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Meeting a "Tremendous Challenge in Water Management": an Interview with Stephen Parker, director of the Water Science Technology Board

bridges vol. 18, July 2008 / Feature Article

by Juliet M.  Beverly

"Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink," goes "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ." The lines from the English verse seem to echo the future challenges of water resources. The US Census Bureau projected that the world's population will grow from 6 billion in 1999 to 9 billion by 2040. A growing population requires more water, and in the face of global warming, research for desalination, water reuse, water management, and adaptability become a pressing matter that policy makers must attend to.

Stephen D. Parker, Director, WSTB

Last month, the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing on Water Supply Challenges for the 21st Century . The purpose of this hearing was to investigate the challenges of managing water supplies so that both human needs and uses and environmental needs are satisfied. Among the panel of experts who gave their testimony was Stephen D. Parker, director of the Water Science Technology Board.  

Within the National Academies, the National Research Council established the Water Science and Technology Board (WSTB) in 1982 in order to have a central site specifically for studies related to water resources and to water-related topics in science, engineering, economics, policy, education, and society. Since its inception, Parker has been the director of WSTB, where he is involved in the planning, program, and policy development and federal agency program manager interaction for WSTB.

In this interview, Parker sat down with bridges to tell us how WSTB is investigating water challenges and the current state and future outlook for water resources in the US.

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:    What first interested you in hydrological studies and engineering?

Parker:     I saw hydrology and environmental science and engineering as an opportunity to work outdoors. I actually started in college majoring in mechanical engineering. But then I ran into an old friend who was in hydrological studies and showed me a photo of some people in a boat taking water samples and I imagined that that might be the kind of thing that I would like to do.

bridges:    What led you to the Water Science Technology Board (WSTB)?

Parker:     Well, I happened to come across the Water Science Technology Board. The truth is I started out my professional career after a combat tour in Vietnam, then worked in consulting and government agencies and found my way to Washington - I wanted to be where the big decisions were made. In 1981, the National Academies , which at the time I had no familiarity with, were advertising for a person to work on water-related studies that concerned the  interface between science, technology, and policy. As it turned out, I was hired to start the Water Science Technology Board. So, I wasn't led to the WaterScience Technology Board, I came to the Academies attracted to a tremendous challenge in water management. I didn't know much about the academies at the time. I think that the Academies and the  National Research Council are much more highly visible to the public than they were 30 years ago.

bridges:     How have your prior positions and experiences helped you with your duties as director of WSTB?

Parker:      I think that it's very difficult to describe how one prepares for a career at the National Research Council. In my particular case, I think that my general board experience on water resources systems gave me a little exposure to all issues.

bridges:    You have been the director of WSTB since 1982. What changes have you seen since the creation of WSTB, with respect to the types of studies that are requested?

Parker:     In the beginning, we were a totally unknown entity. Even the Academies weren't that well known in some of the water agencies. It was difficult getting started as an advisor to the water agencies. Those that did know WSTB trusted us with fairly narrow issues, where they were looking for an endorsement, a blessing, a statement of budgetary support, or the like. It took probably about 5 or 6 years of excellent work by committees at WSTB to cause us to be well-known in the community and establish the credibility and trust - not that it's easy. Nowadays, the kinds of activities that we're asked to do are much more national forward-looking, broad policy issues that are well known. Back then, agencies were looking for, at best, some technical advice and at worst, some "Good      Housekeeping Seal of Approval."  

bridges:    Based upon your experiences, how would you describe the current situation of federal support for water-related research?

Parker:     Unfortunately, whereas the public awareness and concern for water related topics are very high now, the funding for federal water resources research is a sorry state of affairs. After years and years and years of eroding budgets for agencies that do this kind of work, I think that the amount of funding for water resources research is totally inadequate. I am worried about two things: (1) producing an understanding of science and technology to address problems that are getting ever more complicated, and (2) the   inadequacy of funding having a negative impact on the production of people to practice water resources science and technology in the future. It's kind of hard to expect graduate students to come into the field if there is no financial support or incentive. 

bridges:    How do you see public perception of drinking water supply or water infrastructure in the US? Is it a topic Americans know and care about?

Parker:     It's hard to generalize. We have a big country and I can't speak for the 300 million people.  However, in places like the arid west and southeastern United States, people are well aware of water issues and are very concerned. It's not clear to me that water is universally recognized for the important challenges that it presents. My impression, though I'm not an expert on public perception, is that most educated people recognize the importance of water and are aware of issues that bear on water. They recognize the connection between instream flows for spawning of fish and operations of resource structures such as dams for water supply. They're generally becoming aware of the relationship. They're also aware, in terms of water quality, that there's a relationship between activity on the land and drinking water. I think we have a fairly informed public in general and more informed in areas where water issues are more prominent.

bridges:    The WSTB Biennial report (2005-2006) mentioned that, over the past two years, there was an increase in place-based studies, especially studies in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. How have regional studies shaped WSTB policy analysis and advice on a national level?

