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Congressional Testimony, 2004

Statement of Charles G. Groat
Director, U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior


March 19, 2004

Madam Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to participate in this hearing to discuss the important role of water in the U.S. -Mexico Border Region and to provide the Administration's views on S. 1957, the `United States-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act.' The Administration supports the provisions of S. 1957, `The United States-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act,' however, we note that we currently are undertaking some work in the areas covered by the bill and that no new authorities are needed. The program authorized in this bill would need to compete among the Survey's other priorities for funding.

BACKGROUND

The international border region of the United States and Mexico (border region) has, during the past decade, experienced significant economic expansion accompanied by rapid population growth and urban development. The removal of international trade barriers quickly transformed the region's several small to mid-size cities into some of the fastest growing population centers in both countries. As a result, the people residing on both sides of the border now face numerous complex social, political, economic, infrastructure, public health, natural resource, and environmental-quality challenges. Along the entire length of the mostly arid international border region, perhaps the greatest challenge is how to effectively address the need for safe, sustainable supplies of good quality water for public, industrial, and agricultural uses, while maintaining a delicate balance with the needs of a very fragile natural-resource system.

The limited surface-water supplies along the border have been allocated for several decades under international treaties and domestic laws. However, allocation of ground water in the border region is poorly regulated because little is known about its availability, sustainability, and quality; about how ground water interacts with surface- water bodies; and about the susceptibility of ground water to contamination. Ground water also is an important source of life-sustaining base flow to many streams and essential for maintaining critical aquatic habitats.

Ground-water pumping has lowered the water table, depleted aquifers, and reduced the base flow of many streams thus decreasing the quantity of water available to support critical riparian habitats. Excessive ground-water pumping in some major urban centers, such as in the El Paso/Juarez metropolitan region, has caused land subsidence that has damaged homes and essential urban infrastructure. In addition to the effects of ground- and surface-water depletion, degradation of water quality has reduced habitat suitability for the region's diverse biota. The problems associated with limited water quantity and competing uses of water also have resulted in impaired and degraded water quality and serious issues related to human health on both sides of the border. Water quantity and quality will most likely be the determining and limiting factors that ultimately control future economic development, population growth, and human health along the United States-Mexico border.

S. 1957

S. 1957 directs the Secretary of the Interior to establish a United States-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Program to systematically assess priority transboundary aquifers and provide the scientific foundation necessary for State and local officials to address pressing water resource challenges in the border region. The bill further directs the Secretary of the Interior to implement this program in cooperation with the Border states as well as with other appropriate entities, including affected Indian tribes.

The proposed, collaborative scientific investigations and research efforts would address critical water supply, environmental, and natural-resource issues in the border region, and contribute to an improved understanding of the relations between the border region's many water, natural-resource, biological, and human-health related issues. We agree that a multi-discipline, binational, scientific approach is needed to address these complex, interrelated transboundary issues. Additionally, these studies would develop and document the tools, scientific methodologies, and procedures for collecting and integrating hydrologic, geologic, biologic, and other spatial data into a binational geographic information system for analysis and modeling applications.

S. 1957 objectives include expanding existing agreements between the USGS, Border states, State Water Resources Research Institutes, and appropriate authorities in the United States and Mexico to conduct joint investigations; document, manage, and share data; and carry out the necessary binational work efforts. Such collaboration would produce timely, widely accepted scientific products and understanding of each priority binational aquifer that is needed by water and natural-resource managers to effectively accomplish their missions.

The role identified for the Department of the Interior in this bill is consistent with the USGS leadership role in monitoring, interpretation, research, and assessment of the health and status of the water and biological resources of the Nation. As the Nation's largest water, earth, and biological science, and civilian mapping agency, the USGS provides the largest single non-regulatory hydrologic investigative and research capability in the Nation.

This proposed scientific collaboration by Federal, State, Tribal, and academic institutions touches on many of the interdisciplinary core competencies of the USGS. At its heart, the proposed collaboration would effectively capitalize on the collective scientific capability and resources of the partnering institutions. The integration of this relevant science would address the most pressing and complex natural resource and environmental problems in these very fragile landscapes and complex ecosystems.

The USGS has been active in a number or relevant programs and investigations in the arid southwest and hence has a working knowledge of proven methods and innovative technologies for effectively characterizing, monitoring, and mapping the border region's ground-water resources. We believe we have the authority to implement the activities called for in the bill and would continue to provide resources to address the goals of the S. 1957, provided these activities successfully compete against other USGS priorities. In FY 2004, roughly $500,000 will be spent on such on-the-ground activities by USGS. The President's FY 2005 Budget sustains this funding level. USGS scientists working from offices in each of the four Border states actively participate in these programs and investigations, and are called upon by the States and border communities to provide essential technical insight and understanding for solving critical water supply and natural-resource problems. Our scientists serve on a large number of relevant committees, task forces, and advisory groups in the border region. Regional coordination and communication of USGS programs and activities along the international border is further enhanced internally through our Border Strategy Team as well as within the Department of the Interior as a result of our active participation on the U.S.-Mexico Field Coordination Committee.

Talking with our partners in the Border states and communities, in the other Interior Bureaus, and other Federal agencies, as well with scientists and government officials in Mexico, it is widely acknowledged that the lack of a standardized, binational database on the availability, use, and quality of transboundary ground-water resources is perhaps the most significant impediment in addressing the Border region's numerous complex water-supply and natural-resource challenges. The lack of basic inventory and monitoring information pertaining to border water resources and water-dependent environments prevents a comprehensive understanding of watershed and regional processes and issues, and hinders the ability of science to provide the essential predictive capability to characterize or describe potential cause and effect relations associated with alternative land and water use and management actions.

The program and investigations called for in this bill would support the development and maintenance of such a standardized, binational hydrologic database and associated data analysis tools. Early into the program, it would be essential that binational consensus be reached on common investigative approaches, common field data collection protocols, laboratory methodologies, and data management, documentation, and reporting systems. Once these technical issues are resolved, it would be much easier to streamline the treaty requirements related to the review and public release of impartial, transboundary scientific data. Such consensus has been reached in the past for transboundary investigations having limited scope. Obtaining this consensus for the entire Border region would greatly enhance transboundary scientific collaboration in the future.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to present this testimony. I will be pleased to answer questions you and other Members of the Subcommittee might have.

 

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