nation’s waters (e.g., Mississippi River Task Force, 2001). However, the enormous scope and scale of the problem are daunting, as land-use practices in several sectors of the economy often result in degradation of water resources in areas far downstream from the site(s) of impact. For example, excessive loading of nitrogen derived mainly from agriculture in the Midwest has contributed to an oxygen-

depleted zone in the Gulf of Mexico that can be as large as the state of New Jersey (Goolsby and Battaglin, 2000). Solving this problem requires not only resolving multiple scientific questions, but also resolving social, economic, and political complexities at scales ranging from the local to the national. Combating nonpoint source pollution will require both basic and applied research. For example, although good progress is being made in elucidating factors controlling contaminant loading (e.g., Alexander et al., 2000; Dubrovsky et al., 1998; Porter et al., 2001), more work is required to understand the fate and transport of nonpoint source pollutants and their fundamental effects on human and environmental health, particularly for pesticides and their transformation products (USGS, 1999). This understanding will require decades of high-resolution chemical and biological monitoring coupled with new analytical and modeling approaches.

The key physical approaches for controlling nonpoint source contamination are local mitigation strategies provided by wetlands, sedimentation ponds, and riparian areas along streams, and land-management strategies that reduce runoff and chemical use. Mitigation is an expensive option, both in terms of implementation and reductions in farmed area. Considerable research will be needed in proof-of-concept, design, and in cost/benefit analyses, requiring the participation of ecologists, soil scientists, hydrologists, and geologists to determine the appropriate size, type, and placement of structures. Changes to farming practices on a continental scale will require equally complex research by agronomists, soil scientists, hydrologists, economists, and social scientists because broad stakeholder education and involvement, voluntary actions, new legislative authority, and coordination across localities and regions will be necessary to implement such changes (Mississippi River Task Force, 2001). Finally, contaminant fluxes from land to streams and rivers may well undergo chronic increases as a result of larger rainfall events associated with future climate change. Thus, progress in controlling nonpoint contamination will require interdisciplinary research linking the historically important areas of agriculture, hydrology, and biology with emerging areas of climate change, natural resource economics, education, and human dimensions of decision making.


The systems approach mandates that a problem be addressed by specifying the entities that contribute to the problem, the linkages among these entities, the logical or physical boundaries to the system, and the inputs and outputs to the system as a whole (in other words, linkages to entities deemed to be outside the system). The idea has its roots in physics, in which a “system” is a thermodynamic concept related to the flow and conservation of energy. The linkages among entities within a system are as important as the entities themselves; thus, a system is more than the sum of its parts (see Box 3-2 ). Systems usually show nonlinear dynamics, and the nonlinearities among sets of linked entities often lead to

unanticipated and complex behavior, and also to surprises—events that cannot be exactly predicted, or that are outside the realm of prior experience. Indeed, these characteristics of system behavior have been highlighted as key aspects of environmental problems (NRC, 1997a). Thus, considering water resources research within a broad systems context implies elucidating interrelationships among entities that, at first glance, might not be thought to be related. This approach also mandates that small-scale problems be viewed within a larger-scale perspective, which may profoundly alter the understanding of causal and quantitative relationships.

The need to view some of the research priorities set forth in Table 3-1 within a broad systems context is illustrated below.

As an example, the Idaho Department of Water Resources increasingly must resolve conflicts among citizens concerning competing demands for (and assertion of rights over) surface water and groundwater, and it also must resolve interstate water conflicts between Idaho and neighboring states (Dreher, 2003). Provision of adequate water for the habitats of endangered and threatened aquatic species is also part of the state’s responsibilities. Idaho contains six aquifers that span interstate lines and that affect surface water flows in adjoining states. Currently, management of both groundwater and surface water supplies is being undertaken without adequate knowledge of the connections between the two sources, leading to conflicts and shortages. The lack of a comprehensive understanding of the entire regional hydrogeologic system and its links to both human use and natural ecosystems is leading to increased litigation, with current needs not being met. In order to help resolve these conflicts, management agencies need

accurate measurements of water flows and water stocks over a range of temporal and spatial scales. Moreover, the influences of natural processes, natural climate variability, and human intervention in the water system must be monitored.

transpiration rates from vegetation and evaporation rates from the soil surface, thus altering soil and atmospheric moisture content and the likelihood of rain and forest fire. These in turn will have large effects on regional hydrology. These connections, which have been well documented for tropical rain forests, are germane to understanding the connections between hydrology and climate worldwide.

