Reporter’s guide: investigating water quality and quantity

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Photo by Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Water goes through a settlement basin at an Illinois American Water facility near Champaign, Ill.


Government reports have recently found that the U.S. water supply is in jeopardy, both in terms of quantity and quality.

In May, the Government Accountability Office released the report “Freshwater: Supply Concerns Continue, and Uncertainties Complicate Planning.” The report focused on freshwater availability, and it included a survey of state water managers.

The survey revealed that 40 out of 50 state water managers expect some degree of water shortage in their state within the next decade.

The accountability office released an earlier report on water quality in January. In the report “Changes Needed If Key EPA Program Is to Help Fulfill the Nation’s Water Quality Goals,” investigators highlighted persistent problems with nonpoint-source pollution and outlined the overall state of the nation’s water bodies.

The report pointed out that the majority of water bodies assessed by the Environmental Protection agency do not meet designated-use standards for simple activities such as fishing, swimming or drinking.

Both reports discussed the implications of climate change, which will bring uncertainties and challenges to water resource management as the nation moves forward.

Here are tools for reporters to research these and other water issues.


U.S. Geological Survey

USGS1The U.S. Geological Survey is one of the government’s premier science organizations. It provides information on the health of the U.S. ecosystem and presents data tools that reporters can use in their investigations. The agency, administered by the Department of the Interior, manages an entire section on water data that includes maps, charts and other useful tools.

In the agency’s online “Water Watch” portal, reporters can find information about current stream flow, drought, flood and runoff.

In its “Groundwater Watch” portal, reporters can find information about the underground aquifers that underline much of the country. This database contains information from about 850,000 different wells.


Environmental Protection Agency

EPAPerhaps the most widely known federal agency on natural resource issues, the Environmental Protection Agency serves to protect human health and environmental well-being. While the agency’s scope covers all environmental issues, it places a deep focus on water issues.

The agency’s water page includes information specifically on drinking water, water law, water-grant funding, pollution prevention and water infrastructure. Furthermore, the page features an “EPA Water News” feed, which can help reporters find leads and stories on water.

Most importantly, the agency curates a list of databases, including databases on beaches, drinking water, water quality goals and water contaminants. It also compiles maps on water, including a tool for identifying surface water bodies by determining their latitude and longitude.


Bureau of Reclamation

ReclamationThe Bureau of Reclamation was established in 1902. It is best known for the dams, power plants and canals it oversees, most of which were built in western states. According to the bureau, it is currently the largest wholesaler of water in the entire country, bringing water to more than 31 million people.

“The mission of the Bureau of Reclamation is to manage, develop, and protect water and related resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the interest of the American public,” its mission statement reads.

It is a main water distributor to farmers in the west, as about 20 percent of western farmers get their irrigation water from the bureau. In total, that means roughly 60 percent of the nation’s vegetables and 25 percent of its fresh fruits and nuts depend on the bureau for water.

The bureau also keeps a list of research resources, particularly helpful for navigating federal programs.


The American Society of Civil Engineers

ASCEThe American Society of Civil Engineers is a network of tens of thousands engineering professionals worldwide. The society’s mission is to advance civil engineering causes and serve the public good.

As part of that mission, the society releases a report card that grades the nation’s infrastructure. The report card includes evaluations of the nation’s bridge infrastructure, road infrastructure, drinking water infrastructure, waste-water infrastructure and other areas.

The society assigns a letter grade to each infrastructure area. For instance, in its 2013 report card, the society gave drinking water infrastructure a “D+.”

“The purpose of the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure is to inform the public of the current condition of America’s infrastructure and to deliver the information in a concise and easily accessible manner,” states the report card’s methodology description. “Using an easily understood school report card format, each of the 16 categories of infrastructure covered in the Report Card is assessed using rigorous grading criteria and the most recent aggregate data sources to provide a comprehensive assessment of America’s infrastructure assets.”


The Government Accountability Office

GAOBesides the two recent reports on water, the Government Accountability Office has investigated water issues throughout the last decade.

In 2013, the accountability office released “EPA Faces Challenges in Addressing Damage Caused by Airborne Pollutants.”

In 2012, the office released “Greater Oversight and Additional Data Needed for Key EPA Water Program.”

In 2011, the office released “Drinking Water: Unreliable State Data Limit EPA’s Ability to Target Enforcement Priorities and Communicate Water Systems’ Performance.”

For more reports on water, visit the office’s key issues page.


American Water Works Association

CaptureThe American Water Works Association is a nonprofit association “dedicated to managing and treating water, the world’s most important resource.”

The association shares dozens of tools dedicated to the research of drought, desalination, waste water, water reuse, water conservation and many other areas. Furthermore, reporters that register for its “Water Knowledge” service can receive updates, news and tools, as well.

The association has about 50,000 members, meaning reporters can likely find potential sources from the association to interview.


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Capture1For reporter’s looking to report on flooding or stream flow, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is an ideal source. The administration publishes feeds from stream gages and other water-level tools in a main heat map.

The map shows which areas of the country are experiencing major flooding, moderate flooding, minor flooding, near flooding and no flooding. During this year’s planting season, Iowa farmers have struggled with frustratingly wet conditions. The administration’s map shows that much of Iowa is experience minor flooding, while some parts of the state are expiring major flooding.

In the future, this resource may become even more important. Researchers and climatologists generally agree that climate change will bring more extreme weather, meaning increased flooding could soon become a common trend.


Your water-utility company

While there are plenty of public tools available for reporters, private utility companies can also be helpful for reporting on water issues. For example, during the reporting process for the series of stories on freshwater supply issues, Illinois American Water agreed to open its treatment plant up for a tour. Not only was that a great opportunity for multimedia content, but the researchers and engineers there also helped confirm some main ideas.

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