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Addressing a National Need
A Perspective for the 1990’s
By David A. Rickert
he protection and enhancement of the
quality of the Nation's surface and
ground water are high-priority concerns of the public and government. Since 1970, Congress has passed several acts that created regulatory programs aimed at curtailing the entry of point-source pollution into our waters. These programs have the interrelated, basic goals of maintaining or enhancing the quality of surface and ground water and protecting aquatic resources and human health.
Twenty years ago the major water-quality concerns were low dissolved oxygen content and accelerated eutrophication of specific rivers, lakes, and estuaries. Accordingly, considerable time and money were spent to reduce oxygen-demanding wastes and plant nutrients from municipal and industrial point sources. These expenditures have abated the worst of gross point-source pollution, but more subtle, complex problems have become evident. During the 1980's, the effects of acid precipitation, a nonpoint source, were observed, investigated, and politically debated. The Nation faces a new water-quality
challenge in the 1990's—how to reduce contamination from potentially toxic trace elements and manmade trace organic substances that enter surface and ground water largely from nonpoint sources, such as urban storm drainage and agricultural and forestry practices.
The Water Quality Act of 1987 reauthorized and amended the Clean Water Act of 1977 and switched the focus of new waterquality regulations in the United States from point to nonpoint sources. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administers the Water Quality Act. Section 316 of the Act requires each State to develop and implement a plan to identify and limit pollution from nonpoint sources. In addition, in 1989, President Bush announced a major multiagency water-quality initiative, administered by the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, to prevent and ameliorate contamination from agricultural sources.
To successfully respond to the Water Quality Act and the President's Water-Quality Initiative, government agencies and the private sector must address complex, technical questions. Questions of policy also must be addressed. Are national water-quality goals being met? How should funds be allocated to solve important water-quality problems? How should monitoring networks differ in different areas and hydrologic settings of the country? Can regulations and best management practices be targeted to particular geographic regions of hydrologic settings? Information on the relations among land use practices, relative sources of pollution, and water-quality effects is the key to answering first the technical and then the policy questions. And, to be most useful, this information must be made available at various scales—local, regional, and national.
The USGS and Water Quality
As a nonregulatory agency, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) of the U.S. Department of the Interior provides objective, interpretive information on the quantity, movement, and quality of surface and ground water. The new (1990) National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program will provide nationally consistent information on the Nation's water quality that can be used by Congress and resource-management agencies to address the water-quality issues of the 1990's. The NAWQA program is a capstone to the total USGS water-quality effort.
The NAWQA program builds on and expands the output from all existing waterquality programs. The overall USGS waterquality effort, including NAWQA, is • National in scope, • Inclusive of detailed, in-depth studies of local areas, • Highly interpretive, • Based on a continually updated understanding of fundamental chemical and biological processes, • Perennial, and • Closely linked to present and changing information needs of Congress and regulatory agencies.
The total water-quality effort of the USGS includes research, monitoring, and assessment, which together provide an understanding of water-quality problems and are the basis for evaluating resource-management decisions. • Research.--To provide an understanding of fundamental physical, chemical, and biological processes and rates. • Monitoring.—To continually measure water-quality conditions over space and time by using networks that are fixed station and fixed in time. • Assessment.—To define the status and trends of water quality and the causes of observed conditions and trends by building on research and monitoring.
Water-quality research in the USGS is primarily conducted under the water resources National Research Program and the Toxic Substances Hydrology program.
National Research Program (NRP).Improves the understanding of the nature and rates of physical, chemical, and biological processes that affect the movement of water and chemical constituents through hydrologic systems so that appropriate methods can be developed to predict the effects of natural and man-induced stresses. The NRP is functionally divided into six research disciplines: surface-water hydrology, ground-water hydrology, surface-water chemistry, groundwater chemistry, geomorphology and sediment transport, and ecology.
Toxic Substances Hydrology Program.— Provides increased understanding of the occurrence, movement, and fate of hazardous substances in the Nation's surface and ground water. Program efforts consist of small-scale field studies of point-source contamination that has resulted in waste plumes in ground water and degraded stream reaches and regional-scale field studies of the occurrence and movement of toxic substances and the controlling of natural and human factors.
