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USGS Water Research Threatened

Lisa M. Pinsker

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President Bush has proposed a heavy blow to water programs at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) with his federal budget for fiscal year 2003, released on Feb. 4. The budget would give the USGS $904 million, a 5 percent overall cut from last year. Almost half of that cut — $22 million — comes out of the Survey’s two major water quality programs, the National Water Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA) and the Toxic Substances Hydrology Program (Toxics).

The Toxics program would receive no money for the next fiscal year. Instead, the budget calls to cut the $13.9 million program from the USGS and then transfer $10 million to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a competitive-grants process for researching water quality issues. The NAWQA program will remain but with a $5.8 million reduction, or a 9 percent decrease, bringing its budget to $57.3 million — more than half of the total allocated funds for water research at the USGS.

While experts on the Hill do not think Congress will look favorably on the proposed cuts to USGS water programs, the problem remains that the government as a whole no longer has surpluses. And the top priorities of this administration are homeland security and the war on terrorism. Balancing those priorities and needs is proving to be a tough chore this year.

Ironically, a group from the Toxics program visited Sandia National Laboratories on September 11 to discuss field testing new technology out of Sandia that allows for real-time detection of water contaminants (Geotimes, January 2002). But, despite the natural connection between water security and homeland security, the proposed budget gives USGS water programs no money to help prevent terrorist attacks on the U.S. water supply. The transfer would shut down long-term research sites, some of which have been operating for close to 20 years.

Viewed here is an outcrop of fractured rock aquifer at Mirror Lake in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire. USGS Toxics support for research in the watershed originated in 1990. Recently, Toxics research related to the fate of contaminants in bedrock environments has evolved beyond the Mirror Lake site -- to apply the past 20 years of research there to contaminated sites. Toxics is now developing the former Naval Air Warfare Center in West Trenton, N.J. to investigate the movement of various contaminants. Courtesy of USGS.


“The subject of water quality has been in the Survey’s activity and mission essentially since the start over 120 years ago,” says Bob Hirsch, associate director for hydrology at the USGS. Water quality programs started to boom at the Survey in the 1980s when more people were paying attention to point source contamination (pollution from an easily identifiable location). “What we endeavored to do early on was to say ‘Can we develop research sites to look generically at these kinds of problems and understand how contaminants behave?’”

And that, Hirsch says, was the real flagship aspect of the Toxics program, created in 1983 to address subsurface, point source contamination, regional- and watershed-scale contamination, and methods and tools for assessing water quality.
The program, funded by Congress, saw significant increases throughout the 1980s with a leveling in the 1990s. What makes the Toxics program unique, says Herbert Buxton, program coordinator, is how it provides information and tools to other USGS programs, including NAWQA, as well as to outside agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Departments of Defense and Energy. “Not only do we support our other water quality activities with our methods and tools but we also support a lot of other resource managers and regulatory agencies,” Buxton says.

The Toxics program directs 48 percent of its funding to the National Research Program in the Hydrologic Sciences (NRP), a research group that serves all USGS water programs and also receives funds from NAWQA. “We work together to try to develop new techniques and methods. Every program benefits from the work we do at the National Research Program,” says Mary Jo Baedecker, chief scientist of hydrology at USGS. The president’s budget would reduce NRP’s budget 24 percent, with the Toxics transfer to NSF, and shut down all research work at Toxics sites.

Marcus Peacock, associate director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), says the Toxics transfer to NSF would establish a merit-based competitive review to promote better science. John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, echoed Peacock, explaining during a media conference call that the Toxics program was one of many science programs OMB treated the same way: “programs that supported science that was somewhat outside the agency mission, or else similar to the kinds of programs NSF has done such a good job in managing over the years.”

Hirsch says, however, that the NSF model would not work for a program like Toxics. “NSF would go through the typical NSF-style process of putting out a broad request for proposals and getting academic researchers to make proposals for projects they could carry out, typically say a three-year project.” That style, Hirsch says, differs greatly from Toxics’ model of long-term investment in research and development.

Toxics-sponsored projects can run from months to years. Project length depends on what is found and the needs of the site. Research hydrologist Allen Shapiro has been studying how contaminants flow through fractured rock at a Toxics site in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire for 17 years. His work at this uncontaminated site has allowed for the development and transfer of methods and technology for scientists to study related problems at sites around the world.

Last year’s budget also called for a similar transfer to EPA. Congress didn’t go for it then. According to a source in the House Appropriations Committee, members on the Hill won’t go for it now. He says that the proposal directly conflicts with priorities set by the Department of the Interior, such as the cooperative restoration projects in Florida for the Everglades and in California for a program called CALFED.

Allen Shapiro collects water samples to analyze chlorofluorocarbon concentrations in groundwater at the Toxics site at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, N.H. Water smaples are collected in flame-sealed ampoules to avoid contact between the water sample and the atmosphere. Courtesy of Allen Shapiro.

“In both of those cases, a lot of the science for those programs comes out of the Toxic Substances Hydrology Program,” the House source says. “So why would you eliminate a program that’s providing science for two of your highest initiatives?” And this tone of dismay on Capitol Hill also rings true for the proposed cuts to NAWQA, he adds.

The NAWQA program also began in the 1980s, as congressional interest in national water-quality assessment grew in the years following passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. After the NAWQA pilot program underwent rigorous review by the National Research Council (NRC) and Congress, it won the green light from Congress in 1991. “So we essentially just now finished our first decade,” Hirsch says.

NAWQA studies 42 geographic areas across the United States that represent regions where water quality is of highest significance, particularly agricultural regions. “The program was originally designed to be 59 study areas, but our funding hasn’t kept pace with inflation, so instead of just diluting the effort and covering all 59 areas, we prioritized the areas,” says Tim Miller, program chief.

The proposed budget cuts would bring the number of NAWQA study units down to 39. “And the statement from the president’s budget is the hope that other agencies will come forward with money on a reimbursable basis so that the program would not have to be decreased in size,” Hirsch says. But, he adds, no agency has stepped forward yet.

Some people may confuse NAWQA’s work with that of EPA. But Hirsch says EPA differs in its mission and approach, which is regulatory, giving grants to individual states to monitor water quality. State to state water-quality research is valuable but does not provide the same national infrastructure of NAWQA, he says. “If you asked every state to look at its water quality, some of them would do an excellent job; some of them would not do an excellent job. They will do it in different ways. They will go to different laboratories. They will use different databases. And an ability to bring that story together, to bring that information together to tell a story is exceedingly difficult.” And that, he says, is what NAWQA does.

In its latest review of NAWQA, released in January, NRC recommended that NAWQA do more and not less. NRC would like to see NAWQA conduct microbial sampling and expand its water-quality modeling efforts. Similarly, the Toxics program has recently garnered praise for its work. The Dec. 1, 2001, issue of the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science and Technology recognized the 10 papers that have had the greatest impact on environmental sciences in the last 35 years. USGS scientists who are part of the Toxics program authored three of the papers.
Other Budget Notes

In addition to the NAWQA and Toxics cuts, the president's proposed budget would cut the National Streamflow Information Program (NSIP) by $2.1 million, while increasing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's budget by $4.5 million, specifically for improved flood and river forecast services in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. But the information NOAA relies on for these services is stream gaging information from NSIP.

The budget also suggests eliminating all federal support for the State Water Resources Institute Program. The current funding for the program is $6 million. The proposed cuts would eliminate federal grants, which use the federal funding along with state matching funds for the education of future hydrologists.

The USGS Toxics program is not the only one the proposed budget slates for a transfer to NSF. The budget would also transfer the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's $57 million Sea Grant program and the Environmental Protection Agency's $9 million Environmental Education program. Early budget leaks had discussed these transfers along with a move of three Smithsonian Institution research facilities. The Smithsonian transfer generated the most controversy, including a masthead editorial in the New York Times. That transfer was not included in the final budget request.

Overall, NSF would receive a 5 percent increase in its budget. In the geosciences, the NSF budget would increase 13.4 percent to a total of $691.1 million. Without the three program transfers, however, the increase in geosciences is a more modest 1.2 percent.

NSF reports that it will try to facilitate smooth transitions for existing research projects within Toxics, Sea Grant and the Environmental Education program.

The Office of Management and Budget is citing NSF as a model organization, largely because it sends out nearly all of its money as grants in a peer-reviewed, openly competitive process. "And that's proven to give good results year after year," says John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Lisa M. Pinsker

On the Web:

USGS Toxics Program
NAWQA
NRP
NSIP
State Water Resources Research Institute Program

Office of Science and Technology
American Geological Institute's Government Affairs Program

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