Moreover, the driving force for global climate change—the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations associated with human activities—will also affect aquatic ecosystems in ways that may amplify or dampen the effects of hydrologic change alone. For example, higher CO 2 concentrations will alter leaf chemistry and the relative growth rates of different plant species. Both changes may affect the palatability of litter to decomposer and consumer organisms, in turn affecting decomposition rates, nutrient cycling rates, and ultimately the density and species

composition of the plant community. Changing CO 2 concentrations may also affect pH of the water, with cascading effects on the biota, although changes in flow regime may interact with increased dissolution of CO 2 to modify this effect. These feedbacks are being incorporated into the models that are used to predict the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on climate and water resources. Unfortunately, the great complexity of the system results in model predictions that span a range of values too large and uncertain to be usable for regional or local water resource management at this time (Chase et al., 2003).

Just as energy supply interacts with water use in multiple ways, as described above, energy extraction (for example, oil and gas development in the West) similarly affects water use in complex ways. Impacts of energy extraction on biotic resources may affect water supply and water use indirectly, by limiting potential options to manage water resources. For example, recent and rapid development of methane gas resources in the Powder River Basin is causing major disruptions in groundwater supply sources (BLM, 2003). Depending on the method of energy extraction, water quality is often impaired. Drilling muds, for example, frequently contain additives that have the potential to contaminate downstream or downgradient water supplies (EPA, 2000).


Water resource management relies on monitoring data, scientific understanding of processes in the water cycle and the ecology of aquatic ecosystems, and ultimately predictive models that can forecast hydrologic conditions and biotic and human responses. All of these types of information are subject to uncertainty. Uncertainty results from many sources, including measurement systems that are not sufficiently precise or that do not generate sufficient quantities of high-quality data, instrument failures, human errors in designing and implementing studies, and simply a lack of understanding of the processes and phenomena under investigation. Uncertainty affects both the analysis of data and the construction of models to make water resource predictions. Although inherent to research, uncertainty can be managed by explicit recognition of its occurrence coupled with quantitative methods of measuring its importance and incorporating it into decision making. By describing the degree of uncertainty in research results (and by inference the reliability of the measurements and models), researchers can adjust the expectations for the use of their data and models accordingly. Reliable estimates of uncertainty contribute directly to successful risk management and the development of environmental policy (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1990; Dovers et al., 2001). It should be noted that the above definition of uncertainty is broader than that espoused by some federal agencies (e.g., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for which uncertainty refers to situations in which the probability of potential outcomes and their results cannot be described by objectively known probability distributions). Below are examples illustrating the importance of the quantification of uncertainty for some of the research priorities listed in Table 3-1 .

To predict the fate and transport of contaminants from the proposed repository, the DOE has developed a complex mathematical model called Total System Performance Assessment (TSPA) that itself depends on the output of dozens of process-oriented models. The success of the DOE’s license application depends in large measure on the confidence placed in the TSPA predictions of contaminant transport and the technical basis for those predictions. Conceptual and model uncertainty and the explicit quantification of this uncertainty are central to the question of technical basis. As noted by the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board in a letter to Congress (NWTRB, 2002): “Resolving all uncertainty is neither necessary nor possible. However, uncertainties about the performance of those components of the repository system relied upon to isolate waste are very important, and information on the extent of uncertainty and assumed conservatism associated with the performance of these components may be important to policy makers, the technical community, and the public.” Regardless of policymakers’ and the public’s varying levels of tolerance for uncertainty, it can still be said that results of research to quantify, and perhaps further reduce, uncertainties can contribute to the quality and credibility of impending public policy decisions.

remediate polluted waterbodies. Mandated by the Clean Water Act, a TMDL is a calculation of the maximum pollutant loading that a waterbody can sustain and still meet its water quality standards. If the current loadings are higher, then the TMDL must be accompanied by a remedial plan on how to reduce the loadings via best management practices (BMPs). TMDLs are established for an impaired waterbody by using a combination of fate and transport models for the target pollutant or stressor and available waterbody data. This requires both watershed models (which take into account such processes as the movement of pollutants across land) and water quality models (which incorporate in-lake pollutant transport and transformation). Models are also potentially needed to predict the effectiveness of certain BMPs. Many of the watershed and water quality models in use suffer from inadequate representation of physicochemical processes, inappropriate applicability, and lack of training of model users (EPA, 2002). Similarly, the data on which TMDLs are based may be inconsistent in quality or inappropriate in terms of the frequency and extent of sampling. Finally, the methods used to identify impaired waterbodies are often inadequate because of deficiencies in state monitoring networks. All of these problems generate uncertainties in the applicability and effectiveness of the resulting TMDL. The development of improved methods of quantifying uncertainty in both the models and the listing criteria, especially in setting “margin of safety” criteria, is critical if informed decisions about restoring polluted waterbodies are to be made. Indeed, the central role of uncertainty has been a major conclusion of several recent studies critically examining the TMDL program (NRC, 2001c; Borsuk et al., 2002; EPA, 2002).

