The Next 50 Years of Water Resources Research

By D. Scott Mackay, Professor, Department of Geography and Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences at the University at Buffalo (the State University of New York) and Editor, Water Resources Research

“Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a story about a journey spanning oceans of unthinkable size and undrinkable water.

Water, it seems, does not exist without a measure of irony. Roughly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered with the stuff, but mostly it’s not available where or when society needs it, or in a form that is safe for drinking, for irrigating crops, or sustaining ecosystems. Sometimes there is just too much, or too little, of it. As Mark Twain wrote, “Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.” It’s as if the fickle finger of fate points to a location and says, ‘there will be drought,’ e.g. California, or ‘it’s time for rain and mudslides,’ e.g. California.

To appreciate how this works we turn to the preeminent hydrologist, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who, by suggesting that the same parcel of water had flowed through the same river many times, was on to something we now call the hydrological cycle. You would think the importance of this finding would be widely understood by society. After all, humans have changed the terrestrial hydrological cycle much more than we have changed Earth’s climate. But according to the journalist Dave Barry, “The four building blocks of the universe are fire, water, gravel and vinyl.” I recently refurbished my turntable and resumed collecting vinyl records after years of living on the dark side—of digital music—so I agree vinyl should be in there . . . but let’s put water first!

Cover of the 50th anniversary collection of the American Geophysical Union's Water Resources Research journalThe 50th Anniversary Special Section of Water Resources Research serves as a reminder that putting water first is a good thing. This collection of papers gives us an appreciation of the challenges we face in combining the hard science (e.g., groundwater-surface water connections) and the social science (e.g., water security) parts of hydrology to address practical problems.

This struggle has a long history. Societal need for safe water at the right time forced us to settle near rivers, such as Mesopotamia and Egypt, and to develop technology, like the Roman aqueducts, to clean it, contain it, and store it. The Green Revolution brought an expansion of irrigation technologies. Today, we have to grow more food in areas where water is hard to find. Along the way we have learned that social relevance determines what research or technological advances get funding. The global variability of fresh water scarcity serves as a reminder that scientific and technological advances are insufficient without social advances.

Clearly, we have more work to do to in communicating our research and its ability to benefit to society. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Water Resources Research, I hope you will offer your thoughts on what you think is the most pressing challenge facing hydrology.

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