David Maidment is helping experts access water information

“Our water supply systems are dependent on how much water resources we’ve got, and unless we keep track of those, we don’t know what the condition of our water system is,” says Maidment.

David Maidment: We’re all very dependent on water, so understanding how much water we have and what the quality is, is a critical aspect for maintaining human well-being.

David Maidment is director of the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s leading an online initiative to help organizations in the U.S. – like the EPA – share water data more easily with one another.

David Maidment: How much water is flowing in streams and rivers, how high is the level of water in our lakes, reservoirs, and groundwater systems…

He said environmental organizations often compile this kind of information about water in such different ways that it complicates science research. He added that, right now, scientists can’t answer big-picture questions like: How much water is there in the U.S.? Maidment explained the public impact:

David Maidment: Our water supply systems are dependent on how much water resources we’ve got, and unless we keep track of those, we don’t know what the condition of our water system is.

To keep track of the country’s water data, Maidment helped establish an online resource called the CUAHSI Hydrologic Information System. The system helps water experts track their data in the same way, so they can easily share and interpret it.

David Maidment: We can go to an arbitrary place in the country and say, what’s the quality of water here? How much water do we have here? What did we have in the past, what could we have in the future?

Maidment said this is no small task, adding that, every day, water measurements are made from 2 million locations across the country. He described in more detail what water information gets collected around the country.

David Maidment: The things that measure the condition of our water system – how much water is flowing in streams and rivers, how high is the level of water in our lakes, reservoirs, and groundwater systems, what’s the quality of water in lakes and rivers, what’s the amount of precipitation, what’s the level of soil moisture – are things that are measured at point locations, and vary over time, and collectively measure how much water we have, and what’s the quality of that water.

These measurements are taken either by water gauges, or with water samples that are analyzed in a lab for water quality. Maidment spoke of the water gauge that monitors the Colorado River in Austin, Texas.

David Maidment: That’s been recording water flow in the Colorado River for more than 100 years. Those are great records. I think of them as being something like the history of the nation. If we don’t record our water data, then we lose a part of history. In terms of comparable gauges to the Colorado River, there are 7,000 operating in the country. And of those, about 6, 000 have their data collected automatically, every hour. Overall there are 2 million locations where water data are collected in the country.

Maidment’s job is to unify this water data:

David Maidment: I’m the leader of something called the CUAHSI. That stands for the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. That’s an Organization supported by the NSF to advance hydrologic science in the nation’s universities. Our job is to try to provide high quality hydrologic data for our researchers, students, and faculty who want to understand water science and how water systems work. We’re providing an indexing mechanism by which they can get access to that information. That same indexing facility is also important for water resources management in the country, because to get a comprehensive picture of what’s going on, you need a total picture of the water data.

Lindsay Patterson