Parker:     It is possible that we have had more place-based studies underway during this time than in the previous year or two, but there was no big jump in the amount of these types of studies. We have always, from the beginning, conducted some of our work concerning important local issues. For example, contaminated irrigation drain water in the San Joaquin Valley, New York City's water supply, the Missouri and Colorado Basin, the Everglades, Texas instream flows , and the Columbia River and other local issues of national importance have all been subjects for WSTB study. I think that WSTB, more than any other unit of the National Research Council, has conducted studies of issues that were important at the state, local, and regional level that had some lesson to be applied more broadly. We have always done these kinds of studies. We always will. This is probably about a one-third of our workload here at WSTB.


bridges:    Speaking of case studies, why was the Mississippi River and the Clean Water Act an important study to add to the WSTB agenda?

Parker:     I think we drew attention to a very significant issue. And the work continues. The initial work on the Mississippi River Clean

 WSTB @ Work: The Mississippi River Water Quality and Clean Water Act Study
The Mississippi River is the second longest river in the US, flowing through 10 states from Minnesota to Mississippi and emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Spanning over 2,300 miles, the Mississippi is one of the nation's most famous rivers - and one of the most notorious.


The Mississippi River has been impacted by a variety of developments such as water structures, agriculture, fishing, and industrial and recreational use. These developments have led to some serious environmental issues for the Mississippi, such as water pollution and hypoxia .

The McKnight Foundation, a philanthropic organization established in Minneapolis, Minnesota, requested that WSTB do the Mississippi River Quality and Clean Water Act Study.  

"After we [WSTB] spoke with the McKnight Foundation, it seemed there were some things that were falling between the cracks with water quality monitoring of the Mississippi," said Jeffrey Jacobs, scholar at WSTB and program director of the study. "We were excited about getting involved with the study and seeing what we and our expert committee would find."

With sponsorship from the McKnight foundation, WSTB began its study of the key challenges in implementing the Clean Water Act (CWA) along the 10-state Mississippi River corridor. CWA is the chief federal law in the US that presides over water quality and pollution and makes the states and the EPA responsible for implementation.

"For some of the 10 Mississippi River states, the river just acts as a border and barely goes into the state - the Act does not specifically mandate the states to monitor Mississippi water quality," said Jacobs, noting the challenges of implementing the Act. "It's not clear how high a priority states should place on monitoring the river. It is also a difficult decision for states that have tight budgets for water quality monitoring."

In its 2008 final report, the National Research Council concluded that the Act is possible to implement and acknowledges that improvements to the river's quality are possible if the EPA strengthens its leadership role in the water quality data collection and assessment systems for the entire length of the river.

"From a water assessment perspective, the Mississippi is really an orphan in terms of water quality monitoring," said Jacobs, emphasizing one of the conclusions of the study. "Absence of strong federal leadership means that no one will build a program for specifically monitoring the entire river, and we'll continue to have this piecemeal system that we have today."

Water Act was supported by the McKnight Foundation and served as the catalyst for interest by others, including the U.S. EPA . In terms of action, we have a series of projects that we'll follow-up. It was significant because it caused the EPA to give more attention to an issue than it was previously receiving.   

bridges:     What are some of the features of the Water Information Center and how is it useful for water scientists and policy makers internationally? Is it related to the Safe Drinking Water is Essential (www.drinking-water.org ) project? What has been the response to such virtual information centers so far?

Parker:     The Water Information Center is a database type of entity that makes available the contents of all of our reports, and any other reports done by the Academies in the area of water. We have our entire body of work available online in a convenient, searchable, user-friendly format. It gets a tremendous number of hits - thousands a month - most of them are from countries other than the US.

The Safe Drinking Water is Essential project is a project that went beyond our body of work. It is a portal focused on getting information and decision support tools on drinking water out to people in the developing world. A person with very little knowledge could use this to get themselves in the right ballpark in terms of the type of options, or solutions, that they might have with their drinking water problems such as water access, water availability, and water treatment options.

bridges:    What are some of the WSTB collaborations of the US with its neighbor Canada regarding water levels in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River?
Parker:    First, let me say WSTB has a tremendous interest in international work - partly because we have some expertise and experience to export, we have interest in "doing good" in developing countries, helping provide water for poor people, and collaborating on border water issues with our Canadian friends to the north or our Mexican friends to the south. So, our interests are global and the nature of the topics that we are interested in is very broad.

