How NASA helps companies manage water risk

There is a pressing need for better data in the water sector, from reuse and recycling, water withdrawal and consumption to real-time water quality monitoring and water resources availability and depletion rates.

Without quantitative, and in many cases, real-time data, the private and public sectors will struggle to address the challenges of providing water for the ever-increasing demands of our energy, agriculture, manufacturing, domestic and ecosystem needs. However, there are many examples of how technology and IT solutions address this need.

One advanced data acquisition technology, for instance, is NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE). GRACE is a pair of identical satellites, launched in 2002, that provides data on the Earth’s fresh water from space. The satellites measure changes in Earth’s gravitation field that signal shifts in the movement of water across and under Earth’s surface.

GRACE has collected data on groundwater level changes to support water users and policymakers manage increasingly scarce groundwater resources in California, the Tigris-Euphrates Basin and other locations around the world.

The satellites provide continuous monitoring of changes in the Earth’s mass. Water is heavy so the depletion or extraction of groundwater from a “water-rich” aquifer will cause a mass loss and result in a lower influence of gravity on the satellites. These small changes in gravity are measured by the GRACE satellites, allowing for the creation of a database detailing the groundwater-storage change in water basins on a month-to-month basis.

The satellites provide data not historically available from on-the-ground monitoring. For example, the University of California Center for Hydrologic Modeling (UCCHM) uses data from GRACE to develop a “state-of-the-art, integrated model of California water resources.” The GRACE data are also used to monitor water availability in locations such as China and the Tigris-Euphrates basin. Researchers recently used the data to measure changes in regional groundwater storage in northern China, which includes one of the largest irrigated agricultural areas of the world.

These data can be collected without on-the-ground monitoring to provide a strategic view of water availability to support regional water management decisions.

The data collected by the GRACE satellites is also being integrated into water risk mapping tools used by the public and private sectors. Water risk tools, such as the WWF Water Risk Filter and the WRI Aqueduct, are routinely used to understand water risk and to support water risk mitigation strategies. The databases used by these tools are upgraded with the most current data available to provide a detailed assessment of water supply and demand.

Specifically, WRI will use the data from GRACE in its Aqueduct Tool. Over the next year, WRI will work with researchers to incorporate the new groundwater data onto Aqueduct’s interactive water maps and global water risk assessment tool.

Expect to see data from sources such as GRACE and real-time monitoring of water “use” and quality to help companies understand water risk across their value chain, such as agricultural production, manufacturing and energy generation, and develop risk mitigation strategies. These data, in turn, will be integrated with visualization tools to support business decisions as part of overall enterprise risk management frameworks.