The Future of Water Quality and Sustainability
By Kelly A. Reynolds, MSPH, PhD
A new report published by the National Academies Press highlights recommendations for future US water priorities and provides direction for the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) Water Mission Area (WMA) to ensure water quality and sustainability for generations. Contributors include the Committee on Future Water Resource Needs for the Nation: Water Science and Research at the USGS; Water Science and Technology Board; Division on Earth and Life Studies and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (i.e., the committee). The committee identifies the nation’s highest priority water science and resource challenges over the next 25 years. Although not mentioned in the report, the future holds numerous opportunities for the POU industry to be involved in water quality monitoring and risk management.
Safeguarding national security
The USGS is organized into at least seven major mission areas including: core science systems; ecosystems; energy and minerals; environmental health; land resources; natural hazards and water resources. The WMA serves a wide range of stakeholders (such as federal, state, tribal and local agencies, academic researchers, private companies and individuals) who rely on USGS to provide unbiased research and assessments of our water resources.
In a 2017 policy statement, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) forecast that “The provision of adequate fresh-water resources for people and ecosystems will be one of the most critical and potentially contentious issues facing society and governments at all levels during the 21st century.”(1) Climate changes, natural disasters, population increases, human modifications to the water cycle (i.e., landscape and water flow changes) and many other variables add uncertainty to the future stability of water use and availability.
The AMS further summarizes that increasing demands on water needs are a major threat to US national security, given the dependence of agriculture, energy production, sanitation, transportation, recreation and health on the consistent supply of clean water. They further characterize two grand challenges for the broader community: 1) quantify and adapt to hydrologic change and 2) plan under multifaceted uncertainty.
Adapting to hydrologic change requires an enhanced approach to predict water-related risks to communities. Improvements in global climate models, weather tracking and precipitation forecasts are needed. Human behavioral and resilience factors in response to ecological pressures are also difficult to predict. Improved regional predictions of water-related risks promise to lead to better impact assessments, response management and communication and ultimately improved policy, decision making and consumer confidence.
Interdisciplinary partnerships will be critical in the future to address complex water quality and sustainability needs and flexible response is essential. Having structured frameworks in place, such as a stockpile of POU devices at the ready to provide water treatment in hurricane-impacted areas, with variable response options (such as multiple distribution networks) is one example of a planned response under multifaceted uncertainty. While we do not know where the next natural disaster or drinking water infrastructure failure will happen, we know that multiple events will likely occur in the near future.
The Committee on Future Water Resource Needs for the Nation was tasked with identifying and prioritizing key research opportunities in the US over the next 25 years. Acknowledging the advancement in technology over the next two-and-a-half decades may make any current recommendation obsolete, the committee identified six water science and resource challenges for prioritization. They are:(2)
1. Understanding the role of water in the Earth system. As water moves through the atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere, it facilitates physical, chemical and biological processes. Understanding how the water cycle responds and feeds back to global change remains a key challenge in Earth system research.
2. Quantifying the water cycle. Effective management of water resources demands knowledge of how much water there is, its state and where it is located. Quantification of the hydrologic cycle is exceedingly difficult because the stocks, flows and residence times of water vary spatially and temporally.
3. Developing integrated modeling. Models are essential tools for integrating and synthesizing disparate observations, for understanding complex interactions and testing hypotheses, and for reconstructing past conditions and predicting future trajectories of co-evolving systems.
4. Quantifying change in the socio-hydrological system. Understanding how human activities influence water resources is critical to managing these resources globally.
5. Securing reliable and sustainable water supplies. Society is dependent on the availability of clean, reliable and affordable surface water and groundwater for drinking water, food and energy production, industrial activities, healthy ecosystems and recreational activities and tourism.
6. Understanding and predicting water-related hazards. Water-related hazards represent some of the world’s costliest natural disasters in both economic and human terms and are increasingly exacerbated by human activities and climate change.
Based on conditions of scientific importance, societal need, relevance to the USGS mission and its partners, the committee further identified five questions that the USGS water mission area could address to benefit the nation:(2)
1. What is the quality and quantity of atmospheric, surface and sub-surface water, and how do these vary spatially and temporally?
2. How do human activities affect water quantity and quality?
3. How can water accounting be done more effectively and comprehensively to provide data on water availability and use?
4. How does changing climate affect water quality, quantity and reliability, as well as water-related hazards and extreme events?
5. How can long-term water-related risk management be improved?
The Committee on Future Water Resource Needs for the Nation’s report mentioned emerging technologies aimed at improving water-monitoring abilities, including real-time sensors, drones for accessing remote regions and citizen scientists to aid in big data collection and reporting within organized data networks.
Relative to the five priority questions, the committee published specific recommendations to support action-oriented approaches moving forward to align multidisciplinary stakeholders. Recommendations include:(2)
• Enhance data collection, include citizen science and develop web-based analytical tools.
• Coordinate with agencies and organizations on data delivery.
• Increase focus on the relationships between human activities and water.
• Develop a robust water accounting system.
• Collaborate with agencies and organizations on water-data standards and categories of use.
• Ensure that monitoring networks provide adequate information to assess changing conditions.
• Focus on long-term prediction and risk assessment of extreme water conditions.
• Develop multi-scale, integrated, dynamic models that encompass the full water cycle.
• Collaborate as appropriate both within and outside of USGS, including agencies and the private sector.
• Build a workforce that is ready to take on new water challenges.
One of the key messages of the committee’s report is the vast complexities of our water resources and the many challenges ahead, as changes in space and time have dramatic impacts on water quantity and quality. While there is a need for more transparency, data collection and collaboration, most of the report is focused on identifying problems and not necessarily solving them. The charge for gathering more information on our water resources will enhance preparedness, response time and decision analysis but the fundamental question “Is our water safe?” and the need for targeted treatment technologies, will remain.
POU response needs
Over the next 25 years, POU water treatment technologies will continue to evolve. More efficient and effective systems offered at lower costs will be essential for serving population needs. With an estimated global population increase of two billion people by 2040 (and increased economic growth in the developing world), the POU industry also has a growing opportunity for broader applications in preventing exposures to harmful microbes and emerging chemicals.
The POU industry has an opportunity to contribute to big data collection and water quality monitoring. Incorporating real-time sensors in household water treatment systems and collectively sharing data could answer questions related to regional water use patterns and temporal and spatial quality. As the USGS and WMA adapt to future needs, the POU industry should be part of the multidisciplinary team working together to improve water science and resource management.
(1) American Meteorological Society. Water Resources in the 21st Century–American Meteorological Society. https://www.ametsoc.org/index.cfm/ams/about-ams/ams-statements/statements-of-the-ams-in-force/water-resources-in-the-21st-century1/. Accessed December 16, 2018.
(2) National Academies of Sciences E and M. Future Water Priorities for the Nation. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press; 2018. doi:10.17226/25134
About the author
Dr. Kelly A. Reynolds is a University of Arizona Professor at the College of Public Health; Chair of Community, Environment and Policy; Program Director of Environmental Health Sciences and prior, Director of Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center (ESRAC). She holds a Master of Science Degree in public health (MSPH) from the University of South Florida and a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Arizona. Reynolds is WC&P’s Public Health Editor and a former member of the Technical Review Committee. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org