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Volume 86 Issue 40 | Web Exclusive
Issue Date: October 6, 2008

Cover Stories: The Other Scarce Resource

In New U.S. Initiative, Geologists And Planners Work Together To Avert Water Wars

Department: Government & Policy
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Credit: USGS
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Credit: USGS

Managing water supply and demand in the western U.S. is akin to managing a household's finances, only on a much more dramatic scale. The West has water budgets, water banks, and water withdrawals. But its water expenditures require "creative solutions to a checkbook problem," according to Avra Morgan, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's program coordinator for the new Water for America Initiative.

To help find those solutions, President George W. Bush included $21.3 million in his 2009 budget to fund the initiative. The plan combines three existing water supply management programs at the Bureau of Reclamation with data expertise from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The goal is to anticipate future water supplies and to plan for the needs of a growing population.

Announcing the funding in February, Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Dirk Kempthorne painted a troubling picture of water use across the U.S. "As competition escalates during a time of chronic drought and changing climate, water conflicts are occurring within states, among states, between states and the federal government, and among environmentalists and state and federal agencies," he said.

DOI and USGS will use the initiative's funds to partner with state, local, and tribal governments with the goal of avoiding "water wars" by using new technologies in water planning and management.

On the supply side, USGS geologists will conduct an assessment of water availability for human and environmental use. The first national water census in 30 years, it will describe changes in water flows, groundwater storage, and water use. Geologists will map and characterize all the nation's aquifers and modernize 7,000 stream gauges to provide real-time data.

The reclamation bureau will use the data to understand water availability in various geographic basins. "We'll take into account stream flows and other hydrologic data, the water budget, and the hydrologic issues in a basin," Morgan says.

Climate change is likely to have an important impact on the water balance. The studies will use the best available models to forecast possible changes on a basin-wide scale, according to Morgan. Researchers will be challenged by the lack of data on the regional effects of climate change. "But just acknowledging that we're going through periods of extended drought—and that is not likely to change—will impact how we will meet future demand," Morgan says. "Dry periods might become more the norm; recognition is built into the program to help us plan."

On the demand side, state and local governments must weigh the often competing interests of residential, agricultural, and industrial users against the needs of ecosystems and endangered species. "What we can do is help industry plan to work with the water they will get. They may need to conserve, treat, or use new technologies or administrative tools like water banking," Morgan says. Water banking is a market-based system that allows users to trade water rights that they are not using in a given year.

Water treatment companies can get involved, too. The initiative will include challenge grants so technology developers can demonstrate methods for stretching existing water supplies through real-time monitoring, measurement, and control.

 

Cover Story

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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