USGS Water Resources

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).

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.

Strategy and Recommendations

The key elements of this strategy and the associated recommendations are described below.

Goal-Oriented Monitoring and Indicators

Gather and Evaluate Existing Information

Flexible And Comprehensive Monitoring

Institutional Collaboration

National/Federal Programs

State and Tribal Program

Watersheds and Local Jurisdictions

Compliance and ambient monitoring coordination

Volunteer Monitoring

Methods Comparability

Information Automation, Accessibility, and Utility

Quality Assurance/Quality Control

Assessment and Reporting

Evaluation of Monitoring Activities

Research and Development


Pilot Studies




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:

Initial Agency Actions

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:

National Workplan to Implement the Strategy

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.

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.

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