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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research
level and generally assess its adequacy, (3) address the need to better coordinate the nation’s water resources research enterprise, and (4) identify institutional options for the improved coordination, prioritization, and implementation of research in water resources. The study was carried out by the Committee on Assessment of Water Resources Research, which met five times over the course of 15 months.
The committee was motivated by considering the following central questions about the state of the nation’s water resources: (1) will drinking water be safe; (2) will there be sufficient water to both protect environmental values and support future economic growth; (3) can effective water policy be made; (4) will water quality be enhanced and maintained; (5) will our water management systems adapt to climate change? If the answers to even some of the questions above are “no,” it would portend a future fraught with complex water resource problems but with limited institutional ability to respond. Knowledge and insight gained from a broad spectrum of natural and social science research on water resources are key to avoiding these undesirable scenarios.
Two realities helped to shape the scope of the study and have illuminated the inherent difficulties in creating a national agenda for water resources research. First, the type and quantity of research that will be needed to address current and future water resources problems are unlikely to be adequate if no action is taken at the federal level. For many reasons (as discussed in Chapter 1), the states and nongovernmental organizations have limited incentives and resources to invest in water resources research. Furthermore, most states are experiencing an increasing number of complex water problems—some of which cross state lines—and they have to respond to important federal mandates. This suggests a more central role for the federal government in producing the necessary research to inform water resources issues. Second, water resources problems do not fall logically or easily within the purview of a single federal agency but, rather, are fragmented among nearly 20 agencies. As water resource problems increase in complexity, even more agencies may become involved. The present state of having uncoordinated and mission-driven water resources research agendas within the federal agencies will have to be changed in order to surmount future water problems.
Chapter 2 of this report analyzes the history of federally funded water resources research in an effort to understand how the research needed to solve tomorrow’s problems may compare with the research undertaken in the past, and to illuminate how U.S. support for water resources research in the 20th century has fluctuated in response to important scientific, political, and social movements. Federal support of water-related research developed slowly during much of the 1800s and early 1900s, beginning with federal involvement in the development of rivers for navigation, flood control, and storage of water for irrigation. It was not until the 1950s that Congress committed to supporting a comprehensive pro-