Expert Report

Preparing for the Third Decade (Cycle 3) of the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program (2012)

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The first two decades of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program have provided a successful and useful assessment of U.S. water-quality conditions, how they have changed over time, and how natural features and human activities have affected those conditions. Now, planning is underway for the third decade (Cycle 3) of the Program outlined in the Science Plan, with challenges including ensuring that the NAWQA remain a national program in the face of declining resources, balancing new activities against long-term studies, and maintaining focus amidst numerous and competing stakeholder demands. The Science Plan for Cycle 3 articulates a forward-thinking vision for NAWQA science over the next decade, building on the previous cycles' data, experience, and products. To meet the national needs outlined in the plan, NAWQA would need to emphasize collaboration with other USGS and external programs, and with other federal agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector. [Corrected]

Key Messages

  • The continuity of national water quality measurements is fundamental to the NAWQA program's continued success in evaluating and forecasting how changing land use conditions and climate variability may affect water quality in different settings, and informing water policy and decision makers as they evaluate policy options impacting the nation's water quality resources. Therefore, the program's primary focus should be on continuing monitoring needed to support the national status and trends assessments of water quality. While important, efforts that reach beyond the focus of basic monitoring can only be accomplished if basic monitoring continues.
  • A focus of NAWQA program efforts in Cycle 3, second only to basic monitoring activities, should be the support of modeling initiatives. Models are a tool to help boost understanding of undersampled areas or areas that are not sampled at all, construct scenarios for assessing the impacts of climate and land use change, or forecast the likely consequences of different policy options.
  • The Science Plan for Cycle 3 is a comprehensive assessment of the nation's needs for understanding status and trends in surface and groundwater quality, and developing a portfolio of multi-scale models to forecast changes in water quality in response to changes in demographics, land use, and climate. The Science Plan is broad in scope, thus, no other issues should be considered for addition to the program.
  • Although the Implementation Plan for Cycle 3 was not yet prepared at the time of this review, the Science Plan did contain a preliminary discussion of how to implement the scientific agenda. The Science Plan proposes increased coverage of the NAWQA sampling network, coupled with intensive yearly sampling schedules. The report's authoring committee agreed that increasing the sampling network is important, but found that some analysis of what would be gained by different numbers and combinations of sites is important. The committee suggested that the NAWQA program should determine the number of sampling locations and frequency using a similar process that was used in Cycle 2, and adapt it to Cycle 3 objectives, with particular consideration of the certainty required for Cycle 3 modeling efforts.
  • The NAWQA has used a wide array of approaches to communicate findings, from press releases to Congressional briefings, peer-reviewed publications, and the program website. However, there are still more opportunities to disseminate information about the program's findings. For example, the data warehouse, which is used to bring water quality data to the public, is not user-friendly, and could be improved. Furthermore, it is critical to ensure that data interpretation, synthesis, and the publication of NAWQA data take place in a timely manner.
  • NAWQA informally measures success and feedback through monitoring the number of website hits, the number of requests for products at the time of release, attendance at briefings, and by collecting information on media coverage. However, this tracking of program impact is sporadic, and lacks a structured approach and cataloging system. A unified strategy for the timely preparation, release, and subsequent tracing of the impact of NAWQA information would help NAWQA demonstrate significance and return on the nation's investment.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey recently reorganized its science arms into six mission areas: Ecosystems, Climate and Land-Use Change, Energy and Minerals, and Environmental Health, Natural Hazards, Core Science Systems, and Water. NAWQA program data and products can fit within most, if not all these mission areas, and opportunities for collaboration should abound from overlapping interests. NAWQA program leaders should seek further opportunities for cooperation, collaboration, and coordination within the agency and make a systematic effort to communicate its capabilities and potential value to the relevant programs and offices within the USGS through the Science Plan.
  • The NAWQA program has established cooperative relationships and coordinated efforts with external partners, including other federal agencies and local authorities. The program should maintain its interface with other federal agencies and stakeholder groups, and work toward leveraging collaborative resources to meet the needs of the national Science Plan.
  • To meet the national needs outlined in the Cycle 3 Science Plan, the NAWQA program will need to emphasize collaboration in two modes: as a leader that partners with other USGS and external programs, and as a follower with other federal agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector.
  • The NAWQA program should consider engaging partners and collaborators more directly in the development of mutual science plans, seamless exchanges of data and information, and joint implementation of work plans that identify shared responsibilities and accountability.