Monday, July 2, 2018

BLOG: Groundwater Perspectives: Part 3

by Bob Swanson, Retired Director, USGS Nebraska Water Science Center

This is Part 3 of a series on Groundwater Perspectives (read Part 1 and Part 2). This post is dedicated to the hydrologic technicians in the water community - the unsung heroes of groundwater science.

Ask a scientist what real science is and the answer is predictably whatever they are doing, accompanied with a down-the-nose view that says what you are is not.  Please know that this was meant in jest, but there is always the implication that theoretical particle physics is of greater importance than the routine daily observations of temperature, rainfall, and groundwater levels.

Climate change would be unsubstantiated if it wasn’t for the unknown people collecting sea and air temperature readings in past decades and centuries. Every observation is essential to lead to a better understanding of our natural systems.  

My first position with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) was as a technician in the Data Section. The Data Section collects water monitoring data day-in and day-out in perpetuity. The Data Section staff is virtually invisible to researchers, managers, and the public who use our data. Over the years, I’ve developed an undying respect for those in the science community who work to collect data knowing they will never be cited in the literature, but without whose efforts renders science meaningless opinion.

One of my first trips to Washington, DC with Groundwater Foundation founder and President Emeritus Susan Seacrest included a visit to the Library of Congress. There are engravings around the Library ceiling. The one that captured my attention the most was “Science is Organized Knowledge.” Everyone has a more specialized definition, but that is science in the distilled, basic form. It does not say that to be a scientist you must have an advanced degree and extensive curriculum vitae. Hypotheses come and go. Independent studies contradict each other. However, good data stands on its own value. 

I’ve recently become concerned by observations of changing data attitudes at meetings and conferences. First, I’ve been hearing that we already have enough or perhaps too much water data. Every data point provides an improved assessment of status and trends. The idea that we have enough data is wholly focused in the “now” and managers need to look beyond the data that they need for today’s mission. How often I’ve wished for the opportunity to tell myself 30 years ago to get out and collect the data that I am desperate for in the “now.” We may need to collect some data for what we need now, but we should collect the majority the information to answer the future questions.

The second observation is that the USGS data is “better” than needed. The answer to this is “see the response for the previous paragraph.” The largest percentage of the data cost is putting boots on ground and vehicles in the field. Everything else is incremental. Better equipment is a one time cost often recovered because better equipment often has lower failure rates. It is just as easy to log 15-minute data as daily or weekly data on instruments. Even steel tapes for measuring depth to groundwater vary in accuracy and should be periodically checked against absolute standards. 

As an example, the USGS requires at least two soundings of depth to groundwater and they must agree to strict standards. Every technician and hydrologist in the USGS is trained to collect this data in exactly the same way. William Werkheiser, the USGS Associate Director for Water Mission Area, calls this “ the ruthless pursuit of consistency.” Hours, days, and sometimes weeks are spent chasing data collected to lesser standards.

Laws and regulations that are built on groundwater studies will change…its inevitable. But the truth residing in good data is eternal. The groundwater data professional’s mission is to make sure it is the best available and they deserve a huge thanks!


Robert Swanson was Director of the USGS Nebraska Water Science Center (NEWSC) from 2004 until his retirement in 2017. The NEWSC has 40 dedicated water science professionals, support personnel, and students and offices in Lincoln and North Platte, Nebraska. He oversaw a science program that is managed through two sections, Hydrologic Surveillance and Hydrologic investigations. The USGS operates over 130 streamgaging stations, about 70 continuous groundwater recorders, and compiles ground-water levels for over 5,000 wells in Nebraska.  

Prior to 2004, he gained a wide range of experience in the Hydrologic Surveillance (Data) Section as a hydrologic technician and hydrologist in the Lincoln, Cambridge, Ord, and North Platte Field Offices. He served as field hydrologist for the National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program's Central Nebraska River (CNBR) Basins Study Unit research team and later as CNBR Study Unit Chief.  From 1999 to 2004, Bob was assigned to the USGS Wyoming Water Science Center as the Chief of Hydrologic Surveillance. He has also been Acting Director for both the Iowa and Missouri Water Science Centers. He has served on numerous committees for the advancement of science and technology in the USGS, as well as business practice committees.

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