Policy Statements » Letters from the President:

ESA letter on USGS & Freshwater Resources
August 22, 2001

Dr. Robert Hirsch
U.S. Geological Survey
409 National Center
Reston, VA 20192

Dear Dr. Hirsch:

Thank you for inviting our comments on upcoming U.S. Geological Survey activities relating to water availability, quality, and use. We understand that Congress has requested the Survey to develop a report describing the scope and magnitude of the efforts needed to provide periodic assessments of the status and trends in the availability and use of freshwater resources. The Congress has also directed the USGS to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to examine water resources research efforts nationwide, comment on content and coordination mechanisms for a comprehensive water research program for the Nation, address whether there is an adequate level of investment in water resources research, and describe how the U.S. can benefit from water resources research.

We recommend that any comprehensive water research and assessment program consider freshwater and estuarine ecosystems. Ecosystem function is closely coupled to water flows and water quality. Functionally intact and biologically complex aquatic ecosystems provide economically valuable services and long-term benefits to society. Benefits include goods and services such as water purification, food supply, flood control, and habitat for plant and animal life. Over the long-term, maintenance of these systems will sustain water resources and improve our ability to respond to changes such as climate change.

We also recommend the assessment of status and trends be expanded to include an element of forecasting. A paper in the July 27 issue of Science (resulting from an Ecological Society of America Workshop) begins with the sentence: “Scientists and policy makers can agree that success in dealing with environmental change rests with a capacity to anticipate” (Clark et al. 2001). Forecasting change in the Nation’s water resources with some measurable amount of confidence will be critical to anticipating, and perhaps avoiding, the societal and environmental consequences of, for instance, agriculturally-induced regional eutrophication, or conflicts between irrigation users and endangered species.

The Ecological Society of America has recently developed a position paper (in press) on balancing societal and ecosystem needs for freshwater, and makes the following recommendations for water management in the United States:

  1. Frame national and regional water management policies to explicitly incorporate freshwater ecosystem needs, particularly those related to naturally variable flow regimes, and to the linking of water quality with water quantity;
  2. Define water resources to include watershed and basin, so that freshwaters are viewed within a landscape, or systems context;
  3. Increase communication across disciplines, especially among engineers, hydrologists, economists, lawyers, and ecologists to facilitate an integrated view of freshwater resources;
  4. Increase restoration efforts, using well-grounded ecological principles as guidelines;
  5. Maintain and protect the remaining freshwater ecosystems that have high integrity; and
  6. Recognize the interdependence of human society and ecosystems. Long-term sustainability of both will come about only through policies and practices that preserve our aquatic life support systems.

Coordination for interdisciplinary research in water resources can be enhanced several ways. We recommend fostering interdisciplinary training of students of all ages so that understanding the importance of protecting and conserving water resources for societal and ecosystem needs becomes commonplace. We also recommend agencies encourage inter-agency and agency-academic research efforts.

And finally, continued support for monitoring will make periodic assessments of water resources status and trends much easier, so we endorse efforts to maintain the records USGS has so faithfully collected in the past. We also urge co-location measurements of water quantity, quality, and ecological integrity to enhance interpretations and forecasting of status and trends, causes and effects.

Thank you for this opportunity to comment. Please contact ESA at 202-833-8773 if the Society can be of further help.


Pamela A. Matson