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Toward an Integrated Approach to Water

Toward an Integrated Approach to Water

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Executive Summary

Water is simultaneously a resource and a threat. It is centrally important to every aspect of the nation’s socioeconomic wellbeing. It drives or contributes to: disaster preparedness and response, transportation, energy, national security, agriculture, and public health, among others. Water becomes a hazard when there is too much, too little, or if the quality is poor.

Existing and future vulnerabilities associated with coastal inundation, floods, droughts, the impact of routine and extreme weather events, and the threat of climate change all depend, primarily or in part, on water. The ever-changing, increasingly human-influenced water regime is characterized by localized, uncontrolled, intermittent, and sometimes huge flows of water (fresh and salt) across coastal zones, urban and rural areas, transportation infrastructure, agricultural resources, and through waterways.

This study is the culmination of a 3-year AMS Policy Program project to advance the integrated consideration of water—the full accounting of water for prediction, risk assessment, and risk management of weather and climate risks. The project was supported, primarily, through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The integrated consideration of water consists of two related components: 1) the need for risk assessment and management efforts to understand and account for all sources of water and all factors that influence water’s behavior, and 2) recognition that the hydrological cycle, and water (salt and fresh), is simultaneously a resource and a threat with wide-ranging implications.

For any particular weather or climate event, sources of water may include precipitation, tides, waves, sea level rise, storm surge, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers. The amount and characteristics of water involved in any event also depend, in part, on factors such as geomorphology, hydrological connectivity, land use patterns and grey or green infrastructure (e.g., marshes, wetlands, levees, seawalls, and other physical barriers). Accounting for all sources and factors is particularly critical for comprehensive risk assessment and management.

This study recapitulates and synthesizes three prior analyses: 1) Understanding the Water Landscape of the United States: A Review of Science & Policy Recommendations; 2) Water & the Coasts: Opportunity, Vulnerability, & Risk Management, a study based on two workshops that explored regional challenges in the gulf coast, west coast, atlantic coast, and the great lakes; and 3) Opportunities for Forecast-Informed Water Resources Management, based on a workshop that brought together forecasters and resource managers from around the country.

There is a vast and ongoing national dialogue on water from which much can be learned. Understanding the Water Landscape of the United States: A Review of Science and Policy Recommendations synthesized 30 different assessments that focused on national and regional scales. We identified overarching recommendations to increase actionable information related to water and to improve the use of that information for societal benefit. Notably, there are many goals for water resources management that sometimes conflict. When considered in isolation, sub-optimal outcomes often result.

The opportunities and challenges posed by water are especially acute at the coasts, which are both major resources and often highly vulnerable to extreme events. Coastal communities are also particularly sensitive to changes in land use, population distributions, and climate.

Water & the Coasts: Opportunity, Vulnerability, & Risk Management identified seven ways to enhance coastal risk management: 1) to provide actionable information; 2) to prepare and empower information users; 3) to create decision support products and services that harness scientific advances for societal benefit; 4) to build strong partnerships among stakeholders, practitioners, and information providers; 5) to develop the next generation workforce; 6) to align roles and responsibilities; and 7) to recognize linkages and potential leverage.

Water resources management is a primary need for every community across the country. Existing weather and hydrological forecasts provide a great deal of actionable information that could improve water resource management decisions. Furthermore, water resource management is well positioned to take advantage of improvements in forecasts over a wide range of time and spatial scales. Opportunities for Forecast-Informed Water Resources Management identified opportunities to improve the type and quality of available information and the uptake & use of the available information in water resource management.

The range and scope of issues related to water is enormous. Our three analyses barely scratch the surface of topics requiring attention in water. Nevertheless, the analysis synthesized here combines: nearly three dozen assessments; examination of coastal issues throughout the country; and exploration of resource management challenges across the United States. As a result, this synthesis is able to provide a very broad overview of the opportunities and needs in Earth observations, science, and services with respect to water.

We emphasize six main opportunities for the advancement of water-related issues:

  • Improve the information available through observations, science, model capability, and computational resources
  • Use the available information more effectively for societal benefit, most notably through improved collaboration, communication among Federal, state, and local authorities; stakeholders; scientists; and service providers
  • Provide an effective policy framework for enhancing both the availability of information and society’s ability to use it
  • Create, strengthen, and evolve partnerships among public, private, academic, and NGO communities, recognizing that opportunities, needs, and capabilities evolve over time
  • Strengthen the workforce in water
  • Engage and empower the public to demand, understand, use, and contribute to water information and services

These six areas of emphasis often overlap. Each encompasses entire families of challenges, opportunities, and needs. Nevertheless, progress within each family has great potential to help society manage water-related risks and opportunities.

Additional challenges relating to water include the need to address issues at the appropriate level of government (federal, state, local, international) and to overcome boundaries among the governing water management authorities and responsible parties. These challenges arise, in part, because the scope of the water management challenge is widely distributed over individual, institutional, and governmental domains. At the same time, the focus of management attention is too often fragmented, incomplete, and focused on short-term objectives.

Finally, the larger context in which these water-related issues occur is extremely important to consider. Scientific, technological, and societal change is rapid with respect to observing technologies and platforms; computer analytic capabilities; and societal needs, both nationally and internationally. Preparation, planning, and responses for water share much with a wide range of challenges and opportunities across the weather and climate arena. Most notably challenges in transitioning research to operations (R2O) and in environmental prediction for the ocean, atmosphere, land surface, weather, climate, and space weather. Well-considered and sustained processes of determining the value of information and services will be vital to both scientific advancement and efforts to improve society’s ability to benefit from scientific information.

Earth observations and science provide critical environmental intelligence that enables society to understand challenges and opportunities associated with the earth system. Services build on this information to expand society’s capacity to manage risks and realize opportunities that environmental intelligence reveals. Societal decisions have the greatest chance to benefit people when grounded in the best available knowledge and understanding.