When Water Is a Critical Resource, So Is GIS

Water is the stuff of life, in every possible variation on the word. You can’t live without a regular supply. Civilizations developed on the banks of rivers. Many types of businesses need water for manufacturing processes. Rainfall can make or break agricultural concerns. Geopolitical tensions flare up over water rights.

When it comes to understanding water — where it is, how much is falling, how to make it work for people — geographic information systems technology, or GIS, offers vital insight. And advanced expertise, as might come from a GIS masters program, can put you at the forefront of the industry. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey uses GIS to manage water resources. As Kitty Kolb, geographer with the USGS North Carolina Water Science Center wrote:

I could start my day by making a contour map of rainfall amounts from yesterday’s storm, then write a Python computer program to summarize the kinds of land use in basins for a water quality project, and finish with creating a map in Google Earth showing the location of drinking water wells for a groundwater study. GIS allows us to accomplish science more efficiently. Without GIS, gathering data would take much more time and our data would be less accurate.

The USGS uses GIS to analyze statistics on stream flows, providing not only basic information on water availability, but potentially predicting once-in-a-century floods, based on the amount of fluid moving through streams and rivers. Peak and average flows can provide important information to engineers that must design culverts and bridges. Ecologists can monitor the health of wetlands. Emergency management personnel can examine past evidence of storms to help predict current weather.

But as extensive as these uses are, they only scratch the surface of how GIS can help people manage water resources. Agriculture businesses can analyze rainfall patterns and, with predictive modeling, understand what additional water resources they are likely to need for livestock and crops. A paper mill or a semiconductor plant, which are two heavy users of water in their manufacturing processes, can better understand the potential environmental impact of waste materials on a local river.

A city utility can map and monitor water mains and pipes. Knowing where leaks are happening as well as tracking water flow can help management strategically deploy repair services to best save and improve the availability of water. Pipe maps and conditions of the surrounding terrain can also make it easier to clear digging for construction.

What is vital, however, is to move beyond a tactical approach to such analysis. Although using GIS to analyze an organization or community’s use and management of water has practical benefits, it is best done integrated with a broader strategic view. The success of the analysis depends on a deep understanding of all the factors that play into the relationship to water and the effect its availability or lack thereof will have. That is why advanced GIS courses are necessary to gain perspective and the knowledge of how to make the technology and data work in a bigger context.