The Water Challenge

Water is the essence of life and vital to the well-being of every person, economy, and ecosystem on the planet. But around the globe and here in the United States, water challenges are mounting as climate change, population growth, and other drivers of water stress increase. Many of these challenges are regional in scope and larger than any one organization (or even states), such as the depletion of multi-state aquifers, basin-scale flooding, or the wide-spread accumulation of nutrients leading to dead zones. Much of the infrastructure built to address these problems decades ago, including our data infrastructure, are struggling to meet these challenges. Much of our water data exists in paper formats unique to the organization collecting the data. Often, these organizations existed long before the personal computer was created (1975) or the internet became mainstream (mid 1990’s). As organizations adopted data infrastructure in the late 1990’s, it was with the mindset of “normal infrastructure” at the time. It was built to last for decades, rather than adapt with rapid technological changes. 

New water data infrastructure with new technologies that enable data to flow seamlessly between users and generate information for real-time management are needed to meet our growing water challenges. Decision-makers need accurate, timely data to understand current conditions, identify sustainability problems, illuminate possible solutions, track progress, and adapt along the way. Stakeholders need easy-to-understand metrics of water conditions so they can make sure managers and policymakers protect the environment and the public’s water supplies. The water community needs to continually improve how they manage this complex resource by using data and communicating information to support decision-making. In short, a sustained effort is required to accelerate the development of open data and information systems to support sustainable water resources management. The Internet of Water (IoW) is designed to be just such an effort.

This timeline offers major developments related to water infrastructure and regulations, technological advancements, and water-related events.

Why an Internet of Water?

The water data infrastructure in the United States is antiquated and increasingly inadequate for the 21st century. While water data have been collected by federal, state, and local agencies for decades, much of it is not open – meaning discoverable, accessible, and usable. Because of this, we are often unable to answer basic questions about our river basins and aquifers in a timely way, namely:

  • How much water is there?
  • What is its quality?
  • How is it being used?

This is like having a bank account without knowing how much money you are taking in, how much money is in your account, how much you are spending, or what you are spending it on. As long as you have plenty of money, that system works. But as resources become strained, it is increasingly important to manage your resources as efficiently as possible. This means you need to know how your money is flowing into and out of your account, what expenses are variable and non-essential, and where efficiencies can be made. And you need all of this data to be linked to each other to create real-time information.

The same holds true for a water budget. Climate change is increasing the variability in water supply while population growth and urbanization are increasing water demand. At the same time, the cost of using water fluctuates with water quality and regulations. In order to manage our water resources, we need to connect data to create accurate and time-relevant water budgets. This means the data must be discoverable (you can find it) and usable (it has standards and metadata).

Currently, data are collected by different agencies, for different purposes, at different scales, and are scattered across multiple platforms with different standards. This limits their ability to be integrated and put to additional use. Without a coordinating effort, water data will remain fragmented, leading to high, and often prohibitive, transaction costs because the time invested in discovering, cleaning, and standardizing data leaves little ability to put the data to work to gain insights. If data are hard to discover or share across platforms, they will not be used to drive decisions, which creates uncertainty and costly inefficiencies as water resources become more constrained.

Now imagine a world where you can easily look up groundwater levels as you house-hunt, quickly check the water quality at the school your kids attend, or open an app to check if a river or lake is safe for swimming. Imagine improved forecast accuracy because more data are available to provide adequate, timely warnings about harmful algal blooms, droughts, or floods. These accurate forecasts, if they occurred far enough into the future, could be used to help avoid flood damage or sewer overflows, pinpoint efforts to remove nutrients before an algal bloom, and engage in precision conservation to save water prior to a drought. What would it be like to have a transparent water market, where trades could be trusted and transaction costs lowered? What would it be like to precisely manage water, reduce uncertainty, and streamline infrastructure needs to avoid redundancy and maximize efficiency, all while making regulations more precise for protecting the environment and human health?

This Internet of Water strives to realize such a world.

What is the Internet of Water?

The Internet of Water (IoW) is a project currently housed at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, managed by a small startup team and supported by grants from several philanthropic organizations. By 2021, the IoW project aims to be a self-sustaining network managed by an independent organization.

The IoW envisions a world engaged in sustainable water resource management and stewardship enabled by open, shared, and integrated water data and information. The components of the IoW already exist (producers, hubs, and users), but the work of sharing and integrating data between them is not a primary mission for any of them. But the mission of the IoW is to build a dynamic and voluntary network of communities and institutions to facilitate the opening, sharing, and integration of water data and information.

The IoW is focused on facilitating and strengthening the connections between these entities to ensure sufficient, usable water data is available at our fingertips. We work with:

  • Data producers: These entities have authority over the data they are collecting, and they are collecting data for a specific purpose. For instance, a water utility collects data to meet EPA reporting requirements to ensure water is safe to drink.
  • Data hubs: These entities provide a formalized, structured source of water data. Hubs may also produce data. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is an agency that collects data from stream gages and groundwater wells and provides those data to users through an online portal. State agencies are typically both data producers and hubs. There are also neutral hubs that do not create data, but pull data from producers via portals, such as the National Groundwater Monitoring Network Portal.
  • Data users: These entities use water data to create value. Primary data users are the producers who use the data they collect to meet a specific mission (such as an irrigator collecting soil moisture samples to know how much water to apply to crops). Secondary data users create value by combining multiple types of data to address other problems or needs (such as developing regional plans for aquifer recharge).

The Internet of Water connects producers, hubs, and users.