Colorado is no stranger to drought especially as the current one is closing in on 20 years with no trajectory change in sight. The drought is the second worst 20-year period in the past 1,200 years, according to Bradley Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center. This summer/fall alone had some of the hottest spells on record and the worst wildfire season ever.
“Aridification” is what Udall formally calls the situation that is currently occurring in the western U.S. But perhaps more accurately, he calls it hot drought which is heat-induced lack of water due to climate change. That was the core of the research released in 2017 by Udall and Jonathan Overpeck from the University of Michigan.
All of the factors, including higher temperatures, and longer periods of drought, at play were having compounding effects on each other that made the situation even worse. Those impacts were being felt most acutely on the biggest water system in the West – the Colorado River Basin. The additional loss of flow in the basin could be more than 20% by mid-century and 35% at the century’s end – worse than currently assumed.
The states and individual municipalities are beginning to address this new environmental reality with policies that range from resource conservation to more innovative solutions. But all those actions and more must face the political reality of the longstanding way water-sharing is handled in the basin. It pits state against state and rural against urban communities.
The Colorado River Basin provides water to a large portion of the Rocky Mountain and western states so as the arid climate continues to negatively impact the river flow, the states begin to feel the blunt effects.
“I think some of the predictions about reduced flows in the Colorado River based on global warming are so dire it’s difficult to wrap your brain around them. We have no operating rules for that kind of reduction in supply,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources at the University of Colorado. “Even with these discussions that will be taking place over the next five years for the Colorado River system, I’m not sure that they will be able to get to an agreement about what would happen if flow is reduced by 50%.”
Basic conservation efforts such as just using less water and usage restrictions, are always the first steps, but even Colorado Water Conservation Board senior climate specialist Megan Holcomb admits: “We’re definitely beyond that conversation.”
Castle talks about ideas such as consideration of water footprints on new developments and re-developments; integrating land use planning with water planning including things such as landscaping codes; and use of technology at various levels of water monitoring.
As municipalities and states work towards additional water conservation measures and regulations, it will be vital to see how water reclamation and reuse plays a role in helping mitigate the risks of drought and water flow drops from the valuable Colorado River Basin.
 Spiegel, J. (2021, January 12). Drought-stricken Colorado River Basin could see additional 20% drop in water flow by 2050. Yale Climate Connections. https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/01/drought-stricken-colorado-river-basin-could-see-additional-20-drop-in-water-flow-by-2050/
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