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Investing in Cooperative Water Research
Emery T. Cleaves

In 1966 and 1968, two cooperative studies delineated the Naylor Mill Paleochannel as a future major groundwater supply source for the city of Salisbury, Md. Since then, this abundant supply of groundwater has been crucial to Salisbury’s growth into a thriving urban center on Maryland’s lower eastern shore.
In a more recent cooperative study — this one for the drought from the summer of 2001 to October 2002 — a stream-gaging network documented the drought’s impact on stream flow, and groundwater-level observation wells tracked the drought’s impact on the water table aquifers. The data provided key information for the Maryland governor’s drought policies.

Both the recent study and the one from the 1960s are examples of the power of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Cooperative Water Program.

The Cooperative Water Program provides the foundation for adequate water monitoring and research — as growing communities, industries, agriculture, energy production and critical ecosystems depend on water being available in adequate quantity and suitable quality. The project is a committed, joint effort by water users, local governments, state agencies and federal agencies to implement the appropriate combination of water planning and regulation.

From its inception in 1895, the Cooperative Water Program has historically been funded on a 50-50 cost-share basis between USGS and nonfederal cooperators, reflecting the shared benefits of the data and reports. These funding partners include agencies such as the Maryland Geological Survey, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer. In recent years, however, federal funding for the program has been level or slightly decreasing.

Because of inflation, federal cost-of-living increases and pay raises, the buying power of USGS matching funds continues to decrease, while the need for these funds continues to grow. In fiscal year 2000, $40 million in state and local funds was unmatched, and that amount increased to $61 million in fiscal year 2004. In fiscal year 2003, funding partners supported about 68 percent of the cost of stream gaging in the cooperative program. Because USGS stream-gaging costs rise annually at about 4 percent a year (about the rate of mandated federal pay raises), with no increase in federal matching funds, the cooperators must raise their contributions about 8 percent per year for the program to maintain its current level of production. This rate of increased costs to the cooperator is not sustainable and threatens the viability of the 110-year USGS-cooperative partnerships in stream gaging.

In Georgia, the Albany Water, Gas and Light Commission was not able to provide additional funding to continue a project at its current level, and thus reduced a groundwater-level monitoring network by 10 wells and discontinued monitoring a nitrate contamination problem near a major well field. This funding shortage reduces the state’s ability to track groundwater conditions during droughts and makes it more difficult to protect drinking water supplies from nitrate contamination.

In New Mexico, the Malaga Bend Salt Alleviation Project of the Office of the Water Engineer had to restrict maintenance and repairs, and could not install critical telemetry equipment on stream gages. As a result, water-data users will need to wait several weeks to see data that could be transmitted in real-time via satellite.

Despite these setbacks, however, partners continue to push forward water studies and assessments, as evidenced by the continuing growth of unmatched funds (funds contributed by state and local governments that are not matched by USGS). But because of the stagnation in the Cooperative Water Program’s budget, the increasing reliance on state, local and regional entities for funds reduces USGS’ options to choose the studies that they undertake. Some studies have been canceled or maintained at current levels because USGS cannot provide matching funds.

More important, the loss of matching funds reduces the support available for vital water investigations and water-monitoring networks that are increasingly needed for water-supply planning management and regulation, as well as for water-quality investigations (including studying MTBE, arsenic and radium in groundwater). For example, a hypothetical two-year water study costing a total of $500,000 with no USGS matching funds would result in $250,000 invested in the scientific objectives of the study and $250,000 being spent for necessary technical and administrative support, such as equipment, maintenance, travel and rent. However, if matching funds were provided at 50-50, the study could expand to a $1 million effort, with more than $500,000 being invested in the study — more than doubling the amount available to invest in scientific objectives, at no additional cost to the cooperator.

Georgia and Arizona illustrate the issue. In the Piedmont Province of Georgia, groundwater studies in the fractured rock have been put on hold until adequate matching funds become available. Also, a storm-water quality program could not be implemented for the city of Lawrenceville because matching funds were unavailable. And in Arizona three rural watershed initiatives received limited USGS matching funds which resulted in a reduction of the work that otherwise would have been undertaken.

To ensure that these and other benefits continue into the future, the Cooperative Water Program needs increased financial resources. I recommend that initially $10 million in increased funds be requested for the upcoming fiscal year, and that in future years incremental increases be requested so that the gap in unmatched funds can be closed within six years.

Toward this goal, water resource issues need greater visibility at the federal, state and local levels. At the federal level, the cooperators in the program and the associations to which they belong need to carry the message to the senior people in USGS, the Department of the Interior, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. They especially need to communicate their concerns to key committees on Capitol Hill and their state delegations.


Cleaves is the state geologist of Maryland and director of the Maryland Geological Survey. E-mail: ecleaves@dnr.state.md.us.

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