Date: Oct. 5, 1998
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Watershed Management Is Key
To Improving America's Water Resources
The quality of the nation's most polluted waters has improved enormously over the past 20 years, largely as a result of strong action taken to control pollution from sources such as municipal wastewater treatment plants and industrial discharges. Ironically, however, some of the cleanest waters have continued to degrade because pollution from other more diffuse sources, such as urban and agricultural run-off, is harder to control. The recent emergence of toxic organisms like Pfisteria in streams flowing to the Chesapeake Bay and cryptosporidium in Milwaukee's water supply underscores the fact that many lakes, rivers, wetlands, and coastal areas across America fail to meet federal water quality standards. Some bodies of water have experienced loss of biodiversity, decline of fisheries, and curtailment in commercial and recreational activities.
Although effective in protecting drinking water, the current patchwork of federal, state, and local regulations does not consider the full range of benefits provided by watersheds in an integrated way, according to a new report from a committee of the National Research Council. Instead, the committee believes that the more systems-oriented perspective offered by watershed-scale management would improve water resources that have been degraded by pollution.
Reauthorization of the Clean Water Act offers the nation an important opportunity to strengthen its attention to watersheds and the many human activities that affect or are affected by water. The reauthorized Clean Water Act should be designed to conserve and enhance an ecosystem's natural ability to detoxify water; empower local and regional watershed managers to consolidate their authority to increase efficiency and improve cost effectiveness; and encourage partnerships between the management agencies and the National Science Foundation (NSF), given NSF's role in funding related scientific research.
By managing on the scale of entire watersheds -- which include drainage areas and the water, soils, vegetation, animals, land use, and human activities associated with them -- policy-makers can find long-term solutions to many natural resource problems. Watershed-scale management can be difficult because it requires cooperation and information sharing across different jurisdictions and agencies, the committee said. But it can be the best way to address diverse resource management problems in an integrated way because it draws together concepts from the physical, biological, social, and economic sciences. To date, watershed management has been most successful at small scales and in relatively simple systems, while implementation has been more difficult in larger, more-complex watersheds where more problems, and more people's interests, must be addressed.
In addition to suggestions for improving the Clean Water Act, the Research Council committee offered other advice for steering the nation toward improved watershed management. Among the committee's recommendations:
The president and Congress should establish a stable and dedicated source of funding for the federal portion of watershed management partnerships, such as a trust fund or revenue sharing strategy. Funds should be available to state, regional, and local organizations for research, planning, implementation, and ongoing evaluation of watershed initiatives.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Geological Survey and Department of Agriculture, NSF, and other federal agencies involved in watershed studies should increase their investment in research to gather data critical to watershed management including information on toxic contaminants and the water quality of streams. These agencies should support focused research, rather than diffuse programs, because it is more useful for guiding and informing management practices.
States should establish and maintain statewide databases that contain ecological, social, and economic information organized and presented by watershed size. These databases should be available to local watershed managers through the Internet.
The engineering and scientific communities should develop better, more-user-friendly computer systems to help decision-makers understand and evaluate alternative management approaches at the watershed scale.
In their normal course of work, federal agencies should examine the watershed-wide implications of their policies, programs, and processes for issuing permits for dredging or filling wetlands. They also should take into account the ecological, social, and economic consequences of their actions, rather than using a limited project-by-project approach.
The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. The report was funded by the Tennessee Valley Authority, Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Forest Service, McKnight Foundation, and National Water Research Institute. A committee roster follows.
Read the full text of New Strategies for America's Watershedsfor free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web siteor at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources
Water Science and Technology Board
Committee on Watershed Management
William L. Graf (chair)
Regents' Professor of Geography
Department of Geography
Arizona State University
Clifton J. Aichinger
Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District
Blake P. Anderson
Chief Operations Officer
Orange County Sanitation Districts
Fountain Valley, Calif.
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
New Haven, Conn.
Peter A. Bisson
Forestry Sciences Laboratory
U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service
Margot W. Garcia
Department of Urban Studies and Planning
College of Humanities and Science
Virginia Commonwealth University
James P. Heaney
Department of Civil, Environmental, and
University of Colorado
Carol A. Johnston
Senior Research Associate
Natural Resources Research Institute
University of Minnesota
Leonard J. Lane
U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service
Carolyn Hardy Olsen
Assistant General Manager
San Francisco Public Utilities Commission
Gary W. Petersen
Professor of Soil and Land Resources
Department of Agronomy
College of Agricultural Sciences
Pennsylvania State University
Max J. Pfeffer
Department of Rural Sociology
Professor of Resource and Environmental Economics, and
Director, Virginia Water Resources Research Center
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Bierman Professor of Ecology, and
Director, Flathead Lake Biological Station
University of Montana
Stanley W. Trimble
Professor of Geography
Department of Geography
University of California
RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF