Closing the Gap Between Water Science and Water Policy
Craig M. Schiffries

Water quality and availability are at the root of many of society’s most pressing concerns — from human health to economic prosperity to environmental protection. In some cases, we lack fundamental scientific information upon which to make informed water policy decisions. In other cases, water policies are inconsistent with basic tenets of water science.

Hydrological and ecological linkages, rather than political boundaries, should form the basis for water management.

The urgent need to close the gap between water science and water policy dominated the 4th National Conference on Science Policy and the Environment, which explored science-based strategies for achieving water sustainability. Hosted by the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) in January 2004, this unique event attracted more than 800 scientists, policy-makers, business executives and civil society representatives from 46 states and 14 countries. The participants worked together to craft recommendations about the role of science in achieving sustainable relationships among water, people and the environment.

In order to pursue sustainable water management, we must first be able to measure our progress toward this goal. Conference participants discussed ways indicators of water sustainability can help us assess and improve our management of water resources. With careful selection, we need to develop a linked set of indicators at multiple spatial and temporal scales that encompass the ecological, economic and social conditions and processes that are relevant to sustainable management of water resources. We should include measures of precision or uncertainty when reporting water sustainability indicators. And, the public must participate in identifying the important issues.

Perhaps more importantly though, we need additional data on freshwater resources and we need to make better use of existing data. For example, a modern national assessment of water availability for the United States does not exist. Recognizing the importance of water availability to communities, agriculture, energy production and ecosystems, Congress has called upon the U.S. Geological Survey to describe the scope and magnitude of the efforts needed to provide periodic assessments of the status and trends in the availability and use of freshwater resources in the United States.

The White House has established an interagency panel under the auspices of the National Science and Technology Council to develop coordinated solutions to questions of water availability and quality. In order to make informed policy decisions, we should undertake an aggressive initiative to collect and synthesize information on water availability and use, including groundwater, surface water and long-term trends.

Amassing information on our water resources is not enough, however. We need to create a framework that can incorporate this information into water management strategies. Hydrological and ecological linkages, rather than political boundaries, should form the basis for water management.

Additionally, governance structures should be designed to facilitate a watershed, basin or ecosystem approach to water management. For example, researchers are increasingly attributing coastal pollution problems, such as nutrient over-enrichment, dead zones and toxic contamination, to diffuse sources far inland from coastal environments. Therefore, effective solutions to these issues must be holistic, entering at the watershed level and connecting coastal pollution with inland sources.

Other key points discussed at the 2004 NCSE conference include the connection between groundwater and surface water, the need for river management and the importance of scientist participation in setting water policy, as illustrated by the following speakers:

* Robert Glennon, author of Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters, said that a profound misunderstanding of water science has been institutionalized in many states, where groundwater and surface water are legally two unrelated entities. This gap has led to practices of unsustainable groundwater withdrawal in some areas and ineffective water management policies that do not take a holistic approach.

Groundwater and surface water are inextricably linked through the hydrologic cycle, and we need to reform the governance of surface and groundwater to reflect actual hydrologic linkages. We also need to improve our scientific understanding of surface water and groundwater linkages. Likewise, we need to improve education and outreach about these linkages, Glennon said at the meeting.

* Brian Richter of the Nature Conservancy said that the challenge of 21st century river management is to better balance human water needs with the water needs of rivers themselves. Meeting this challenge will require a fundamentally new approach to valuing and managing rivers. Richter argues that each component of a river’s flow pattern — the highs, the lows and the levels in between — is important to the health of the river system and the life within it. At the NCSE conference, he said he is optimistic that new policies will be based on the “scientific consensus that restoring some degree of a river’s natural flow pattern is the best way to protect and restore river health and functioning.”

* Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly said that in general, U.S. policy is “a patchwork of laws, precedents and practices from a time when people were fewer and water was more readily available,” which has resulted in “water conflicts in the absence of droughts.” Focusing on the role of scientists in improving water policy, Reilly believes strongly in the need to engage scientists in helping to make environmental policies and setting environmental priorities. At the meeting, he urged scientists to avoid becoming “truants from the policy process.”

To further all these efforts, NCSE is working to increase the scientific literacy of the policy community and to increase the policy literacy of the scientific community. Both are needed to close the gap between water science and water policy.

Schiffries is director of science policy at the National Council for Science and the Environment and co-chair of the U.S. Geological Survey Coalition. He served as chair of the 4th National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment. E-mail:

The National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) is dedicated to improving the scientific basis for environmental decision-making. The council promotes a crosscutting approach to science that integrates interdisciplinary research, scientific assessment, education and communication of science-based information to decision-makers and the general public. NCSE is a multi-stakeholder, nonprofit organization, endorsed by nearly 500 academic, scientific, environmental, governmental and business organizations, that does not take positions on environmental issues.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in Comment by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of AGI, its staff or its member societies.

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