Water resource managers are subject to increasingly diverse, often conflicting forces. For example, it was relatively simple to develop the knowledge base needed to provide predictable amounts of water to agriculture when this was the only use for a water supply. It becomes much more complicated when agricultural uses need to be met while new demands come from urbanizing areas and from governmental and nongovernmental entities demanding water for endangered species or aquatic ecosystem support, such that the total demand exceeds the readily available supply. In such contexts, adaptability becomes essential. Managers, users, and advocates need to have the flexibility to imagine and adopt novel solutions to water resource problems, and researchers in their search for solutions need to have the flexibility to adapt their research to problems that may have been unimaginable in the recent past. Furthermore, the complexity of current problems may demand that combinations of solutions be applied creatively to different components of a problem. This emphasis on adaptability of both the research community and the managers and users of water needs to be an organizing concept for water resources research. Thus, “adaptation” is defined as a combination of flexibility in solving problems and, more fundamentally, a shift in

norms and standards that can result from confronting novel situations. A related concept in water resources is that of adaptive management, a learning-while-doing process in which a management action is viewed as an experiment, and as managers learn from their successes and failures, they adjust their management actions accordingly (Holling, 1978; Geldof, 1995; Haney and Power, 1996; Wieringa and Morton, 1996; Lee, 1999; NRC, 1999, 2003b, 2004b).

Below are examples of how adaptation is a key element in addressing some of the research priorities listed in Table 3-1 .

This combination of challenges will require adaptability on the part of both researchers and users. For example, creative water delivery systems, such as inhome gray water recycling or dual-home distribution systems (Wilchfort and Lund, 1997) that bring potable water to a few taps and slightly less pure water to other taps for cleaning purposes or industrial needs, will require research. This includes research to develop the technologies to implement such systems and research to understand how people adapt to new modes of obtaining and using water (see Box 3-3 ) and how such a transition might be effected. Individuals’ views of water-related risks (Loewenstein et al., 2001), in-home uses of water, and the value of water resources (Aini et al., 2001) will also need to adapt in order for these technological changes to be successful in maintaining drinking water quality.

diverse biological community within aquatic and riparian ecosystems. However, human actions to minimize floods and droughts and to provide reliable water for consumption at constant rates can eliminate this natural variability (Dynesius and Nilsson, 1994). In order to balance these effects, management of the water, the ecosystem, and the affected social groups must be adaptive in several respects.

For example, ecological restoration, while guided by ideals of the undisturbed or historical state of the ecosystem, increasingly must accept the lesser but still critical goal of repairing damaged systems to a partially restored state. This will be necessary because of insufficient knowledge of the undisturbed state, permanent alteration of the landscape through built structures and intensive land use, and the prevalence of nearly ineradicable nonnative species. An example is provided by the Laurentian Great Lakes, where overfishing and the onslaught of the sea lamprey brought about the decline of native fishes, including the lake trout. At the same time, exotic species of smaller “forage” fish proliferated, resulting in the famous die-off of alewives that littered Chicago’s beaches in the early 1970s. Fisheries managers attempted a bold experiment, importing coho and king salmon from the Pacific Northwest, a highly successful adaptation to a “collapsing” ecosystem. Now with well over one hundred nonnative species, the Great Lakes pose a continuing challenge to ecologists and fisheries managers seeking to manage and restore the ecosystem.

Adaptation is anticipated to be particularly difficult but absolutely essential in large aquatic ecosystems where there are multiple competing interests (fisheries scientists, communities relying on fishing, farmers, water resource and dam managers, etc.) (Peterson, 2000). The scale of conflicts arising from the plexus of interests involved in large-scale ecosystem restoration is illustrated by the recent Klamath (NRC, 2003a) and Columbia River controversies (Gregory et al., 2002; NRC, 1996, 2004a). Clearly, research is needed to develop adaptive approaches to both managing the resources (water, fish, etc.) as well as the various human populations involved in these issues. Flexibility, an understanding that a variety of alternative strategies are possible, and a willingness to adjust previously assumed “rights” will be essential in finding compromises between competing human and ecosystem demands. In addition, the use of adaptive management procedures will be necessary.

that people know what is expected or required and can act in accordance. Thus, for example, investments can be made with the expectation that changes in law will not undo the hoped-for return that motivated the investment. Actions can be taken without fear that a change in the rules will punish the actor. A stable legal system is important economically and socially.

