Powering Up in a Collaborative Way: Informing Integrated Water Resources Management

Ada L. Benavides
Authored by: Ada L. Benavides, Project Manager, Headquarters, United States Army Corps of Engineers

April 5, 2011

Management of the water resources of the United States is a complicated business. The States take the lead, but the Federal government has been involved nearly since its creation.

Some trite-but-true expressions are most meaningful today:

  • We suffer from information overload.
  • The Federal government is so fractured that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.
  • We keep reinventing the wheel.
  • Federal data are just not readily available.
  • Technology transfer is a good thing, but too hard to do.
  • Knowledge is power, and we need it.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers heard these laments often from state and local water resources managers and others during its national assessment in 2008-2010 to explore ways to collaborate with States, interstate organizations, non-governmental organizations, and others to improve water resources planning and management and sustain critical water resources for the future. At regional conferences conducted as part of this process, the Corps received a strong call to make data and information about water resources more integrated and accessible. States indicated that they desire quantitative data about resources levels and conditions, increased monitoring to collect and evaluate such data, trend information, and technical expertise that they lack but know the Federal government possesses – especially to plan and manage their resources at a watershed scale.

A key recommendation of the Building Strong Collaborative Relationships for a Sustainable Water Resources Future project, summarized in the national report Responding to National Water Resources Challenges (August 2010, visit the Report Website) was to move toward integrated water resources, specifically to assist states in collaborating with Federal agencies for more integrated management of water and related land resources.

This validated a previous recommendation the Corps made to create a data hub for information exchange and Federal support to address water needs across the nation. Theme 7 in the national report recommends Technology Transfer and Knowledge Capacity Building: Base the development of water resources plans and decision making upon good science and the sharing of information and technology. Increase scientific and management knowledge and technology/technological capabilities at all levels of government. Theme 4 meanwhile recommends that the Federal government Promote opportunities and mechanisms for collaborative water resources planning and management.

The Federal government plays a major role in supporting water resources planning and management. Federal agencies monitor, develop sound science and prediction models, make predictions, manage, conserve, regulate, protect, mitigate, restore, and handle emergency response and recovery planning and operations. Moreover, the Federal government possesses a myriad of expertise, knowledge, and experience to provide assistance for more integrated development and management of the nation’s public water resources. Since effective water management is a national imperative to provide for drinking, irrigation, and municipal and industrial use, protect life and property from flooding and droughts, support economic security through navigation, protect health and the environment, and mitigate the escalating risk of climate change and aging water infrastructure, it cannot be ignored.

A key outgrowth of the Corps’s National Report is the action to develop a Federal Support Toolbox for Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) to provide a single nationwide hub of data, information, models and other support assistance about water management that can be made accessible today across Federal resources agencies, State water resources officials and others managing water resources activities in the Nation. The objective of the Federal Support Toolbox for IWRM – Federal Toolbox or FTB – is to share a wealth of information and provide access to water resources research, technologies, tools, and experts. The FTB would include scientific and technical data and information, models and tools, planning and policy authorities, regulations, policies, guidelines, lessons learned and best management practices, including case studies about collaborative efforts and partnerships; as well as other reports and research. As a single identifiable repository for a tremendous amount of information housed in agency-specific systems and databases, the FTB holds the promise to become a system of knowledge and expertise that can be leveraged to augment the knowledge and capabilities of resource planners regionally and at state and local levels so as to close their information gaps.

Federal agencies themselves welcome the opportunity to begin sharing their information across agencies. Another 2009 Corps assessment of 12 Federal water resource agencies revealed the desire of these agencies to streamline access to Federal water resources capabilities; to share technology information, models, and best practices; to leverage resources more effectively; and to improve collaboration.

The availability of vetted, aggregated, organized, user-friendly, and accessible information in a Federal Toolbox should not only support enhanced technology transfer and knowledge capacity building about water issues, but also build a more solid foundation for water resources planning and decision making grounded in good science, information and technology sharing, technology development, and innovation. Water resources technical professionals and decision makers would have access to forecasts, integrated services, modeling at various geographic scales, cataloging of models and tools, and a compendium of best management practices. This powerful information system will also stimulate development of new constructs, models, and technologies to continue the process of knowledge capacity building, especially to help close information gaps for States, Tribes, localities, and interstate and non-governmental organizations.

Building the Federal Support Toolbox will take collaboration among Federal agencies; no single agency has the resources to create the Toolbox on its own. As collaborative partnerships are formed to access, analyze, and apply the data, information, and knowledge available from each agency, the potential for gaining insight, wisdom, and understanding about water resources needs, strategies, and solutions grows exponentially.

One very positive outcome of the Building Strong Collaborative Relationships initiative was the recognition that there is a strong building block for the FTB in the form of the Integrated Water Resources Science and Services system (IWRSS). IWRSS is a collaborative project already underway among the Corps, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to create an interoperable scientific system for water resources management. IWRSS is dedicated to integrating water resources information and simplifying access to it, increasing the accuracy and timeliness of water information, and providing high-resolution information and forecasts for geography from summit to sea. Key to making this happen will be a strong participatory process to coordinate interagency activities toward common goals and to apply physical and social science strategies to deliver a responsive information system that meets stakeholder needs. Since the Building Strong Collaborative Relationships initiative, the Corps has worked to enhance the partnership with NOAA and the USGS and move the development of the Support Toolbox forward. The three agencies are about to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to solidify the Federal Support Toolbox development partnership.

Success in building the Federal Toolbox will require participation of key stakeholders inside and outside government, effective management, sufficient funding, and an implementation plan and schedule. The potential to have an accessible hub that connects the right and left hands of the Federal government’s water resources information databases; that reduces information overload but provides reliable, organized, comprehensive, and accessible information about the nation’s water and land resources in an integrated way; and that turns such information into powerful knowledge and support capabilities for the benefit of the Federal government, regional/state/local entities, universities, and the general public is becoming real. The Federal Support Toolbox promises to be a new business model for collaborative public water resources information and knowledge management in the 21st Century.