Lowry, Liz 1

1 Leeds School of Business and Environmental Studies Program, CU-Boulder 

The Colorado River supplies water and electricity to about 27 million people throughout the American Southwest and provides irrigation for nearly 4 million acres of land in the region.  Through diligent water management practices, supported by a complex infrastructure of canals, reservoirs and tunnels, demand for water has historically been met by the available supply.  Pressure on this precious resource is increasing however, due to intense regional development and the potential threat of climate change.  Population growth is increasing demand, while research suggests that a changing climate will likely cause a decrease in future streamflows.

This research aims to construct an analysis comparing the impact of population, climate change, and the combination of both factors, on 2050 per capita water availability in the Colorado River basin.  Results of the analysis show that even under the most severe climate change scenario (30% decrease in streamflow by 2050), population growth has the larger impact on per capita water availability.  While the additional stress caused by climate change appears manageable for the 10% scenario, under the 30% scenario it is clear that new approaches to water resource planning will be necessary.

The findings suggest that open and enhanced communication between climate change scientists and the water management community will be critical for the successful management of future Colorado River water supplies.  Results also imply that the demands placed on the river by a growing population will be too great to be met through efficiency gains or alternative supplies alone.  These additional needs will likely be satisfied through the transfer of water rights from agricultural to municipal use.