Land-grant colleges can lead "national challenge" to solve critical water problems

Public understanding of water is not sufficient for prudent public policy-making.

provided by Cornell Center for the Environment


he supply, quality and protection of water resources will be critical in the 21st century and will present Washington, aided by the nation's reservoir of academic brain power particularly in land-grant colleges with a "grand challenge," a Cornell University environmentalist warns.

"If there is light at the end of the aqueduct, it's because the pipes aren't filled with water anymore and that in itself should tell us something," he says. "It should remind us that our precious aquifers, the natural underground reservoirs that took thousands of years to fill, are being depleted much faster than they're being recharged. The era of big dam-building is past, yet populations continue to grow and so do demands for water."

Speaking last January at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Theodore L. Hullar, director of the Cornell University Center for the Environment and coordinator of the newly established National Water Initiative, called the American West an ideal laboratory for testing solutions to water-related problems the rest of the world is facing. He spoke during a session on "Water in the West: Investing in Management and Research for the 21st Century."

Speaking for the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, the Universities Council on Water Resources and the National Institute for Water Resources, Hullar said the solutions to the nation's looming water problems should come from the nationwide network of land-grant colleges, state universities and others with water-resource expertise. He made these points:

  • Water demands are accelerating as populations grow and urbanization intensifies nationally and worldwide.
  • Competition is increasing for water traditionally used by agriculture, particularly in arid regions.
  • Climate variability and uncertainty is rising, heightening the risk and frequency of hazards, such as floods and droughts.
  • Water-quality threats are growing, with potential health impacts from pathogenic organisms, such as Pfiesteria , Cryptosporidium and Giardia , from persistent toxic contaminants and environmental degradation, and from non-point source pollution.
  • Water resource infrastructure requires repair and renovation, and it is at risk from terrorism.
  • Environmental services provided by water-based ecosystems are increasingly important, and the ecosystems are more stressed than ever before.
  • Public understanding of water is not sufficient for prudent public policy-making.

"It is absolutely essential that we marshal all available resources and apply research-based knowledge to solve this grand national challenge," Hullar said. "This requires a new kind of collaboration among universities, states and federal agencies."

Hullar and other representatives of universities consider the Cooperative Extension model an instructive one. What Cooperative Extension did for American agriculture transferring university-generated knowledge to food producers the National Water Initiative can now do with new knowledge about the most fundamental resource of all, he said.

Meeting this national challenge, he said, will require recognition of the problems and full cooperation from national agencies, such as the Department of Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation. But the research work should be decentralized and distributed to the state level, he believes, because that's where the water-related problems are and where the university-based expertise can be found.

At least $250 million a year in new and reprogrammed funds should be committed to results-oriented research, advocates of the National Water Initiative agree. An extramural research grants program should be established, they say, with grants awarded competitively after peer- and merit-review and modeled after the highly successful programs of the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. In addition, new systems for expediting the application of research-based knowledge should be developed to resolve "grand national challenges" for the nation's water resources.

Agreement on the part of many government officials about the urgency of dealing with the nation's water problems also was noted by Hullar and his colleagues. They worry more about members of the general public who assume an endless supply of healthful water is coming through the faucets and aqueducts forever.

While this country's great dams took decades to build, solutions to the coming water crisis can't wait that long, Hullar said. "These are changes that need to be made in the next five to 15 years."

By then the water problems the United States shares with the rest of the world will be really urgent, the environmentalist said, "and we should be ready to share our solutions, too."

  New York State Water Resources Institute at Cornell: Cornell Center for the Environment: Contact: Roger Segel-ken, office: (607) 255-9736; email: