Senators Look to Forecasting and Technology Investments to Quench Water Security Concerns

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Publication date: 
16 August 2017

At a recent Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee hearing convened to highlight innovative technologies to increase water infrastructure resiliency, the three members present also emphasized the importance of forecasting investments to the nation's water security.


Fed by the Colorado River, Lake Mead supplies water to major populated areas of California, Nevada, and Arizona, including the Phoenix metropolitan area, the largest in the home state of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Water an

Fed by the Colorado River, Lake Mead supplies water to major populated areas of California, Nevada, and Arizona, including the the Phoenix metropolitan area, the largerst in the home state of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power.

(Image credit - Department of the Interior)

At an Aug. 2 hearing, members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard from a panel of water management and infrastructure experts on how to increase national water security and drought preparedness through infrastructure, management, and innovation.

While it was Water and Power Subcommittee Chair Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) intention to highlight innovative technologies and policies that Arizona and other states have used to improve water infrastructure resiliency, the other two senators in attendance used the hearing to express concern about the potential impacts of the administration’s proposed cuts to weather and water modeling and forecasting in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2018.

Senators see water security as nationwide issue

Flake convened the hearing to highlight a water security bill he will soon introduce that builds upon the “Western Water Supply and Planning Enhancement Act” that he and other western state senators introduced last year. That bill aimed to advance water priorities for drought-stricken states, including efficient use of existing water infrastructure, increasing water conservation efforts, and protecting state-issued water rights.

In his opening statement, Flake said:

I’m glad that the committee will hear from several witnesses today who can speak to the importance of using the most up-to-date hydrology and forecasts in operating the existing reservoirs. I think that we can learn from this testimony, and can build on last year’s drought legislation to try and address critical water needs for Arizona and the nation. … Water managers on the ground have great ideas about how to increase water supply and drought resistance, and I look forward to working with them on these efforts.

He listed “storage, infrastructure, management, and planning” as critical components to a secure and drought-resilient water supply system, and emphasized that Congress needs to understand the local challenges to planning and executing water projects.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Angus King (I-ME) emphasized in his opening statement the national importance of addressing water security concerns. He said, “I understand that my colleagues in the West probably aren’t very sympathetic to hearing about droughts in New England, but they do occur.”  King spoke about the drought that has impacted 70 percent of his home state over the past year, saying, “Even in Maine, we’re not immune to the impacts of a fragile water supply due to drought conditions.”

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Martha Sheils, director of the New England Environmental Finance Center, stressed that water reuse technologies, in addition to conservation practices, will be critical to addressing the growing demand for water.

Heiner Markhoff, head of GE Power’s Water & Process Technologies division, and Carlos Riva, president of Poseidon Water, discussed that while reuse technologies are currently expensive, they will become a critical component of a water supply system that is constrained by diminishing or restrictive supplies. “Conservation is obviously a critical part of [the water supply system],” Riva said, but for a healthy and resilient system “you need a diversified supply system.”

Senators: Weather forecasting critical for addressing water security

All three members present at the hearing emphasized that investments in weather forecasting are critical for addressing water security.

Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the board for the Sonoma County Water Agency, testified on the importance of better data and long-term rainfall forecasting for improving the resiliency of water infrastructure and aiding reservoir operations. She said that forecasting rainfall beyond 10 to 14 days “remains unreliable, in part because current radar cannot accurately detect atmospheric rivers, which she said can provide up to 50 percent of California’s annual precipitation over a few storms. “The frequency and location of the rivers are the primary drivers of floods and droughts,” said Zane, underscoring that “lead time information about weather is crucial for operating water supply infrastructure.”

King and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) were prompted by Zane’s testimony to speak out against the proposed cuts to NOAA, which supports the nation’s civilian weather and water forecasting and modeling programs. King said that he was “bothered” by the cuts, particularly highlighting the proposals for a 32 percent reduction to the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research’s budget and a 6 percent reduction to the National Weather Service’s budget. He elaborated on his concern, saying:

Ms. Zane … You said we need better data to better manage. I would say we also need better data to make better policy. ... If we don’t have the data, if we don’t have the predictability, it’s simply going to aggravate this problem [with water security].

When King and Franken questioned Zane, she took the opportunity to emphasize the importance of continued investment in NOAA and in forecasting technology for water managers, saying “I think it’s all about investing in the innovation. It’s about better forecasting of the skies so we can better manage water on the ground.”

In their spending bills for NOAA, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have largely rejected the administration’s deep cuts to water forecasting and modeling programs, opting for much smaller cuts or increases.

Flake remarked at the end of the hearing that together with the legislation he introduced last year and the testimony provided, “we’ll have the material to put together another water supply and drought bill that deals with a lot of the issues that we touched on today.”

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