For US Water, ''Hotspots,'' Satellites, Monitoring and Obama

Midway through 2013, here are just a few of the major water-related stories that have grabbed our attention here at Ecocentric:

•    Intense, multiyear drought expected to remain through the summer, covers the largest expanse of the US ever.

•    Unsustainable groundwater withdrawals for agriculture see water tables drop in California.

•    Water wars flare between neighboring Southern states.
   
•    Torrential rains cause massive flooding and serious damage along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. inland waterways.

"We don’t recognize the dire water situation that we face here in the United States," said hydrologist Dr. Jay Famiglietti upon the June release of a new paper, "Water in the Balance" (subscription).

Based on his recent Climate Action Plan speech, President Obama grasps the significance of the water worries that confronts the nation, a theme that Famiglietti highlights in a recent blog post.

Famiglietti, lead author and director of the University of California's Center for Hydrologic Modeling, along with co-author and NASA colleague, Dr. Matt Rodell, gathered data from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites (no relation) and identified six water "hotspots" – i.e., areas prone to drought or flooding – around the United States. The six hotspots include (1 ) aquifers in California's Central Valley; (2 ) the southern High Plains aquifer (including the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and southern Kansas); (3 ) Houston, Texas; (4 ) the entire state of Alabama; (5 ) the Mid-Atlantic states; and (6 ) the frequently flooded upper Missouri River basin (including parts of Montana, North and South Dakota and Nebraska).

The dual GRACE satellites track water stored in river basins (e.g., surface waters like rivers and lakes), snowpack, aquifers and even the soil by recording the earth's relative change in gravity. The raw data is processed by researchers two to six months later. To make the GRACE project even more productive, Famigilietti and others say improvements could be made to allow for quicker access to data (a great expense) in coordination with a tighter onsite field water monitoring scheme. Add in timely climate forecasting and such measures could greatly advance drought and flood prediction systems.

The six hotspots are distinguished by the mounting water stress they face. As the world heats up and climate change continues, the hydrological cycle will intensify, which means the there is a greater likelihood of persistent drought, more rain, less snow and heavier rainfall and even snowfall during storms. The shorthand for these trends is "drought and deluge" and the hotspots recognized in Famiglietti's paper are expected to see more of the same, if not worse.

Even more troubling is that many of these hotspots are located in agriculturally vital lands, such as California's Central Valley and the Great Plains. The economic costs of the historically severe 2012 drought – still plaguing many of the same regions in 2013 – are estimated to be $35 billion. The agricultural sector accounted for the majority of that loss. The prospect of higher food prices because of crop harvests that are increasingly decimated by drought, excessive rain or floods is real, and it has global consequences.

Yet even as these US water crises slog on, they elicit only a faint glimmer of recognition for many, because for most people, only personal experience with environmental problems engenders deeper concern and most Americans haven't been impacted by droughts or floods. "Water in the Balance" paints a compelling picture that attempts to drive home the devastating impact of water shortages and flooding right here in the US.

In his climate speech, President Obama illustrated the value that GRACE satellite data provides by showing water-related conditions over great stretches of the earth.

And we'll partner with communities seeking help to prepare for droughts and floods, reduce the risk of wildfires, protect the dunes and wetlands that pull double duty as green space and as natural storm barriers. And we'll also open our climate data and NASA climate imagery to the public, to make sure that cities and states assess risk under different climate scenarios, so that we don’t waste money building structures that don't withstand the next storm.

Because water problems require so much effort to address, a common refrain from scientists and advocates is that solid and accurate data is the key first step. Without that, there is no foundation on which to base sensible policy, planning, systems and markets.

Before we can change our water use behavior – a monumental task – and begin to better manage some of these pressing concerns, the first step is to monitor and observe. In other words, we must use data to paint the complete picture of water problems so we can solve them effectively.

Instead of a perpetual scramble to confront water problems like the recent torrential Midwestern rains downpours that washed away huge amounts of precious topsoil or the late July California State warning of surface water shortages after the driest winter in almost 90 years, more data, and action in response to that data, can't arrive too soon.

AUTHOR'S NOTE

Watch Jay Famiglietti (upper right) offer a way forward in his TEDx UC Irvine Talk, "Can We End the Global Water Crisis?"

For more on Famiglietti's work, see here:

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