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Earth Day image - Earth in water drop on a leaf.

America’s water challenges: Science helps get the most out of every drop

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Water cycle
What is the water cycle?
Essential for life
What is drought?
Too little water
Floods: A rising problem for the U.S.
Too much water
Monitoring water quality
Healthy water, healthy people
Building a sustainable water future in the U.S.
Mitigating risk and planning for the future

The water cycle can be a complicated process, and changes to it can affect economies and businesses such as energy production, transportation, and agriculture. It can also affect a community’s health, drinking water, and recreation.

In school, you probably learned that the water cycle is how water continuously moves from the ground to the atmosphere and back again. While this is true, it can be a bit more complex than that.

You may think every drop of rain falling from the sky, or each glass of water you drink, is brand new, but it has always been here, and is a part of the water cycle. In this video, NOAA explains how water continuously moves from the ground to the atmosphere and back again. As it moves through this cycle, it changes forms.
The Water Cycle
You may think every drop of rain falling from the sky, or each glass of water you drink, is brand new, but it has always been here, and is a part of the water cycle. In this video, NOAA explains how water continuously moves from the ground to the atmosphere and back again. As it moves through this cycle, it changes forms. (NOAA)

Water is the only substance on Earth that naturally exists as a solid — ice or snow — a liquid, and a gas — steam or vapor. Ninety-seven percent of the total water that exists on the planet is in the ocean. Energy from the sun causes water on the surface to evaporate into water vapor — a gas. This invisible vapor rises into the atmosphere, where the air is colder, and becomes a cloud. Air currents then move these clouds all around the world.

Water drops form in the clouds and return to Earth as rain or snow. Snow will eventually melt into the ground and run off into a lake or river, which will then flow back to the ocean, starting the process again. But, snow can also become part of a glacier. Or rain can seep into the ground and become groundwater.

Water is essential to life on Earth, and freshwater is a limited resource for the world’s growing population. NOAA studies all aspects of the water cycle: ocean, weather, precipitation, climate, and ecosystems. We then convert this scientific research into products and services that communities use every day.

Drought can have a devastating effect on communities, businesses, and economies. NOAA  and its partners monitor and predict drought conditions around the country, providing decision-makers with data and information they need to develop solutions.

When you hear the word “drought,” you probably think of hot, dry weather with little to no rain or snow. And while that’s true, drought isn’t just a weather phenomenon. Droughts can also happen when supplies can’t keep up with demand.

The California drought resulted in low water levels in many major reservoirs, including Folsom Lake. The above photo shows the lake levels in 2011 in comparison with low conditions in 2014.
California drought: Lake Folsom
The California drought resulted in low water levels in many major reservoirs, including Folsom Lake. The above photo shows the lake levels in 2011 in comparison with low conditions in 2014. (California Department of Water Resources)

Droughts can happen when there’s not enough snow or rain, but they can also happen when more water is needed to irrigate crops or when water levels in aquifers, lakes, and reservoirs fall.

Annually, economic losses from drought in the United States can be in the billions of dollars. In 2015 alone, historic drought conditions in the west cost $4.5 billion in economic losses.

Communities, businesses and governments need timely and reliable drought information — based on sound science — to make smart decisions. Farmers want to know when and what to plant, and how to manage water use. Water managers need a complete picture of supply and demand. Hydroelectric power companies need to know if drought will erase too much of the water they use to generate electricity. The maritime sector needs navigation information for rivers and canals. Health officials need to communicate the effects of drought and associated heat waves to keep people safe.

In order to build drought resilience, NOAA provides data and information to help communities and businesses cope with its effects. From drought monitoring to impact assessments to planning strategies, the tools, products, and services NOAA provides support the nation as it addresses current droughts and plans for the future.

Floods are the most common, and costliest, natural disaster in the United States, affecting every state and territory. NOAA provides tools, information, and services communities need to identify risks and vulnerabilities and take action.

A flood occurs somewhere in the U.S. or its territories nearly every day of the year and pose a threat to our coastal and inland communities and businesses.  On average, U.S. floods kill more people each year than any other weather event, including hurricanes and tornadoes.

