Congress Passes the Water Resources Research Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Responding to a number of studies on creating uncertainty about the future availability of unpolluted water, Congress authorized federal support of water research in every state.

Summary of Event

On July 17, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Water Resources Research Act. The act provided a mechanism for setting up water-resource research centers in every state and in Puerto Rico and for making federal funding available to support water-resources research at colleges and universities and by other organizations. The new centers were to be funded through the Department of the Interior; in many cases, matching funds from states or other sources were required. The centers were also intended to contribute to the education of scientists and engineers working on water-resource problems. Water Resources Research Act (1964) Pollution;legislation Environmental policy, U.S.;water [kw]Congress Passes the Water Resources Research Act (July 17, 1964) [kw]Water Resources Research Act, Congress Passes the (July 17, 1964) [kw]Act, Congress Passes the Water Resources Research (July 17, 1964) Water Resources Research Act (1964) Pollution;legislation Environmental policy, U.S.;water [g]North America;July 17, 1964: Congress Passes the Water Resources Research Act[08120] [g]United States;July 17, 1964: Congress Passes the Water Resources Research Act[08120] [c]Natural resources;July 17, 1964: Congress Passes the Water Resources Research Act[08120] [c]Environmental issues;July 17, 1964: Congress Passes the Water Resources Research Act[08120] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 17, 1964: Congress Passes the Water Resources Research Act[08120] Kerr, Robert Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;environmental policy Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;environmental policy Wolman, Abel

The Water Resources Research Act was one of several laws passed by Congress in the mid-1960’s in response to growing concern about the availability of adequate water supplies for the nation. The passage of these laws marked the culmination of a legislative process that had begun with a report in 1961 by the Senate Select Committee on National Water Resources Senate Select Committee on National Water Resources , chaired by Senator Robert Kerr, which had addressed the need for a comprehensive program on water research, one that would examine all aspects of the use and control of water resources. The Kerr report also stressed the need for better coordination of state and federal programs to protect water quality.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy had asked the National Academy of Sciences National Academy of Sciences, U.S. , an advisory group of distinguished scientists, to undertake a broad study of the current state of knowledge about conservation and use of natural resources. The academy’s first report on water resources, released in 1962 under the leadership of Abel Wolman, identified priority areas for future research. Both the Kerr report and the National Academy report emphasized the need for federal programs to ensure the continued education of scientists and engineers who would specialize in water-resources research. It was recommended that this training be much broader than that typically given to chemists, biologists, physicists, geologists, or engineers, since it should include information from all the scientific disciplines that apply to clean water. In addition, the new scientists would need to learn about the economic, social, and political factors that determined how water was used in the United States and how the demand for water might change in the future.

A further report, issued in February, 1963, by the Task Group on Coordinated Water Resources Research of the Federal Council for Science and Technology, suggested that research centers be set up at universities in different parts of the country to conduct research and provide training for scientists and engineers. The report drew an obvious parallel between centers for water-resources research and the agricultural experiment stations that had been set up under the Hatch Act at the nation’s land-grant institutions, which were generally credited with having increased agricultural productivity.

As passed by Congress and signed into law, the Water Resources Research Act provided for the establishment of water-resource research centers in each of the states and in Puerto Rico. A federal Office of Water Resources Research Office of Water Resources Research, U.S. was to guide and support the state centers. The act further provided three different types of funding: an annual allocation that would eventually reach $100,000 to each state’s water-resources research center; additional funds to match state contributions for water-resources research, rising from $1 million to $5 million over a five-year period; and additional funds to support water-resources research by other universities, private foundations, companies, individuals, or other government agencies.

To implement the act, Congress authorized allocations of $75,000 to each of fourteen state water-resources research centers in October, 1964. The centers were to be located at the land-grant institutions in each state. In May, 1965, Congress provided funding of $52,000 to the remaining thirty-seven centers. By the end of the 1965 federal fiscal year on September 30, centers in all fifty states and Puerto Rico had received funds. That first year, funds were used to support 316 different water-research projects.

The Water Resources Research Act was only one of several laws enacted at about that time to protect the nation’s water supply. In July, 1965, Congress passed the Water Resources Planning Act Water Resources Planning Act (1965) , which established a Water Resources Council, Water Resources Council, U.S. consisting of the heads of a number of major federal agencies, to conduct a continuing study of the nation’s water needs. The act also gave the president authority to appoint commissions as needed to oversee the development of certain river basins. The National Water Commission Act National Water Commission Act (1968) of 1968 provided $5 million for a National Water Commission National Water Commission , which was allowed a five-year period to conduct a comprehensive examination of water-resource problems throughout the nation and to recommend appropriate management and conservation practices. The report of this commission led to the passage of the Water Pollution Control Amendments Water Pollution Control Amendments (1972) of 1972.

American universities have traditionally assumed responsibility for scientific research as a part of their public service. The Morill Act Morill Act (1862) of 1862 provided for grants of federally owned land to each state to support colleges that would further knowledge of “agriculture and the mechanical arts” and provide skilled workers for expanding agriculture and industry. The Hatch Act Hatch Act (1887) of 1887 provided for a system of agricultural experiment stations, usually located at the sites of the land-grant colleges, to conduct systematic studies on how to improve the practice of agriculture and to train agricultural scientists.

Many advances in food production—including development of chemical fertilizers and insecticides and improvements in plant genetics and crop management techniques—are credited in part to the work of scientists in these institutions. The land-grant colleges, together with other academic institutions, produced the scientists and engineers who engaged in military research projects during World War II. Expanded responsibilities for research were assigned to the land-grant colleges and universities under the Cooperative Forestry Act Cooperative Forestry Act (1962) of 1962 and the Water Resources Research Act.

After World War II, the U.S. government had sought to ensure a supply of qualified research scientists and engineers through a number of programs of grants to universities to support both research and the training of research personnel. A National Science Foundation was set up to provide support for basic research, and existing government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture established their own grant programs to support research.

An important feature of many grant programs was the requirement that universities share in the cost of conducting research. Another feature was that the grants could be used to pay tuition and provide a stipend for living expenses to students pursuing advanced degrees who were qualified to work as research assistants. Since the research conducted under these grants could often be used to meet part of the requirements for masters and doctoral degrees, they provided a strong incentive for students to specialize in the areas in which grant support was available. By providing support for research on water resources, the Water Resources Research Act therefore motivated students to specialize in those areas where continuing research was needed.

A number of leading universities had established programs of water-resources research at the time the Water Resources Research Act was passed, and some private foundations had already identified the subject as one of critical importance. Resources for the Future, a nonprofit corporation devoted to research and education in the use and conservation of natural resources, had been founded in 1952 with the financial support of the Ford Foundation. In 1955, a number of Harvard University faculty members, including economists, political scientists, and engineers, initiated a research seminar on water-resources planning and applied to the Rockefeller Foundation for financial support to develop an educational program in water-resources research and planning for future government officials; the program also attracted support from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Public Health Service, and Resources for the Future. Other academic institutions that promoted work in this area included Stanford University, the University of California, and Colorado State University.


Compared to other developments in water-resources research at the time, the Water Resources Research Act of 1964 could be viewed as an attempt to add impetus to an ongoing process and to broaden participation in water-resources research to every state in the nation. The Universities Council on Water Resources was established at about the same time and was expected to play a significant role in the initiation of the water-resources research centers. A new scientific journal, Water Resources Research, was inaugurated in the same year by the American Geophysical Union. The United Nations Economic Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared an International Hydrological Decade, which began in 1965. Water resources gained in stature as an academic discipline as a result of the Water Resources Research Act and other initiatives.

The vast program of water-resources research envisioned in the reports leading up to the passage of the Water Resources Research Act was never fully realized. Subsequent sessions of Congress failed to authorize the required funds, and the nation’s attention was diverted to the rising cost of energy and the Vietnam conflict. The water-resources research centers nevertheless continued to operate and to provide leadership for university efforts to develop research and educational programs. Water Resources Research Act (1964) Pollution;legislation Environmental policy, U.S.;water

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Peter E. Conservation of Water and Related Land Resources. 3d ed. Boca Raton, Fla.: Lewis, 2001. An excellent overview of water-resources issues, politics, and legislation. Particularly valuable as a source of information on events after passage of the Water Resources Research Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirshleifer, Jack, James C. DeHaven, and Jerome W. Milliman. Water Supply: Economics, Technology, and Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. One of the first works to address water resources as a subject of economic analysis. Thorough discussion of the nation’s need for water and its economic and legislative implications. Reflects concerns at the time of the key studies leading to the Water Resources Research Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hufschmidt, Maynard M. “The Harvard Program: A Summing Up.” In Water Research, edited by Allen V. Kneese and Stephen C. Smith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966. Brief description of one of the first interdisciplinary academic research efforts in water resources, an important prototype for subsequent research and educational programs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kneese, Allen V. “Introduction: New Directions in Water Resources Research.” In Water Research, edited by Allen V. Kneese and Stephen C. Smith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966. Introduction to the first major conference on water resources held after passage of the Water Resources Research Act. Provides an overview of the state of water-resources research at the time of its passage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Renne, Roland R. “A Co-operative Water Research Program and the Nation’s Future.” In Water Research, edited by Allen V. Kneese and Stephen C. Smith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966. Concise summary of the activities leading up to the passage of the Water Resources Research Act and the initial years of its implementation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, A. Truman, et al. Chemistry in Context: Applying Chemistry to Society. Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown, 1994. This nontechnical college chemistry text provides the basic scientific background needed to understand water-resources issues. A good summary of historical and political developments related to water pollution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Stephen C., and Emery N. Castle. Economics and Public Policy in Water Resource Development. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1994. A readable and nontechnical overview of water-resources issues at the time the Water Resources Research Act was passed.

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Categories: History