However, this societal interest in stability may conflict with other emerging societal interests in periods of active change. During the 1970s, for example, Congress imposed far-reaching new legal requirements on those whose activities generated certain types of pollution from readily identifiable (point) sources, forcing massive investment in technologically advanced systems for the treatment of particular pollutants prior to their discharge into the environment. The years immediately following enactment of these laws were ones of considerable turmoil and conflict as uncertainties respecting their implementation were disputed and resolved. With these requirements now firmly embedded into the plans and actions of the regulated community, stability has returned. So too has resistance to any significant change in approach, even if such change might better accomplish the objectives of these laws.

Laws governing human uses of water have traditionally been concerned with determining who may make use of the resource and under what conditions. In those states east of the 100th meridian, owners of land adjacent to waterbodies essentially share the ability to use the water (riparian doctrine). Uses must be “reasonable,” with reasonable use generally being measured by the harm that might be caused to other riparian users. In the western states, uses are established through a process of appropriation of water—that is, establishing physical control—and then applying the water to a “beneficial use.” It is a priority system, protecting full use of available water by those first to appropriate it.

The appropriation system arose in the context of water-scarce settings. Direct use of water from streams initially for mining and then for agriculture was essential, and it required the investment of time and money to build the structures that would make that use possible. Users wanted certainty about their rights of use versus other subsequent users, and the prior appropriation system provided that certainty. The appropriation system does not, however, readily accommodate changing uses of water or integrate new uses. Nor does it incorporate the use of water for serving physical and ecological functions within the hydrologic cycle. This suggests that water laws need to be more adaptable if they are to meet changing societal needs. As a first effort, many western states have adopted water transfer laws to accommodate changing water uses, including environmental needs such as instream flows. These states have successfully combined the certainty of the prior appropriation system with the ability to meet emerging demands.

The process of restoring a sustainable level of physical and ecological integrity to our hydrologic systems must work within long-established legal and institutional structures whose purpose has been to promote and support direct human uses. The challenge is to develop societally acceptable approaches that allow

those uses to continue but in a manner that is compatible with ecosystem functionality.


The articulation of these four themes—interdisciplinarity, broad systems context, uncertainty, and adaptation—is intended to reorient the disparate research agendas of individual agencies as well as individual researchers. The hope is that an emphasis on these overarching themes will lower barriers to research on newly emerging water resources problems. Research agendas of the federal agencies are driven by their specific mandates, such as the agricultural impacts on water (U.S. Department of Agriculture), water as a component of climate (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), or reservoir management (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation). Often there is a need for agencies to center their missions around clearly articulated, politically prominent issues in order to secure funding. These tendencies promote more narrowly focused research and present barriers to addressing difficult, large-scale problems. Furthermore, agencies are locked into policies devolving from their legislative and administrative history, and they cannot create new policies that cut across administrative or management units; thus, research is constrained by policies that easily become antiquated or irrelevant (Stakhiv, 2003). Finally, water resource problems are frequently conceived to match short-term funding cycles (Parks, 2003), resulting in inadequate knowledge for effective water management.

Similarly, individual scientists frame research in terms of their disciplinary training and work environment, which creates barriers to the kind of research needed to solve the complex problems that are now prominent. Indeed, the reluctance of scientists to reach outside their disciplines has been identified elsewhere as a barrier to effective water resources research (Parks, 2003). Institutional and professional constraints on priority setting also mitigate against effective research because they inhibit creative, innovative, and rapid responses to newly emerging or unanticipated problems.

Water resource problems are commonly assumed to be only local or regional in scope because water management entities and water supply systems operate on these scales. However, some water-related problems have become truly national in scope, either because of their very large spatial scale (e.g., the connection of the upper Mississippi drainage basin with hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico) or because controversies rage over the same water issues in many states throughout the nation. Unfortunately, the current organization of water resources research promotes site- and problem-specific research, which results in narrowly conceived solutions that are often not applicable to large-scale, complex problems or to similar issues in other regions of the country (Stakhiv, 2003). Federal agencies may see only the local character of a problem, without understanding the some-

times subtle ways in which local problems are widely replicated around the country, and may conclude that such problems are not appropriately addressed with federal resources. State representatives advised the committee that they rarely have the financial or scientific resources to address problems that have local manifestations but national significance. Thus, such research can fail to be carried out because of limitations at both the federal and state levels.

