The Strategy for Improving Water-Quality Monitoring in the United States--Summary
Initial Agency Actions
National Workplan to Implement the Strategy
The Intergovernmental Task Force on Monitoring Water Quality (ITFM) prepared this report in collaboration with representatives of all levels of government and the private sector. The report recommends a strategy for nationwide water-quality monitoring and technical monitoring improvements to support sound water-quality decision-making at all levels of government and in the private sector. Within the nationwide strategy, individual monitoring programs would pursue their own goals and activities, and they would be better able to use information from other sources to support their specific needs. Also, users with responsibilities that cross jurisdictions would be better able to aggregate information from other sources to improve coverage for larger areas.
Water-quality information is used to protect human health, to preserve and restore healthy ecological conditions, and to sustain a viable economy. The strategy is intended to achieve a better return on public and private investments in monitoring, environmental protection, and natural-resources manage-ment. The strategy also is designed to expand the base of information useful to a variety of users at multiple geographic scales. The collaborative process used by the ITFM already has saved millions of dollars. As the strategy is implemented, taxpayers and resource managers will get better answers to the following questions:
Answering such questions is a key issue because total expenditures in the public and private sectors on water-pollution control are tens of billions of dollars every year and climbing (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1990).
- What is the condition of the Nation's surface, ground, estuarine, and coastal waters?
- Where, how, and why are water-quality conditions changing over time?
- Where are the problems related to water quality? What is causing the problems?
- Are programs to prevent or remediate problems working effectively?
- Are water-quality goals and standards being met?
Water-pollution control became a major environmental priority during the last three decades, and in response, water-quality monitoring expanded rapidly in the public and private sectors. Today, tens of thousands of public and private organizations monitor water quality for a wide variety of objectives.
At the same time monitoring has expanded, water-management programs have matured to encompass not only point-source, but also nonpoint-source pollution control for surface and ground waters. Point source, or "end of pipe," monitoring is different from nonpoint-source monitoring. By definition, nonpoint sources of pollution are diverse and more difficult to isolate and quantify. Monitoring to support nonpoint-source-pollution control requires a more comprehensive understanding of natural systems and the impacts of human activities, such as agriculture or urban land uses, on natural systems. Therefore, the importance of comprehensively managing water and related systems within natural geographic boundaries, such as watersheds, is now widely recognized. In the last decade, it has become clear that monitoring activities need to be improved and integrated better to meet the full range of needs more effectively and economically.
Fortunately, technology has advanced during the last 25 years. A monitoring strategy can now be supported that will answer complex questions and that targets scarce resources to priority problems within watersheds, ecosystems, and other relevant geographic settings.
Institutional and technical changes are needed to improve water-quality monitoring and to meet the full range of monitoring requirements. Monitoring needs to be incorporated as a critical element of program planning, implementation, and evaluation. The ITFM, therefore, recommends a strategy for nationwide, integrated, voluntary water-quality monitoring.
The key elements of this strategy and the associated recommendations are described below.
- Design water-quality-monitoring programs to measure progress in meeting clearly stated goals for aquatic resources. These goals include public health, ecosystem, and economic objectives.
- Choose water-quality indicators jointly by participating organizations by using criteria identified by the ITFM to measure progress toward goals.
- Characterize current water-quality conditions by using available information. If possible, map the conditions by using geographical information systems and include the actual locations of and reasons for impaired waters. Impaired waters are those that do not meet water quality standards. Also, map special-protection waters, which include, for example, endangered species habitats.
- Use River Reach File 3 to locate and georeference surface waters.
- After evaluating existing information, identify monitoring gaps and rank them by priority. Gaps that are lower priority and that could not be monitored within available resources need to be clearly acknowledged.
- Use a flexible monitoring design, including public and private groups, to assess ambient waters nationwide comprehensively by using a watershed-based rotational schedule of 5 to 10 years.
- Tailor monitoring designs based on the conditions of and uses and goals for the waters.
- Establish closer working relations among the full range of public and private organizations that monitor and use water-quality information. The ITFM recommends the following:
- Working with representatives from all levels of government and the private sector, support the implementation of the strategy nationwide by:
- Developing and distributing guidance.
