The Internet of Water Initiative Will Help Policy Makers Address Climate Change

By Will Jason, March 31, 2022


In the battle to confront drought, flooding, pollution, and other water-related challenges made worse by climate change, information is perhaps the most important weapon. How much water is in a particular location? What is the quality? How is it used? 

Answering such questions is the mission of the Lincoln Institute’s new Internet of Water Initiative—so named because it will do for water what the internet did for real estate, weather forecasts, and countless other sources of data. The initiative, housed at the Lincoln Institute’s Center for Geospatial Solutions, will standardize and connect water-related data in the United States from thousands of different sources to enable better decisions, ultimately making communities more sustainable and resilient. 

“The nation’s land and water managers are under significant strain as they grapple for sustainable water, land, and energy management solutions,” said Peter Colohan, director of the Internet of Water Initiative for the Lincoln Institute. “We have the opportunity to provide decision makers with a complete, up-to-date picture about their water resources.” 

The Internet of Water Initiative will modernize existing systems for managing water data, and help government agencies and private organizations coordinate with each other and make their data more accessible. 

The initiative continues a project that began in 2018 at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy Solutions, which will continue to play a key role as a partner in the new Internet of Water Coalition.  

“Over the past three years, the Internet of Water has worked to develop essential technologies and build a network of water data stakeholders to accelerate the uptake of shared and integrated water data,” said Martin Doyle, director of the Water Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute. “We believe that the Center for Geospatial Solutions and the Lincoln Institute are ideally suited to continue advancing this work because of their commitment to empowering decision making with data and facilitating collaboration for collective impact.” 

In addition to the Lincoln Institute and the Nicholas Institute, core members of the coalition include the Water Data Collaborative, the Western States Water Council, and the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Sciences. The Internet of Water Coalition will provide a forum for dialogue among participating agencies and organizations, while the Internet of Water Initiative will develop new technology and foster its adoption. 
If it is difficult for policy makers to answer water-related questions, it is not for lack of raw data. At the national level alone, the U.S. Geological Survey monitors groundwater and stream flows, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps manage reservoir information, and the Environmental Protection Agency monitors water quality. State and local governments and private organizations collect data for a wide range of purposes, from drinking water management to flood prevention to land conservation. However, the data from these many and varied sources are not always easily discoverable or are formatted in ways that don’t enable ready analysis. 

“While vast amounts of public water data are available, they are collected by different public, private, state, and federal agencies, and organizations, for different purposes, at different scales, and are scattered across multiple platforms with different standards,” said Colohan, who led the development of the Internet of Water at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute before joining the Lincoln Institute this year with his colleague Kyle Onda

In the startup phase of the Internet of Water, the Nicholas Institute and its partners have already demonstrated the project’s potential. For example, a partnership of Native American tribal governments, state agencies, and private organizations developed a system to strengthen the monitoring of harmful blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, which covers lakes and rivers in thick green film and causes illness in people. The project yielded a new data model that helps coordinate algae bloom investigations, assess trends over time, and incorporate data from more diverse partners. Other pilot projects have dealt with a wide range of water data and challenges in New Mexico, Texas, California, and North Carolina.  

In addition, the Internet of Water team developed the Internet of Water Principles to help guide public agencies in managing water data. These principles were referenced in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 as useful guidance for state agencies when managing water data. 
In its next phase, the Internet of Water Initiative will partner with federal and state agencies, as well as nonprofit organizations to develop and implement critical new tools for sharing water data. At first the initiative will focus on further developing novel, open-source technology that will enable users to discover and access water data in a new way. Also, the initiative will focus on two specific uses of the Internet of Water: improving community access to data about sustainable hydropower opportunities in partnership with the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and improving access to utility information to improve water quality and water equity outcomes. 

The Internet of Water adds to the suite of tools employed by the Center for Geospatial Solutions, which already uses technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing. 
“The addition of the Internet of Water extends the center’s core capabilities in using proprietary technologies for land conservation,” said Anne Scott, the center’s executive director. “We can now offer open-source solutions and holistic insights for land and water conservation. We are honored to help carry forward this groundbreaking initiative.” 



Will Jason is the director of communications at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. 

Image: Montana. Credit: Tony Reid via Unsplash.