The Case for Open Water Data

We collect a lot of water data.  From utility districts to the USGS, there are all sorts of agencies spending millions of dollars to collect information on streamflow, groundwater, subsidence, and soil moisture.  Then they store this data in siloed databases. But these databases don’t speak the same language.

Access to water data across states and agencies is difficult because it is collected by hundreds of organizations with no common infrastructure.

– Alan Rea, USGS hydrologist and data specialist

These days, the price of water is climbing and there is more demand than ever.  Companies who depend on water for their operations should factor in water risks to their business strategy.  This starts with understanding water data.

Lake Houston Exposed: Effects of the 2011 East Texas Drought

Water is measured along specific geographic points, but it flows across jurisdictional boundaries. In order to really understand our water ecosystem, everyone in the field should be sharing data and collaborating, even if they are 100 miles apart.  Then we can start to build predictive models for what’s happening to our environment, and how it’s affecting our economy.

The state of open water data today

Water information sharing started in 2011 when the USGS, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and NOAA’s National Weather Service began a formal collaboration called Integrated Water Resources Science and Services.  The goal of this collaboration was to cultivate new approaches for improving their respective water missions.

Then in 2014, a group of federal agencies created the Open Water Data Initiative that puts all of their water data in one spot.  This comes at the heels of the Climate Data Initiative and the subsequent datasets that the White House released to address climate resilience.  I expect this will lead to faster research, more accurate forecasts, and a better understanding of land, water, and climate interactions.

As these programs take shape, I’m happy to see that all aspects of hydrological data are welcome such as groundwater levels and reservoir storage, snow conditions and river flows, information on water pollution and soil moisture. These data are not mutually exclusive from human uses of water such as water withdrawals and consumption, and the amount of water flowing from farm fields back into rivers.  All of these things are part of the big picture.

What this looks like in practice

Sample screen from the California Drought Visualization website

Sample screen from the California Drought Visualization website

Here’s an early example of one OWDI success story. The USGS released an interactive California Drought Visualization in December 2014. This tool provides the public with atlas-like, statewide coverage of the drought over time.  This is a great way to help the public understand drought conditions in California, and help policymakers make data-driven solutions for the future.

Still, there are a lot of challenges to open water data.  Releasing data to develop this type of application is not easy. The agencies responsible for collecting water data follow different procedures and methods. There’s no standardization, and that creates confusion when comparing data from different sources. We need industry-standard guidelines to avoid discrepancies. Hopefully that will be a natural by-product of these programs.

Up next

In the next post, I’ll explore how this open water data initiative can work for Houston.  Stay tuned for part two. 

Sachin Shah