Consensus Report

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


Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

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.

Key Messages

  • 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.
  • Funding would be needed on the order of $20 million per year for research related to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of water institutions and $50 million per year for research related to challenges and changes in water use.
  • Key legacy monitoring systems in areas of streamflow, groundwater, sediment transport, water quality, and water use have been in substantial decline and in some cases have nearly been eliminated.
  • Real levels of total spending for water resources research have remained relatively constant (around $700 million in 2000 dollars) since the mid 1970s.
  • The 43 research topics from the Envisioning report are the current best statement of research needs, although this list is expected to change as circumstances and knowledge evolve.
  • 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 portfolio appears heavily weighted in favor of short-term research.
  • The research agenda should be balanced with respect to time scale, focus, source of problem statement, and source of expertise.
  • Water resources research funding has not paralleled growth in demographic and economic parameters such as population, gross domestic product (GDP), or budget outlays (unlike research in other fields such as health).