Fixing the Broken U.S. Water System With Data

We are living in an era of “big data,” with big data and evidence-based decision making transforming the world, from energy to health care sector—and increasingly in the public sector as well. We have access to monthly and annual energy consumption by the residential and commercial sector, which together account for 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption. We know what is the monthly and annual employment, unemployment, and labor force data across U.S. states, counties, metropolitan areas, and even cities. If we want to know how many people fly domestically in the United States each day, we have data for that too.

And then there is the water sector—a surprisingly data-poor sector.

Among the natural resource challenges facing the country, perhaps none is more important than ensuring access to clean water to serve the many needs and purposes people have. The problems are multiple and complex: major investment is required to maintain and improve water infrastructure; competition for water is increasing among the different uses and users; and water quality has become a significant issue in many communities.

Most experts would agree that the best way to address the challenges confronting the water sector is to thoroughly research how and where water is being used.

Yet, we do not have that data. We do not measure water use every day or month. We do not even measure it every year.

Currently, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collects and publishes water data every five years. The latest year for which water data is available is 2010 and covers water use in each state by quality and quantity, by source, and by categories of water use (e.g., public supply, irrigation, thermoelectric power, or industrial). A recent Brookings report examined more than 50 years of data, up until 2010, from the USGS to highlight differences in water use among states and between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas

Even though a national water use data tool is available, the lack of most up-to-date water data hinders the advancement of water management. Since 2010, several changes have taken place that have had significant impact on the nation’s water resources. California battled five years of epic drought, Flint, Michigan’s tap water became contaminated with high lead levels, the Colorado River basin—backbone of the west and an economic engine for the entire country—is drying up fast, and intensive farming is draining age-old aquifers in Kansas and Nebraska, among other places.

At a time when themes of innovation, resiliency, and sustainability are being discussed to better manage the nation’s water supplies and water quality, modernizing water data to provide reliable and accurate yearly information would go a long way towards catalyzing change in how we use, conserve, protect, and think about water in the years to come. Between May 2016 and February 2017, the Aspen Institute hosted several roundtables with a group of water experts to focus on how to create better water data infrastructure to access and connect publicly collected and reported sources of data, beginning with quantity, quality, and use information. 

However, we do have an example right in front of us. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), which was created by Congress in 1977 as a response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, collects, curates, and analyzes every facet of our nation’s energy use and helps inform public policy decisions.  The EIA covers the full spectrum of energy sources, end uses, and energy flows and has emerged as the primary federal government authority on energy statistics and analysis.

The above example is not a perfect comparison to the water sector. The U.S. water infrastructure is highly fragmented and fractured with a large number of federal, states, and local entities overseeing regulations, guiding investments, and managing various infrastructure programs and projects. The number, size, and ownership in the water and energy industries differ substantially. Water and wastewater providers are likely to be smaller, more disparate, and publicly managed. There are some 52,000 separate community water systems for drinking water, compared with just over 3,200 electric providers.

Despite these differences, the EIA example shows the willingness of public policy to dictate data collection to address issues of national importance. Similar to how the EIA has helped understand the changes taking place in the energy landscape, there is a need for a comprehensive national water data management program that provides timely information and analysis. Without investment in water data, progress on implementing meaningful policy changes is a shot in the dark.

Meanwhile California has taken steps to develop a statewide water data platform. The Open and Transparent Water Data Act, signed in 2016, calls for the creation of a statewide water data information system which will integrate multiple databases managed independently by federal, state, and local agencies and academia "using consistent and standardized formats." The system will present data on groundwater use, groundwater levels, urban water use and land use; data on water rights, water diversions and water quality; and many others.

As Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, noted in an op-ed in the New York Times, “The water problem is daunting. But … increasing the availability of information and doubling down on innovation can go a long way toward solving it.”

CSG will be discussing this and other issues impacting the water sector in an upcoming policy academy, "Making Waves With State Water Policies," on December 14 in Las Vegas.