- Sponsoring technology transfer.
- Jointly planning programs.
- Identifying opportunities to collaborate and share resources.
- Evaluating the effectiveness of federally funded programs.
- Link Federal ambient water-quality-assessment programs by:
- Meeting at least annually to share information that results from federally funded assessment efforts and to coordinate future plans.
- Identifying opportunities to collaborate and share resources.
- Considering an Executive order to implement Federal aspects of the strategy.
- Alter the 305(b) period for reporting from every 2 years to every 5 years, or, if no legislative change is made, design the reporting so that States would cover their waters in a linked series of three successive reports covering 6 years. Electronic annual updates will be produced as needed.
- Through State and Tribal leadership in cooperation with representatives of Federal, local, and private monitoring organizations within their jurisdictions, establish and maintain teams that would design and implement water-quality-monitoring improvements.
- To the extent possible, build on existing collaborative mechanisms to implement the strategy.
- For planning and reporting, use river or ground-water basins, watersheds, ecosystems and other areas that have natural, rather than political, boundaries.
- Use an agreed upon initial set of key physical, chemical, and biological parameters to measure the attainment of designated uses set in State water-quality standards.
- Using guidance prepared at the national level, include as a subset of the initial parameters a set of core indicators that would support interstate and national aggregations of comparable information.
- Work with and provide tools and information to watershed and other geographic area managers to facilitate assessment and management of waters and to resolve water quality problems.
- Include county and municipal representatives in the implementation of the Strategy at all stages.
- Develop, test, and institutionalize methods to integrate ambient and compliance information to better support decisionmaking. Also, make ambient information more available to the compliance monitoring community.
- Made available to the public in automated systems compliance information that would generally be useful.
- Include minimum levels of quality-assurance (QA) and quality-control (QC) information.
- Begin efforts as pilot studies that involve appropriate Federal, State, or Tribal agencies and the compliance monitoring community.
- Include volunteer monitoring organizations as partners when planning and implementing monitoring efforts.
- Develop clear guidance concerning quality assurance, procedures for documenting information, and monitoring methods.
- Provide training for volunteers on monitoring techniques, where feasible, through interagency collaboration.
- Develop and implement technical recommendation necessary to produce comparable data of known quality that can be integrated from a variety of sources across a variety of scales.
- Through a consensus process, develop and adopt standard data-element names and definitions.
- Implement a performance-based methods system (PBMS) to achieve comparable data and more flexible use of appropriate monitoring methods. An infrastructure at the national level is required to support PBMS. ITFM recommends a Methods and Data Comparability Board (MDCB; see "Implementation" section below).
- Jointly establish reference conditions for shared use in biological/ecological monitoring programs.
- Automate data and information of general interest and usefulness.
- Develop additional tools to facilitate information searches and retrieval across data bases. One such tool is a set of minimum data elements for sharing existing data.
- When existing water-quality-information systems are being modernized or when new systems are being developed, information from the new systems can be easily shared by using:
- Common data-element definitions and formats.
- An expanded set of recommended data elements or qualifiers (in addition to the minimum data elements) to facilitate the sharing and exchange of information.
- Common references tables, such as taxonomic and hydrologic unit codes, and River Reach File 3 codes.
- Metadata standards (metadata describes the content, quality, condition, and other characteristics of data. It helps secondary users to judge whether the data would be useful for other application.)
- Facilitate the sharing of water-quality information that would be useful to secondary users, but that currently is not readily available. For example, major public-water suppliers have offered to share such information holdings.
- Share, and where advantageous, jointly maintain ancillary data sets that are widely used for water-quality purposes, such as land use, land cover, demographics, and water use.
- Working with the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) and other groups, use standard data sets when they are available. An example would be the River Reach File 3 that is being jointly developed and adapted as part of the FGDC's National Spatial Data Infrastructure.
- Use Internet and MOSAIC or other widely recognized standard communications and access systems when they are available.
- Establish, for all monitoring programs, data-quality objectives to identify the precision and accuracy of data needed to achieve the monitoring goal.
- Save time and money by ensuring that:
- QA/QC procedures and data are appropriate to the purposes of the program.
