Fast Facts

Do military installations have enough water to meet mission needs?

DOD completed 6 assessments—3 at the department level and 3 at the military-service level—and found 102 installations at risk of water scarcity. But these assessments were conducted differently and produced different results. The department-level assessments didn’t follow leading practices, and officials disagreed over whether the service-level assessments could be used across DOD.

We recommended that DOD assess whether it should conduct a better department-wide assessment or use the approach in the service-level assessments to identify installations at risk of water scarcity.

Rocket Launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California: an installation identified at risk of water scarcity.

A rocket launching from a launch pad on a sunny day

A rocket launching from a launch pad on a sunny day

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Highlights

What GAO Found

GAO found that the Department of Defense (DOD) does not have assurance that it is using reliable information regarding which installations are at risk for water scarcity. When comparing the results of six Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and military department assessments on installations vulnerable to water scarcity, GAO found that they varied markedly, raising questions about their quality and about which source of information DOD is using to determine which installations are vulnerable to water scarcity (see figure).

Installations Identified in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and Military Department Assessments as Being at Risk of Water Scarcity

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An OSD official stated that the three OSD-produced assessments provided the best information available on which installations are at risk of water scarcity. However, GAO found that these assessments did not reflect four of five leading practices for identifying and analyzing water scarcity—practices that contribute to a reliable assessment of water availability. Specifically, OSD did not always (1) identify current water availability, (2) identify future water availability, (3) take into account all sources of water, or (4) precisely identify locations. Further, although GAO found that the three military department assessments aligned with all leading practices, OSD officials disagreed as to whether these assessments can and should be used to identify installations at risk of water scarcity across the defense enterprise. Until OSD resolves the question as to whether it should conduct a department-wide assessment of installations that aligns with leading practices or whether it should rely on the military department assessments, the department will not have assurance that it is using reliable information to assess water scarcity.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD reported in January 2019 that critical installations are at risk of water scarcity—that is, of not having sufficient water available to meet their mission needs. According to military department officials, installations depend on water for activities such as training, weapons testing, fire suppression, and sanitation. In its 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment , the U.S. Global Change Research Program reported that warming temperatures will continue to cause worsening droughts and the decline of surface water quality.

Senate Report 115-262 included a provision for GAO to review DOD's identified or potential effects of water scarcity. For this report, GAO evaluated the extent to which DOD has assurance that it is using reliable information to identify installations at risk of water scarcity. GAO analyzed DOD's six assessments conducted from April 2017 through January 2019 to identify installations at risk of water scarcity and compared the assessments with five leading practices for identifying and analyzing water scarcity. GAO also interviewed officials from OSD and the military departments and contacted a nongeneralizable sample of 17 installations identified in OSD's assessments to reflect diversity in military service, mission, and water scarcity.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that the Office of the Secretary of Defense assess whether it should conduct a coordinated, department-wide assessment aligned with leading practices or rely on military department assessments to determine which DOD installations are at risk of water scarcity. DOD concurred with GAO's recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of the Secretary of Defense 1. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment (1) assesses whether DOD should conduct a coordinated, department-wide assessment aligned with leading practices for identifying and analyzing water availability or rely on military department assessments to determine which DOD installations are at risk of water scarcity and (2) documents this decision. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
DOD concurred with our recommendation. In response to our report, OSD, working with Military Department leads, concluded and documented in a letter signed by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment that DOD will continue to rely on Military Department assessments to determine which installations are at risk of water scarcity. The diversity in the mission and water needs of each of the Military Departments require them to consider different factors in evaluating water scarcity according to specific mission needs. Although their approaches are different, the Military Departments all follow the leading practices for conducting water scarcity assessments of their mission. By DOD deciding to rely on the military department assessments, the department will have assurance that it is using reliable information to assess water scarcity. With this action DOD has fulfilled the intent of this recommendation; therefore, we are closing this recommendation.

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