Published: Aug. 1, 2022 By

A new report from CU Boulder and Colorado State University outlines how a variety of emerging technologies can help water managers, landowners and policymakers improve western water management in the face of severe, ongoing drought.

From blockchain and satellite telemetry to improved sensors and advanced aerial observation platforms, the report finds that many emerging technologies have the capability to enhance the monitoring, management, conservation and allocation of water with great benefit to Colorado and beyond.

The release of “Emerging Technologies to Improve Water Resource Management in Colorado” comes amidst a growing water crisis in the West: the worst drought in 1,200 years and a crackdown from the federal government on annual allocation of water in the Colorado River, from Colorado to California.

“Water touches everyone in the West,” said Kat Demaree, co-author and co-editor of the report and project manager at the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering at CU Boulder. “With drought and increasing desertification, it’s becoming such a pressing issue to better understand how we can manage the water we do have, and better work together as a community.”

The report, which was triggered by legislative passage of HB21-1268 in 2021, allowed experts at the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering at CU Boulder and Colorado Water Center at CSU to conduct extensive stakeholder interviews and surveys across the state, and analyze emerging technologies that could assist in various factors of water management. The report also contains eight case studies from expert co-authors highlighting potential technologies to address the issues, including higher resolution imaging and digital management of water rights.

The final report will be presented to the Water Resources Review Committee at the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference in Steamboat Springs on Aug. 24, 2022.

Technology for today and tomorrow

The researchers first examined the present landscape of water technology, conducting interviews across the state from September 2021 to February 2022 to find out what could help with real, on-the-ground problems for Colorado stakeholders. The researchers spoke with a range of water managers and experts statewide, including state legislators, Indigenous community leaders and agricultural producers. They discovered technological gaps in monitoring groundwater use, snowpack modeling, streamflow prediction and water rights trading and transactions.

The interviews informed a survey sent to a broader audience across sectors, including mountain and urban residents, conservancy and municipal districts, academic experts, landowners, senators, and more. Those responses were distilled and analyzed to create a concise picture of the current issues and potential emerging technology solutions.

The main challenges facing water stakeholders across the state were not surprising. Drought, wildfire, forest management, population growth and increased water demand are well-known. Many of the solutions detailed in the report, while also not new, provide better, more reliable or more affordable ways to gather data that could improve water management, conservation or allocation practices.

For example, a startup out of Denver conducts advanced aerial observation using microballoons in the stratosphere to achieve low-cost, high-resolution surveying of changes to entire watersheds, and no drone license is required.

In addition, better watershed management dashboards could optimize economic and agricultural decisions in Southern Colorado, and an online water rights and transactions platform could increase transparency and accessibility for water users along the Arkansas River, the report found.

Storing digital water rights through the blockchain may also become an important part of water management, as it could improve the fluidity, transparency and effectiveness of transactions for water users across the state by acting as a digital ledger to store people's water rights. Co-authored by the Colorado Water Trust and Deloitte Consulting LLP, this section of the report discusses the potential opportunities and challenges of creating a digital future for water.

“Using accurate and sophisticated data models to monitor the allocation, use and quality of water systems in the West and across the United States can help transform the country’s conservation and sustainability efforts,” said Rana Sen, managing director, Deloitte Consulting LLP and the sustainability, climate and equity leader in Deloitte’s government and public services practice. “Working closely with CU Boulder, we look forward to building on this important research and deploying several data-driven digital platforms that can help solve the increasingly complex water challenges posed by the climate crisis.”

In April, Deloitte and CU Boulder launched the Climate Innovation Collaboratory to translate cutting-edge climate research and data into meaningful climate solutions for federal, state and local government agencies and communities.

The report also addresses the reasons that these solutions are not already in place. The main barriers to adoption include cost, reliability, durability of equipment and ease of use. Expensive monitoring equipment could be damaged by wind or cold temperatures. Technology that requires training, meantime, may not be accessible to all stakeholders.

“The expansion of the immersive educational programs covered in this report, such as the  Master Irrigator and Testing Ag Performance Solutions programs,  provide  producers with the knowledge to better understand the science behind these advanced technologies, access to incentives to help them adopt these technologies, and the development of a peer network to help them operate these advanced water management systems in a cost effective manner,”  said John Tracy, director of the Colorado Water Center.

While water problems in the west are complex and ongoing, the authors are optimistic that stakeholders will be able to use the report to create and apply innovative solutions. They also hope the report helps spur additional funding and research into these areas.

“Water can be framed as sometimes being divisive,” said Demaree. “It can be a point of tension between different communities, but there is so much hope in the conversations we had and so many people wanted to work together on this issue.”