- Procedures are followed correctly.
- Procedures are documented with the data in storage systems.
- Organizations will continue to assess and report their own data for their own purposes. However, increasingly, agencies need data from other sources to understand and present their issues more completely. The ITFM recommends that reports be produced by lead agencies in close collaboration with others. The contributing partners should be acknowledged in the reports.
- Regularly interpret and assess measurements and raw data. Data should be collected only when there is a specific assessment or other intended use.
- Develop additional interpretive and assessment methods and tools.
- Inform resource managers, policymakers, the general public, and others about environmental conditions and problems.
- Include the assessment techniques in the design of the monitoring program so that the data collected effectively supports the needed analysis.
- Have collaborative teams from all organizations periodically evaluate their monitoring activities and programs to assure that needed information is meeting current objectives in the most effective and economical ways.
- Every 5 years evaluate progress toward implementing the ITFM's Strategy for nationwide monitoring and document updates needed to the strategy.
- Identify needs for new or improved monitoring techniques to support current and emerging water-management and environmental protection requirements. The ITFM's strategy is to work closely with the National Science Foundation, the National Council on Science and Technology, and similar groups to ensure that water-quality-monitoring research needs are considered in ranking national science priorities.
- Promote training incorporating all organizations to:
- Transfer technology.
- Inform others about needed changes in monitoring planning and procedures.
- Achieve the QA and QC necessary to assure scientifically sound information for decisionmakers.
- Facilitate comparability of methods.
- Continue to use pilot studies to test the implementation of the ITFM proposals. The pilot studies are needed to:
- Provide feedback to move from the strategy to tactics for implementation.
- Provide information on implementation costs and on the savings resulting from improvements that are made.
- Continue the concept of intergovernmental collaboration for the development and use of monitoring guidance and for technology transfer.
- Establish a National Water Quality Monitoring Council representing all levels of government and the private sector to guide the overall implementation of the strategy. Such a council is needed to:
- Ensure that technical support and program coordination is maintained among participating organizations.
- Evaluate periodically the effectiveness of monitoring efforts nationwide and account for regional differences, such as between arid and water-rich States.
- Revise the strategy as needed to ensure that monitoring continues to meet changing needs.
- Establish an MDCB under the National Council to identify methods needed to achieve nationwide comparability for core information and to provide critical guidelines and collaboration to support the PBMS.
- Establish State or Tribal and, where needed, interstate monitoring and data teams to identify roles and responsibilities and to facilitate collaborative efforts. To the extent possible, use successful existing groups.
- Develop additional technical information and guidelines to support ground-water, coastal water, and wetland monitoring. Additional guidelines are needed to ensure that the special monitoring needs of these areas are fully integrated into the nationwide strategy.
For the nationwide strategy to succeed as a voluntary effort, significant incentives and benefits must exist for organizations that participate. The ITFM has been encouraged by the many organizations that have already provided significant staff support and have pooled resources to develop the strategy and tools for implementation. Organizations continue to express interest in joining the collaborative effort. Some of the incentives and benefits of participating are as follows:
- Provide some Federal resources to help support pilot studies in selected areas. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) is providing a total of $500,000 to selected States's Tribes in fiscal year (FY) 1995. In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) will include the implementation of the ITFM's Strategy as one of the priorities of the National Water Resources Research and Information System---Federal/State Cooperative Program in FY 1995 and beyond. The above funds are in addition to Federal money for monitoring already available to States and Tribes through existing mechanisms in a number of agencies, such as the USEPA 106 grants.
- Develop financial agreements among Federal agencies to facilitate the efficient transfer of resources and to maintain accountability needed for joint monitoring and data projects. Where appropriate, similar financial agreements with State or Tribal agencies and other organizations should be developed.
- Document cost savings, and other improvements that result from collaboratively planning and implementing monitoring activities.
This report provides a comprehensive blueprint for improving water-quality-monitoring efforts nationwide. However, we do not have to wait for comprehensive implementation of the strategy to make positive changes. As a result of the ITFM process and associated efforts, we have already made a difference and saved millions of dollars. This progress includes the following:
- Agencies can significantly expand their scientific information available for making internal decisions at relatively little cost compared with collecting additional data themselves. Adequate information reduces uncertainty about the results of proposed actions and increases management effectiveness.
