Fifty years of promise: A look at America's commitment to water research since the Water Resources Research Act of 1964
As the sun sets on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Water Resources Research Act (WRRA), Minnegram turned to Patrick Brezonik, University of Minnesota Professor Emeritus of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering, and Water Resources Center (WRC) director from 1985 to 2003, for his take on the legislation's legacy.
Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the WRRA established a network of academic-based water resources research institutes (WRRIs) in each state and Puerto Rico. Brezonik was a graduate student in water chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison when the WRRA was passed in 1964. Under his leadership as a professor in the University's Department of Civil Engineering, and with the help of co-director Professor James Anderson, the WRC grew from a two-person office in the University's Graduate School to one of the most recognized WRRIs in the country.
"There's no question that the Water Resources Research Act's most important legacy is the authorization of the WRRI program, which created the network of institutes that include the University's own Water Resources Center," says Brezonik.
The WRRI program is a federal-state partnership that provides for competitive grants for state and regional water research projects, financial support in training future water scientists and engineers, and the transfer of water-related research and information to water managers and the general public. Administered by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and housed at land-grant research universities in every state, Brezonik says the institutes continue to play an important in the communication and coordination of water issues.
"Early on, University of Minnesota administrators saw the benefit of having a coordinating unit for water-related workshops and grants," he says. In 1990, Brezonik spearheaded the University's graduate program in Water Resource Sciences, increasing the WRC's academic heft and creating what would become the University's largest interdisciplinary graduate program. WRC's academic profile grew larger when its administrative home moved from the Graduate School to the College of Natural Resources (renamed the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences in 2006).
"On a positive note, the institutes still play a strong role on their campuses," he says. "They also do great job of serving as coordinators between state and federal agencies. And on the national level, the National Institutes of Water Resources has a collective voice to Congress." Another positive is that the funding is used very effectively through the institute's research grant programs. Through matching dollars, even small grants can be highly effective in funding locally- and regionally-important research projects and graduate student training.
But the spirit of WRRA has been sorry neglected, says Brezonik: "The system is vastly underfunded. What's missing these days is money. In 1965, the Water Resource Research Act funded the institutes at around $250,000 per year, which at the time, was a fair amount of money. Today, the institutes only get a fraction of that amount and the funding is shared with the USGS."
An agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the USGS has struggled to maintain its own funding. "Despite good relations and a track record of cooperation, there is inevitable competition between the USGS' own core water program and the Institutes," he says. Additionally, NIWR funding is equally divided between all 54 institutes. Brezonik thinks Congress would be more inclined to increase funding for a program that is competitive between states and regions.
Although Brezonik isn't particularly hopeful for increased federal funding in the short term, he's optimistic that Congress' interest in water issues will grow. "With climate change occurring —and seemingly accelerating – water problems are going to be more severe and we're going to need more resources. In the mid-term, we're going to need more resources directed at research on both water quality and quantity."
"We have such a divided political climate at the moment that WRRA's legacy is in the balance. For now, perhaps the best we can hope for is the status quo," he says. "But in the longer term, water issues are getting very serious—even with our abundance of water, Minnesota doesn't have a surplus."