Get to Know 6 Programs Driving Open Water Data

July 9, 2019
Union Mine High School students conduct water sampling at Greenwood Creek River Access on December 5, 2017
Union Mine High School students sample water at the Greenwood Creek River Access, John Ciccarelli/BLM

The US has more than 150,000 public water agencies. Each of these agencies collects thousands of pages of information on water use, water quality, and water quantity every year. Yet, most of this public information is still on paper files or housed in spreadsheets that are hard for most people to access and use constructively.

Meanwhile, other fields have harnessed the power of online, machine-readable data to create open tools embedded in our regular lives, from weather alerts to maps that help you find the closest gas station and sandwich shop in seconds.

To catch up, water agencies, policymakers, and technology experts are driving a national push to make our water data equally open and transparent. They see how open data triggers both creative problem-solving and informed decision-making, how it fosters collaboration and confidence, and how it builds equity and breaks down silos.

Today, I’m taking an opportunity to share a few open water data developments from across the country – and how these projects are working together.

These state- and national-level efforts are helping the water field make its information more accessible, improve data’s usefulness to communities and economies, and help solve complex challenges.

While many of these efforts are still in early stages, the work over just the past six months attests to open water data’s tremendous potential.

New Mexico Passes Open Water Data Act

In March, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the state’s first Water Data Act, which gives state agencies funding and technical support to standardize water data collection and create tools that help water managers get quick and easy access to information on water resources.

State Rep. Melanie Stansbury, who co-sponsored the bill, says, “It will be a game-changer for our state to make data open, accessible, and usable. People who are working on the land as ranchers, farmers, conservationists, they have deep knowledge of the land and having access to [water] data and tools will help them be more profitable and more sustainable. The people working on the ground understand that.”

Over the next few months, New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources is working with other state agencies and water providers to catalog what water data is already available online and what information is not. From there, the team is creating a plan of action to fill in the gaps and harness the power of data to manage New Mexico’s water.

Texas Invests in Flood Data

“Texas is focused on flooding and what the state can do to better prepare, and part of statewide flood planning is updated mapping and better information [for first responders and the public],” says Sam Marie Hermitte, Assistant Deputy Executive Administrator of Water Science and Conservation for the Texas Water Development Board.

In May, the state legislature approved a $47 million package to develop a robust flood planning process, including support for a dashboard that shares real-time information on weather conditions, weather alerts, and stream flow.

In her work, Sam often thinks about innovations that have come because the public has access to GPS information and better data on how to be healthy. When it comes to water, no one can predict where open data will lead, but she knows “data gets us to better places.”

California Drives Forward on Open Water Data

In 2016, California passed AB 1755, the most robust open water data legislation in the country. Delegated with implementing the law, the Department of Water Resources created a state agency team that is a new model for cross-agency collaboration. The state’s strategic plan to implement AB 1755 also contemplated an external body to expand collaboration with stakeholders. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research recently convened an advisory council to explore those options, and state officials, water users, data experts, and environmental advocates developed a set of consensus recommendations to create the California Water Data Consortium.

An effort to build the Consortium is now underway, and once launched, it will make data streamlining a focus for its first year.

The Consortium’s work also includes promoting the adoption of data standards and protocols so that decision-makers can more easily use the information California is already collecting.

In a recent letter supporting the Consortium, California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot and Secretary of Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld said, “better use of data on water and ecosystems will help us meet growing demands placed on our water resources by climate change, population growth and other factors.”

Other complementary initiatives across the state are spurring collaboration and creativity in open water data. In August, the California Data Collaborative will host their annual Water Data Summit at UC Davis, with dozens of panels from data talent in the workforce to data-driven water efficiency. Later this summer, the West Big Data Innovation Hub will partner with the state to officially launch the California Water Data Challenge, which invites anyone to build new tools with public water data.

Western States Water Council Partners with USGS to Standardize Water Use Data Reporting

Over the past year, the Western States Water Council has spearheaded a major effort to strengthen its Water Data Exchange, also known as WaDE. The project pulls together water supply and water use, and water rights data from 16 states in one common framework.

While originally created for western US states, the project is expanding, and eastern US states are also welcome to participate. In June, the United States Geological Service (USGS) issued new guidelines that encourage states participating in its Water Use Data & Research program to use WaDE’s data format as a template as a template for automated data delivery to USGS.

Sara Larsen, the WaDE team lead, shared, “we’re talking to states about demonstrating the value of data by developing use cases as an integral step to data publication. What are the data gaps you need to fill to make better decisions?”

Water Data Collaborative Helps Fill Data Gaps with Community Science

Across the country, thousands of community scientists and local groups are helping to collect and share data about the health of their nearby rivers and water resources. In some states, residents are systematically tracking water quality and quantity for places that no one else is monitoring. In others, residents are providing weekly or monthly updates to state agencies that may only be able to collect data once every few years. Virginia, for example, found that local volunteers conducted water quality monitoring worth over $3 million in 2018 alone.

To help strengthen community-collected water data – and help more policymakers use this information in their decision-making – River Network, Waterkeeper Alliance, Izaak Walton League of America, the Commons, Chesapeake Conservancy’s Conservation Innovation Center, Colorado Riverwatch, the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Sciences, and the Internet of Water recently launched the Water Data Collaborative. This team is now working to create open source tools that help more people collect, document, and contribute valuable data.

Adam Griggs, a leader of the emerging effort, says, “we want to be a data-rich environment to protect our natural resources. Science can help us know where to invest resources and help our money go further.” He also invites others to join the growing network of community scientists, tech developers, and open data stewards.

Internet of Water Serves as Connective Tissue for Cities and States

And that brings us to the Internet of Water, a new unifying force for the field of water data. Housed at Duke University, the team launched officially this year as a trusted space for people working on water data of all kinds to share lessons learned and build skills together.

In states like California and New Mexico, where legislation is driving new work, the Internet of Water team is sharing their technical expertise to help state leaders make the transition from legacy data management systems to 21st century cloud-based data infrastructure.

In other places, particularly more rural areas, the team is working with water agencies and utilities to help break down the seemingly insurmountable task of digitizing decades and decades of paper forms into online, searchable data.

Ashley Ward, engagement and outreach associate for the project, noted, “many of the folks we are working with at the community level need a helping hand when it comes to modern data management. The Internet of Water has been able to give them a starting point, how to think about [open data], how to make plans, and get to the point to make decisions…Partners are then inspired to think more creatively about their data, and they say if I had this information, I could do X, Y, and Z.”

With the Water Data Collaborative, the team is also elevating the benefits of community-collected data and showing water managers how they can strengthen their work and decision-making with that information.

2019 is shaping up to be a big year for open water data. As Ashley told us, this is “creating an environment in which more innovation can occur than ever before.”