Finally, the ability to carry out research on water resources may be limited by the availability of adequate long-term data (as discussed in Chapter 5 ). Hydrologic processes are characterized by the frequency with which events of a given magnitude and duration occur. Infrequent but large-magnitude events (floods, droughts) have very large economic, social, and ecological impact. Without an adequately long record of monitoring data, it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand, model, and predict such events and their effects.

By emphasizing interdisciplinarity, broad systems context, uncertainty, and adaptation as overarching research guidelines, the specific research agendas of agencies and, hopefully, individual scientists can be made more relevant to emerging problems. A framework of research priorities based on these overarching themes is more likely to promote flexible, adaptive, and timely responses to novel or unexpected problems than research programs constrained by priority lists developed solely with respect to agency missions. The complexity and urgency of water resource problems demand a framework that widens the scope of inquiry of researchers and research managers and forces them to conduct research in novel ways.


Although the list of topics in Table 3-1 is our current recommendation concerning the highest priority water resources research areas, this list is expected to change as circumstances and knowledge evolve. Water resource issues change continuously, as new knowledge reveals unforeseen problems, as changes in society generate novel problems, and as changing perceptions by the public reveal issues that were previously unimportant. Periodic reviews and updates to the priority list are needed to ensure that it remains not only current but proactive in directing research toward emerging problems.

An urgent priority for water resources research is the development of a process for regularly reviewing and revising the entire portfolio of research being conducted. Six criteria are recommended for assessing both the scope of the entire water resources research enterprise and also the nature, urgency, and purview of individual research areas. These criteria should ensure that the vast scope of water resources research carried out by the numerous federal and state agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and academic institutions remains focused and effective.

The research agenda should be balanced with respect to time scale, focus, source of problem statement, and source of expertise. Water resources research ranges from long-term and theoretical studies of basic physical, chemical, and biological processes to studies intended to provide rapid solutions to immediate problems. The water resources research enterprise is best served by developing a mechanism for ensuring that there is an appropriate balance among the different types of research, so that both the problems of today and those that will emerge over the next 10–15 years can be effectively addressed.

The context within which research is designed should explicitly reflect the four themes of interdisciplinarity, broad systems context, uncertainty, and adaptation. The current water resources research enterprise is limited by the agency missions, the often narrow disciplinary perspective of scientists, and the lack of a national perspective on perceived local but widely occurring problems. Research patterned after the four themes articulated above could break down these barriers and promise a more fruitful approach to solving the nation’s water resource problems.

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In order to confront the increasingly severe water problems faced by all parts of the country, the United States needs to make a new commitment to research on water resources. A new mechanism is needed to coordinate water research currently fragmented among nearly 20 federal agencies. Given the competition for water among farmers, communities, aquatic ecosystems and other users—as well as emerging challenges such as climate change and the threat of waterborne diseases— Confronting the Nation's Water Problems concludes that an additional $70 million in federal funding should go annually to water research. Funding should go specifically to the areas of water demand and use, water supply augmentation, and other institutional research topics. The book notes that overall federal funding for water research has been stagnant in real terms for the past 30 years and that the portion dedicated to research on water use and social science topics has declined considerably.

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Water Resources

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  • Details progress in the assessment of water resources, integrated water-resource use, water quality, and environmental protection
  • Spans many areas of research, including prediction of variations in continental water resources and regime; hydrophysical and hydrodynamic processes; environmental aspects of water quality and protection
  • English-language translation of Vodnye Resursy

Journal information

  • Victor I. Danilov-Daniliyan

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Latest issue.

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Issue 6, December 2023

Latest articles

Changes in water balance elements in the basins of the largest tributaries of lake baikal in the late xx–early xxi century.

  • S. R. Chalov
  • I. S. Denisova
  • V. Yu. Grigor’ev
  • Published: 24 November 2023
  • Pages: 779 - 786

research on water resources

The Present-Day Structure of the Temperature and Current Fields in Lake Sevan

  • S. A. Poddubnyi
  • B. K. Gabrielyan
  • A. I. Tsvetkov
  • Pages: 787 - 793

research on water resources

Artificial Groundwater Replenishment in the Republic of Kalmykia: The Sources, Problems, and Perspectives

Authors (first, second and last of 5).

