GAO finds flaws in watershed data coordination

The GAO is calling for better data coordination in watershed management efforts.

As a result of system incompatibility, data is not easily managed across hundreds of agencies that monitor water quality, according to a report released this week by the General Accounting Office.

There is no central database for water quality data that comes from hundreds of organizations'federal, state and volunteer'on a regular basis.

As a result, agencies can't get a complete picture of water quality in a given area, a long-standing concern for the water officials who requested the GAO survey.

The GAO recommended that Congress define an authority for coordinating water data collection nationwide. The new organization would oversee development of an Internet-based clearinghouse to record what entities are collecting what types of data.

As part of that project, GAO said the organization should support a geospatial Internet-based query tool so users could access information for any given watershed.

The EPA agreed that a comprehensive and accessible system is needed. The Department of the Interior, however, said that a large federal database is neither feasible nor desirable.

'When data systems are too large and remote from the data generation responsibility, maintaining data integrity becomes difficult and inefficient,' said P. Lynn Scarlett, an assistant secretary at Interior. Instead, the department emphasized creation of a reliable Internet-based portal that would allow groups to find data sources based on a particular geographic region.

Currently, the EPA's nationwide monitoring database STORET and the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water Information System are two of the largest water quality databases. They are not fully compatible.

This is largely due to different design philosophies: NWIS only accepts data from pre-approved sources and also functions as a data processing system. STORET accepts data of varying reliability but requires significant data parameters.

Most officials interviewed by GAO also said STORET makes it difficult to upload and retrieve water quality measurements. The system's wide data parameters have proved cumbersome for federal agencies with little to gain from the studies done by small volunteer groups.

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