We have a very modest history of working with the Royal Society of Canada , collaborating on border issues. When WSTB was formed, we carried out the study on ice management on the Niagara River and the impact of ice control on the microclimate. We then studied the Great Lakes water quality agreement. In our Biennial Report , you'll see that we advised the International Joint Commission on water level management on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Now we're working on the issue of control of non-indigenous species in the St. Lawrence Seaway. Most of this work has not been supported by the US federal government but by foundations and power companies. Whether it is working on the Canadian border, the Middle East, or Africa, we aspire to do more than we were ever able to do, or allowed to do. The bottom line: I think it's unfortunate that the US government has such a modest international mission in the area of water - it's more talk than it is action. Our level of activity isn't something to be terribly proud of, but we have only limited discretionary resources.

bridges:    What are some of the goals and activities WSTB is planning for the remainder of the year and in 2009?

Parker:     We plan on continuing our international role. We will address issues such as improving access to drinking water in the developing world and optimizing management of Lake Ontario. Also, we have a variety of studies that we are hoping to initiate. One of them concerns a comprehensive assessment of water reuse. WSTB sees potential here for increasing water reuse in the future. We are also hoping to be supported in our research into urban water supply infrastructure. One of the most interesting new studies will be starting in the next month or two and that will be management of sediment in the Missouri basin We are also hoping to take a  comprehensive look at the health, economics, and regulatory aspects of bottled water.

bridges:    Climate change is a common term in the agenda of US public policy; and policy is focusing on the public's concern regarding water as well. What are WSTB's policy recommendations with regard to climate change and water supply?

Parker:    This question provokes several statements:
1) Climate change is real.
2) Climate change could have various impacts on hydrologic patterns and water use patterns.

These impacts are highly site-specific, so it's hard to generalize about the impact of climate change. However, I am concerned about the impact of climate change on the usefulness of the hydrological record that we use for planning. There are years of hydrologic record. The assumption, generally by water resources planners, is that the record is stationary. That is to say that the past can represent the future, but that's not necessarily the case. We need to analyze and understand how we use this hydrologic  record as we move into the future where things will not be stationary. People who are responsible for water planning need to be conscious of climate change impacts and prepare for a range of needs for the outcome.

bridges:   Human demand for water has increased over the years with population growth. What research should be funded to make sure that human water demands could be supported without significant intrusion into the water supplies of ecosystems?  

Parker:    It has generally been recognized by water resources professionals over the last couple of decades, that we need to accommodate multiple purposes as we go about our planning for water resources. There is some tension, to say the least, at the interface between human and environmental needs. However, there is a public and political awareness that sees the importance of addressing all ecosystem needs. Right now, within the nation and agencies, there is an urge to be proactive about balancing water needs and sorting it out in a fair way.  

bridges:   What needs to be done to meet the near future infrastructural challenges of water supply in the US?

Parker:    The need in the future will be greater than it has been in the past for comprehensive, integrated, multidisciplinary planning of water problems. We will need to restore institutions that existed up until 25 years ago. There used to be river basin commissions and a national water resources council - these were effectively eliminated during the Ronald Reagan presidential administration. It would be useful to bring these types of institutions back, as they provided good venues for technical and political analysis of local and regional water problems.   

bridges:    Will the water management challenges the US faces today be the same challenges of the future?

Parker:     I hope not. It is my sense that people know that we have water supply needs that are getting imminent. As time passes, the need to respond has become more urgent. This will become a constraint on development and sustainability in the future, if it hasn't become one already.

I look back early in my career and see that we haven't made a lot of progress on some of our water issues. I hope we make more      progress in the coming decades than we have in the last decades.    


This interview was conducted in June 2008 by the author, Juliet M.  Beverly, with Stephen Parker, director of the Water Science Technology Board at the National Academies in Washington, DC.          


US Census Bureau
International Data Base (IDB): World Population Information

Hearing on Water Supply Challenges for the 21st Century: Statement of Stephen D. Parker before the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment Committee on Science and Technology, US House of Representatives, May 14, 2008

Water Science & Technology Board

Sidebar References:

Mississippi River Basin & Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia: Culture/ History

The National Academy of Sciences - National Research Council
Mississippi River Water Quality and the Clean Water Act: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities, 2008

The National Academy of Sciences - National Research Council
Report in Brief: Mississippi River Water Quality and the Clean Water Act: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities, October, 2007


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