  • L. S. Rybnikova
  • M. G. Morozov
  • A. V. Komin
  • Pages: 794 - 805

research on water resources

Comparison of Runoff Components, Water Balance, and the Parameters of Conceptual Models HBV and GR4J: Case Study of the Upper Ussuri Basin (South of Primorsky Region, Pacific Russia)

  • S. Yu. Lupakov
  • A. N. Bugaets
  • N. D. Bugaets
  • Pages: 806 - 815

research on water resources

Floods in the Vistula Mouth Area and Their Effect on Changes in the Delta Hydrographic Network

  • M. V. Mikhailova
  • Pages: 816 - 827

research on water resources

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Water resources articles from across Nature Portfolio

Water resources are sources of – usually fresh – water that are useful, or potentially useful, to society; for instance for agricultural, industrial or recreational use. Examples include groundwater, rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

Latest Research and Reviews

research on water resources

Functional relationships reveal differences in the water cycle representation of global water models

Global water models are important tools for understanding the water cycle. This study evaluates eight global water models by focusing on functional relationships that capture the spatial co-variability of forcing and response variables.

  • Sebastian Gnann
  • Robert Reinecke
  • Thorsten Wagener

research on water resources

Characterizing the nature and extent of access to unsafely managed sanitation in the United States

This Review identifies factors that lead to ‘unsafely managed sanitation’ in the United States, the specific types of access, and obstacles to characterizing and addressing the problem.

  • Jillian Maxcy-Brown
  • Drew Capone
  • Mark A. Elliott

research on water resources

Integrated assessment of river development on downstream marine fisheries and ecosystems

Water resource development can have important downstream impacts on ecological functioning and affect socio-economic outcomes associated with marine fisheries. This study modelled the catchment-to-coast effects of reductions in freshwater flowing to estuaries in Australia.

  • Éva Plagányi
  • Chris Moeseneder

research on water resources

Green wall system coupled with slow sand filtration for efficient greywater management at households

  • Ravi K. Yadav
  • Siddhant Sahoo
  • Sunil A. Patil

research on water resources

Scalable and efficient solar-driven atmospheric water harvesting enabled by bidirectionally aligned and hierarchically structured nanocomposites

Sorption-based atmospheric water harvesting has the capability of capturing water from air anytime and anywhere. A facile strategy to synthesize bidirectionally aligned and hierarchically structured nanocomposite could realize scalable and efficient sorption-based atmospheric water harvesting.

  • Tingxian Li

research on water resources

A super liquid-repellent hierarchical porous membrane for enhanced membrane distillation

Membrane distillation is an emerging desalination technology to obtain freshwater from saline based on low-grade energy. Here the authors report on novel superhydrophobic hierarchical porous membranes with enhanced distillation flux suitable for desalination or wastewater treatment.

  • Hans-Jürgen Butt


News and Comment

research on water resources

Greening initiatives in the Middle East can leverage urban infrastructure to enhance sustainable water use

Large-scale afforestation is championed as a way to restore degraded habitats, conserve biodiversity and advance societal improvements. In the Middle East, a severely water-stressed region, we argue that urban greening will need to play a major part in efforts to deliver a more sustainable and water-sensitive strategy, while also enhancing urban liveability.

  • Pei-Ying Hong
  • Himanshu Mishra
  • Matthew F. McCabe

research on water resources

The humble toilet is an opportunity for sustainable water reuse

The toilet could evolve from an unassuming household plumbing fixture to a critical engineering node for onsite wastewater treatment and reuse.

  • Sonia Grego

research on water resources

The Amazon’s record-setting drought: how bad will it be?

Scientists tell Nature why the rainforest has dried out, and what to expect in the coming months.

  • Meghie Rodrigues

Stop violation of international water laws in Gaza

  • Hussam Hussein

research on water resources

River-to-sea ecosystem management

Human changes to freshwater flows affect marine ecosystems, but such impacts are rarely considered in development plans involving dam building and water abstraction from rivers. Now research shows how approaches that integrate flow management and marine fisheries can improve both freshwater and coastal ecosystem sustainability.

  • Thiago B. A. Couto
  • Suresh A. Sethi

Britain and Ireland’s largest lake is dying in plain sight

  • Mark C. Emmerson

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