Interior Department Recognizes CU-Boulder for Role in Historic Colorado River Shortage Agreement

May 26, 2009

University of Colorado at Boulder engineers and scientists were among those honored with the U.S. Department of the Interior's "Partners in Conservation Award" this month for their role in the adoption of innovative, new operational guidelines for managing the Colorado River in drought years.

Accepting the awards for CU-Boulder were Edie Zagona, director of the Center for Advanced Decision Support for Water and Environmental Systems, or CADSWES, a research center in the department of civil, environmental and architectural engineering; Balaji Rajagopalan, associate professor of civil engineering; and Brad Udall, director of Western Water Assessment, a program of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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 Colorado River provides water for more than 30 million people and 2 million acres of irrigated land in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.

The shortage guidelines are the result of an 18-month Environmental Impact Statement process that considered several alternative shortage policies during the height of a record drought on the river. River 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.

"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 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who presented the award.

CU was recognized in part for the CADSWES modeling tool, RiverWare, which formed the basis of all technical analysis and provided the projected outcomes of the proposed operational guidelines. "This is exactly the type of application that RiverWare was created for," Zagona said.

Considering climate change was another hallmark of the shortage agreement and another major contribution to the effort by CU. 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. "This was a much needed fundamental and critical shift for Reclamation and for the users of the river."

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," said Terry Fulp, deputy regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation's Lower Colorado Regional Office. "There's no way we could have done this without a huge group of people -- and in particular the people at CU."

More information is available at www.colorado.edu/insidecu/editions/2009/5-26/story4.html.

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