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Blog: Tackling America's water challenges with science

By Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA Administrator
July 11, 2016 We are approaching the peak of summer, a season when droughts, heat waves, thunderstorms and tropical systems occur more frequently and at a higher intensity than any other time of the year. Extreme weather events like these not only put people and communities in great danger, they can also spell disaster for America’s water supply.
Alpine landscape, Elk Range, Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

Too much water, too little water, water of poor quality, or water simply in the wrong place can shut down roads and harbors, ruin crops and pastures, contaminate drinking water, sicken wildlife, and inflict other damages with costs that can soar into millions or billions of dollars. In the U.S. and indeed around the world, water security is increasingly in jeopardy with consequences that pose systemic risk to the viability and fabric of society.

Across America, we see water challenges unfold in many forms:

  • Dangerous flooding: On average, flooding kills more people in the U.S. each year than any other severe weather event, including hurricanes and tornadoes. In 2015, flash and river floods claimed 176 lives, up dramatically from 38 in 2014.
  • Rising sea levels: Overall, sea level continues to rise at a rate of one-eighth of an inch per year. In January, just 20 miles West of New Orleans, water managers had to reduce the height of the rising Mississippi River by opening a spillway - the 11th time they had to do this since 1931.
  • Punishing drought: Last year, Western Drought was among the nation’s billion dollar weather and climate disasters. As of the end of June, more than 81.7 million Americans are experiencing moderate to extreme drought.
  • Algae outbreaks: In 2014, an outbreak of toxic algae in Lake Erie contaminated Toledo, Ohio’s water supply, affecting nearly 500,000 people for 3 days. Scientists predict this year’s bloom is expected to be less severe, but nonetheless concerning for the region.
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)

Understanding and predicting water, including extremes on both the “wet” and “dry” ends of the scale, are challenges NOAA scientists work each day to tackle. National Weather Service forecasters work around the clock to monitor and forecast coastal and inland water hazards that arise from rain storms, snow melt, hurricanes, and high tides, and alert the public when a flood danger is imminent. Researchers also work to better understand the broader water cycle, examining how water from the oceans, atmosphere, and above and below the ground circulate and interact, and either replenish landscapes or spark droughts.

As the world’s climate continues to change, NOAA is strengthening its commitment to deliver timely and accurate water information and services to planners, emergency managers, first responders, governors, mayors, and local leaders to inform critical decisions. One tangible example of this renewed commitment is the National Water Model, coming out this summer, which will provide hourly forecasts for 700 times more locations than our current system--including for 100 million Americans along America’s coastlines who do not currently receive inland river and stream forecasts. Scientists at our new National Water Center, located on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, are also embarking on exciting new projects to help people and governments better understand their water situation and take advantage of every drop.

Lake Oroville, the second-largest state reservoir in northern California, experienced low water levels during the recent exceptional California drought.
California drought: Lake Oroville
Lake Oroville, the second-largest state reservoir in northern California, experienced low water levels during the recent exceptional California drought. (California Department of Water Resources)

Water is a precious commodity that we cannot take for granted. I have had the unique privilege of seeing our astonishing blue Earth from space and marvelling at the interconnectedness of Earth’s systems. It’s more important than ever that we usher in the next generation of water information that helps us better understand, predict, manage, and nurture this finite gift our planet provides us.

Dr. Kathryn Sullivan is the NOAA Administrator. She will be speaking tomorrow in Washington, D.C., at the National Conversation on Integrated Water Information for the 21st Centuryoffsite link.