The massive amount of rain that fell on the Colorado Front Range in September 2016 was devastating, with nine lives lost and property damage estimated at more than $2 billion.
The massive amount of rain that fell on the Colorado Front Range in September 2016 was devastating, with nine lives lost and property damage estimated at more than $2 billion. (NOAA)

Flooding typically occurs when prolonged rain falls over several days, when intense rain falls over a short period of time, or when an ice or debris jam causes a river or stream to overflow onto the surrounding area. Flooding can also happen when levees or dams fail. The most common cause of flooding is rain or snowmelt that accumulates faster than soils can absorb it or rivers can carry it away. Approximately 75 percent of all presidential disaster declarations are associated with flooding.

NOAA’s National Weather Service has many products and services to warn against potential hazards and current conditions. And, the Coastal Flood Exposure Mapper assesses coastal hazard risks and vulnerabilities from coastal flooding events.

But floods don’t just have to occur when a severe storm rolls through your community.

NOAA research found that “nuisance flooding” events – those that cause frequent road closures, overwhelmed storm drains, and compromised infrastructure – have increased on all U.S. coasts between 300 percent and 925 percent since the 1960s. By 2050, a majority of U.S. coastal areas are likely to be threatened by 30 or more days of flooding each year due to sea level rise.

Water quality goes beyond what’s safe to drink or swim in. As demand for more and more water grows, so too will the societal, economic, and ecological consequences.  

Sustained ocean monitoring helps people in ocean and lake-dependent industries such as shipping by providing them with information to make informed decisions. Long-term, consistent monitoring improves our understanding of the ocean’s role in many of Earth’s systems. 

Nearly 500,000

—Toledo, Ohio residents with no safe drinking water for 3 days from a 2014 harmful algal bloom

Satellite image of the 2011 harmful algal bloom in Western Lake Erie. The effects of algal outbreaks include a higher cost for cities and local governments to treat their drinking water, as well as risk to swimmers in high concentration areas, and a nuisance to boaters when blooms form.
Satellite image of the 2011 harmful algal bloom in Western Lake Erie. The effects of algal outbreaks include a higher cost for cities and local governments to treat their drinking water, as well as risk to swimmers in high concentration areas, and a nuisance to boaters when blooms form. (NOAA)

NOAA maintains a network of buoystidal stations, and satellite measurements that provide a continuous picture of the state of the ocean and Great Lakes. NOAA tracks water quality, including contaminant and nutrient data, at our National Estuarine Research Reserves, which serve as “nurseries” to many commercially valuable fisheries. NOAA scientists are combining this information with other weather and climate data to begin addressing many important questions such as the dynamics behind climate change, the effects of human activities on ecosystems and the impact of pollutants on the marine environment.

Harmful algal blooms, also known as red tides, occur when too much algae grows in the water. If they’re severe enough, these blooms can create hypoxic “dead zones” in water — where oxygen gets depleted hurting marine ecosystems. They can also produce toxins that can harm people and animals, raise treatment costs for drinking water, and affect industries that depend upon clean water such as coastal travel and tourism. Economic impacts from harmful algal bloom events are estimated to be at least $82 million per year in the United States.

The NOAA Water Initiative is driven by the urgency to meet fast-rising user needs across local, regional and national scales.

The world is facing a serious and growing water crisis that threatens our nation’s health, safety, economy, and environment.

NOAA is working to address these challenges head on with its new Water Initiative. As the only agency in the federal government charged with water prediction and warning responsibilities, NOAA is uniquely positioned to provide the tools, data, and information people need to strengthen America’s water security, reduce vulnerability to water risks, and catalyze more effective management and use of our valuable water resources.

Alpine landscape, Elk Range, Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
Alpine landscape, Elk Range, Rocky Mountains in Colorado. (iStock)

The initiative offers a framework for moving data to decisions, and research leading to science-based policies and solutions to meet pressing water needs.

Meeting such demands requires capturing the complete dynamic picture of water. It requires a full understanding of Earth’s hydrologic cycle and how it interacts with all of the natural and human sectors it touches. Whether the demand is for food, energy, or ecosystem services, or to mitigate dangerous weather, it’s all linked to a single hydrologic cycle. Rather than a siloed approach with just snapshot assessments, the NOAA Water Initiative will provide the comprehensive, integrated understanding of water central to protecting lives and livelihoods and safeguarding our environment and economy.

Capturing the full picture of water will yield better data, deeper insight and sharper foresight, all essential to developing the solutions needed to reduce risk, quantify uncertainty, and keep America’s communities ready, responsive, and resilient.

Published on
July 11, 2016