Monitoring The USGS operates the only two national monitoring networks that measure surfacewater quality, the Hydrologic Benchmark Network and the National Stream Quality Accounting Network. Hydrologic Benchmark Network (HBN). — Consists of 58 sites for water quantity and quality data collection in relatively small, pristime watersheds. The HBN identifies longterm water-quality trends over time in areas unaffected by in-basin activities and provides a baseline with which to compare basins directly impacted by man. The HBN consists
of fixed stations having fixed sampling schedules, consistent methods for collecting samples, and a consistent schedule for analysis of field parameters, major ions, nutrients, trace elements, and coliform bacteria (no trace organics are measured). The HBN provides a commitment to long-term data collection, analysis, and interpretation. National Stream Quality Accounting Network (NASQAN). —Consists of 411 active stations where outflows from most of the major rivers of the country, both to other rivers and to the oceans, are measured. NASQAN identifies long-term water-quality trends in the major rivers of the country, relates the trends to upstream land and water use, and accounts for transport (fluxes) of measured constituents off the continent and to critical estuaries and the Great Lakes. In addition to HBN and NASQAN, the USGS coordinates and operates part of the Federal National Trends Network for acid precipitation, from which weekly samples of wet deposition are collected and analyzed from 150 network sites nationwide.
While research and monitoring are wellestablished approaches that provide an understanding of environmental processes and conditions, these approaches do not provide the depth and breadth of information necessary to address important technical and policy questions at a national scale. Research is exhaustively detailed, usually areally limited, and open ended over time. In contrast, monitoring can provide broad areal coverage and continuing observations over time, but it does not provide insight into explanations or causes. Assessment fills the critical void between research and monitoring, building on knowledge of processes to explain observations by identifying factors and defining cause and effect.
To date, most water-quality assessment has been conducted through the USGS Federal-State Cooperative Program. This program, established in 1895, manages agreements wherein State and local agencies provide at least one-half of the funding for USGS investigations on statewide and local resource issues. As such, the program provides a commitment for funding and allows flexibility in monitoring and assessing those issues of greatest local and national concern.
In 1990, the USGS has agreements with nearly 1,000 agencies. Many of the current investigations include assessing water-quality conditions in a particular river reach or part of an aquifer. These studies include extensive data acquisition that form the core of State monitoring programs, interpretation of new
and existing data, and computer modeling of hydrologic systems to understand the probable consequences of various management actions. In many States, the cooperative program has provided extensive long-term data bases that are extremely valuable for regional and national assessments.
Water-quality assessments have been conducted by many agencies, academia, and the private sector in the United States for about 100 years. Most previous water-quality assessments, however, have addressed local problems, and all have been limited in scope and scale. A national, perennial water-quality assessment has never been attempted and, in this absence, important national-in-scope technical and policy questions are left unanswered.
Challenges of a National Water-Quality Assessment
Assessing the Nation's water quality is formidable. The land area to be assessed is vast, water quality varies over space and time, water-quality problems are numerous, and field work and laboratory analyses, especially those for trace organic chemicals, are expensive. The dual challenge of managing a large area and water-quality variability can be lessened because many national issues are actually repetitive problems from different climatic or geohydrologic environments that represent specific regions of the country. For example, most questions relevant to national policy on the occurrence of pesticides can be answered by studying a few types of crops, each treated with a typical array of applied pesticides, in a few climatic or geohydrologic regions. Those questions left unanswered by these small-scale studies can then be addressed by combining information to cross regional boundaries to the national scale. Most field research occurs at the local (river reach or ground-water contaminant plume) scale. In contrast, most water-quality monitoring occurs at the statewide (study unit to regional) or national scales. To date, waterquality assessments generally have been conducted at the local scale. The water-quality program of the USGS is unique because it fully integrates research, monitoring, and assessment and is conducted at all scales. Information derived from the other scales can be integrated at the national level only if certain factors are consistent within a national framework. These factors are (1) common study approaches, (2) common protocols for field and laboratory analysis, including descriptions of sampling sites, (3) consistent records of ancillary information, (4) data storage in national files, and (5) a nationally
consistent set of water-quality constituents. Certain water-quality constituents and issues are of concern only in certain areas of the country; therefore, the USGS has stipulated a national set of constituents that can be added to or reduced, as appropriate, at the other scales. At each areal scale, the NAWQA program will result in different information products: statistical descriptions, geographic descriptions, and explanations of observed conditions.