- Through collaboration with other organizations, agencies can achieve a better return on their monitoring investments and, in some cases, can even reduce their costs.
- By using the concepts and tools in the nationwide strategy, agencies can correct chronic problems in their own monitoring efforts and make the data they collect in the future more useful for their own applications.
- Public and private organizations that manage natural resources and protect the environment can better determine whether their policies and actions are working as intended.
- By participating in cooperative monitoring programs, government agencies and private-sector organizations can improve the credibility of the information they report to the public.
The ITFM's recommended nationwide strategy has received wide endorsement from a variety of reviewers. It has received over 60 individual and aggregated comments from local, State, Regional, Federal, and private organizations and from individuals. Next, the ITFM and its successor, the National Water Quality Monitoring Council, are developing a workplan to implement the strategy at the national level.
- Information sharing and cost savings.---Two examples of this resulted from joint purchase and maintenance of information as follows:
- Eight Federal agencies, which include the Smithsonian Institution, have expanded and are negotiating to use and maintain a common automated taxonomic code. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the USEPA, and the USGS are currently using this taxonomic code.
- NOAA, the USGS, the USEPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have jointly purchased and are sharing remotely sensed land-cover information needed for water assessment and management. This has already saved Federal agencies at least $4 million.
- Jointly modernize data systems.---The USEPA's STOrage and RETrieval System (STORET) and USGS' National Water Information System (NWIS--II) are using common data-element names and reference tables that will ensure easy sharing of data. Also, the USEPA and the USGS are working with other agencies to facilitate the use of common elements in the design of new systems.
- State monitoring teams.---Florida, Idaho, New Jersey, and Wisconsin have held meetings with the many collectors of water information to initiate a statewide monitoring strategy. During the public review of this strategy, States including California, Michigan, Minnesota, and Arizona stated they were pursuing monitoring teams of some kind.
- Monitoring Program Design.---The USEPA and States used the ITFM base monitoring-program outline to develop new monitoring guidance for USEPA water-quality grants to States. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) also based their own monitoring guidance on the ITFM products; the guidance will be used at hundreds of USACE projects nationwide.
- Reporting.---The ITFM analytical work related to indicators is a major contribution to proposed changes in the USEPA guidelines for the States' 1996 305(b) reports. These changes will produce more comparable information among States.
- Methods.---The National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program hosted an interagency workshop to compare differences in biological monitoring methods and to look for areas where consistency or comparability is needed. A report about the workshop is available.
- Geographic Focus.---Many States and USEPA regional offices have reorganized management and (or) monitoring programs to place emphasis on priority watersheds and to assess more waters by using a revolving watershed approach. The coordination of monitoring in these watersheds allows managers to have more current and comprehensive information on specific issues and to make better resource-management decisions.
The ITFM held a National Monitoring Strategy Workshop in February 1995 to draft the implementation workplan. A broad representation of the monitoring community was present. Proposed workplan elements discussed were as follows:
As the competition increases for adequate supplies of clean water, concerns about public health and the environment escalate, and more demands are placed on the water information infrastructure. These demands cannot be met effectively and economically without changing our approach to monitoring. Each organization participating in the Strategy will need to revise their monitoring activities in a series of deliberate steps over several years as staff and resources become available. As described above, benefits of the collaborative approach are already occurring, and benefits will continue to grow as the recommendations are implemented.
- Specific indicators to measure the national water goals and how to report on them jointly.
- A national monitoring design that covers waters comprehensively by using monitoring techniques appropriate to the condition, uses, and goals for the waters. ITFM tools already developed would be used to produce the design.
- Additional agency commitment to use the ITFM recommended data-element glossary.
- Plans for a workshop to demonstrate major water data bases and to discuss Internet access and other opportunities to increase data sharing.
- Pilot projects to interface ambient and compliance monitoring better. Federal, State, Tribal, local, and private monitoring entities would participate.
- A plan to address priority training needs.
- A core list of minimum metadata elements.
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