IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Interior department recognizes CU-Boulder for role in historic Colorado river shortage agreement
CU-Boulder engineers and scientists were among those honored with the U.S. Department of Interior's "Partners in Conservation Award" this May for their role in the adoption of innovative, new operational guidelines for managing the Colorado River in drought years.
Edie Zagona, Balaji Rajagopalan and Brad Udall accepted the awards on behalf of CU-Boulder's Center for Advanced Decision Support for Water and Environmental Systems (CADSWES), a research center in the department of civil, environmental and architectural engineering, and Western Water Assessment, a program of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The awards were presented by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to "honor those who achieve natural resource goals in collaboration and partnership with others."
The "Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lakes Powell and Mead" were adopted at the end of 2007 and hailed as the most significant change in management of the river since the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The guidelines will determine how the river's water is shared for agriculture, power generation, recreation, municipal water use and environmental purposes until 2026. The Colorado River provides water for more than 30 million people and two million acres of irrigated land in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
The new shortage guidelines are the result of an 18-month Environmental Impact Statement process, led by Terry Fulp, currently the deputy regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation's Lower Colorado Regional Office. The process considered several alternative shortage policies during the height of a record drought on the river. Determined to hammer out a negotiated agreement among the seven basin states, Reclamation facilitated an unusual and ultimately successful process by which stakeholders could participate in technical analysis, explore alternatives and fully understand the implications of each proposed alternative.
Many of these stakeholders, including federal, state and local agencies, water districts, Indian nations, tribes and communities, and nonprofit environmental organizations, shared in the Partners in Conservation Award along with participating research institutes. "In the midst of the worst drought in more than a century they formed an agreement that promises a future of cooperation in the Colorado River Basin for the next two decades," said Salazar.
CU was recognized in part for the CADSWES modeling tool, RiverWare, which was key to the success of the agreement by providing the mechanism for Reclamation and the stakeholders to share a model of the basin that represents both physical characteristics and operating policies, along with data and analytic capabilities. The RiverWare model formed the basis of all technical analysis and discussion, and provided the projected outcomes of the proposed and accepted new operational guidelines.
Zagona, director of CADSWES and primary investigator for the research and development of RiverWare, said "This is exactly the type of application that RiverWare was created for." The idea for RiverWare grew out of a long-term collaboration between Reclamation and CADSWES, where Fulp was stationed for many years as he envisioned the potential of the tools, and guided Reclamation's adoption of RiverWare in the Colorado Basin.
"This level of detailed analysis would not have been possible without RiverWare," Fulp said. "This was the vision many of us had when CADSWES was formed, and to see it come to fruition is very rewarding."
Considering climate change was the second major hallmark of the shortage Environmental Impact Statement, and another major contribution to the effort by CU. Fulp called it a "remarkable step forward" and the first time that the potential impacts of climate change were able to be incorporated into decision-making for the Colorado River, the result of a multiyear research effort involving scientists from many agencies and universities. Climate experts from CU's CIRES Western Water Assessment played a key role in the development of the climate change appendix.
"We provided the Bureau of Reclamation, for the first time ever, a research road map for incorporating climate change into future planning studies," said Udall, director of the Western Water Assessment. "This was a much needed fundamental and critical shift for Reclamation and for the users of the river."
Associate professor of civil engineering and CADSWES affiliate Rajagopalan also contributed to that report, along with Bureau of Reclamation engineer Jim Prairie, who earned his doctoral degree at CU. Prairie and Rajagopalan developed stream flow scenarios that quantified potential impacts from the latest climate models and projections for the Colorado River Basin. These stream flow scenarios, together with the decision-making scenarios constructed using RiverWare, formed the basis of the forward-thinking climate variability report.
"Our university partners came forward with some really innovative ideas, which played a pivotal role in helping us analyze the impacts due to changing climate," Fulp said. "There's no way we could have done this without a huge group of people--and in particular the people at CU."
The CU-Reclamation association has been mutually beneficial. Numerous graduate students have studied at CADSWES, helped build the decision support tools, and have become technical leaders at Reclamation. Carly Jerla, a master's degree graduate who helped formulate management concepts for the shortage agreement as her thesis topic, went on to become a lead Reclamation technical modeler, assisting and facilitating the stakeholder negotiation process.
RiverWare is the product of 13 years of research and development under the sponsorship of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority. It is now used by over 75 other water management agencies, utilities, consultants and research institutes on many river basins globally.
"RiverWare represents an idea whose time has come – it facilitates operating rivers for many different objectives represented by many stakeholders in an open, consensus-type of process," Zagona explained. She credits the professional quality of the software to a small dedicated team of CADSWES researchers such as Bill Oakley, David Neumann and Patrick Lynn, who are constantly on call to assist users, make enhancements and address problems.
"On something as contentious as the Colorado River, it's almost miraculous that an agreement was made," Zagona said. "RiverWare gave everyone the same tool and the ability to analyze the system themselves. It really empowered them to completely understand all the policies and see all the data. We anticipate the power of this process to make possible similar agreements in other river basins."
A bimonthly publication produced by the Department of University Communications
© The Regents of the University of Colorado