Why the USGS2
The USGS is ideally suited to conduct a national, perennial water-quality assessment because it has • Experience in managing national waterquality networks, • A national water-resources research program, a large portion of which is focused on the chemical, biological, and morphological fundamentals of water quality, • An existing national water-quality program that measures the quantity and flow of surface and ground water and provides the hydrologic basis needed to conduct chemical and biological studies, • A nationally distributed field staff trained to collect and interpret chemical and biological data (see map, p. 22), • In-depth experience in surface-water, ground-water, and linked surface- and ground-water studies, • Experience in water-quality assessments at the local and statewide scales, • No regulatory jurisdiction, and • Experience working across political boundaries on multi-State river basins and aquifers.
NAWQA Program Design
The NAWQA program will provide a nationally consistent description of current water-quality conditions for a large part of the Nation's water resources, define long-term trends (or lack of trends) in water quality, and identify, describe, and explain the major factors that affect observed water-quality conditions and trends. In some cases, the program also will enable hydrologists to define specific cause and effect relations.
NAWQA combines the surface-water and ground-water investigations of 60 areas around the country that incorporate about 60 percent of the Nation's population and water use (see map, p. 23). Study units range in size from a few thousand to several tens of thousands of square miles. By conducting the national program as an aggregation of individual studies, NAWQA results will be useful in understanding and managing important river basins and aquifers, as well as in
answering national-scale questions. This approach also readily permits detailed investigations of specific river reaches and small parts of aquifers. Because of the emphasis in NAWQA on defining trends in water quality, the program is designed to be perennial. Assessments in each of the study units, however, are conducted on a rotational rather than a continuous basis. A subset of only 20 study units is studied in detail at a given time. For each study unit, 3- to 4-year periods of intensive data collection and analysis are alternated with 6-year periods during which the assessment activities are less intensive. NAWQA focuses on water-quality conditions that affect large areas and are persistent in time, that is, on water-quality problems that result from nonpoint sources or from an aggregation of point sources. All major types of water-quality problems, ranging from classical sanitary issues, such as dissolved oxygen and bacteria through sediment and nutrients, to a major emphasis on toxic substances, including trace elements, pesticides, and industrial organics, are being investigated. Chemical measurements form a national target list of variables, including some in situ measurements of inorganic constituents and organic compounds. Biological measurements in NAWQA are used to determine the occurrence and distribution of waters contaminated by fecal material, help determine the occurrence and distribution of potentially toxic
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substances, and define the relations between the physical and the chemical characteristics of streams and the functional and structural aspects of the biological community. Within each study unit, surface-water quality is investigated through a combination of fixed-station sampling (frequent monitoring), supplemental sampling, and studies of selected stream reaches. In contrast, groundwater quality is studied by regional sampling, targeted sampling, and long-term sampling (less frequent monitoring).
Coordination With Other Agencies
Historically, the coordinated nature of the Federal-State Cooperative Program, plus considerable work with other Federal agencies, has kept the USGS abreast of emerging water issues and the information needs of water management officials. Such close involvement has helped to identify needs that in turn have guided many USGS research and monitoring studies.
External coordination at all levels will be an integral component of NAWQA. Effective interagency coordination is needed to continually, quickly, and fully understand the waterquality information needs of regulatory and resource management agencies, to locate existing water-quality and ancillary data to help interpret NAWQA data, and to permit rapid communication of important findings.
Local Regional National Short term ... Federal-State Cooperative Program. Urban hydrology Some research on rivers Multiyear..... Federal-State Cooperative Federal-State Cooperative NAWQA. Program. Program. Toxic substances hydrology Toxic substances hydrology program. program (regional studies). Acid-precipitation studies. . . . . . . Acid-precipitation studies Research on rivers, lakes, estu- Regional aquifer-systems analyaries, and ground-water con- sis (geochemical studies). tamination. Irrigation drainage program NAWQA Decade....... Acid-precipitation studies. . . . . . . Federal-State Cooperative NASQAN. Program (water-quality Hydrologic networks). benchmark network. Nuclear hydrology. . . . . . . . . . . . . . NAWQA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . National trends network (wetfall). NAWQA.