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Clearing up confusion on future of Colorado River flows

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Posted June 26, 2013
This is Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam in July 2004, when the high-water mark was about 120 feet above the water's surface. This year, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are heading toward their lowest levels since 1968. Credit: Bradley Udall, Univ. of Colorado

This is Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam in July 2004, when the high-water mark was about 120 feet above the water’s surface. This year, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are heading toward their lowest levels since 1968. Credit: Bradley Udall, Univ. of Colorado

The Colorado River provides water for more than 30 million people, including those in the fast-growing cities of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. Increasing demand for that water combined with reduced flow and the looming threat of climate change have prompted concern about how to manage the basin’s water in coming decades.

In the past five years, scientific studies estimated declines of future flows ranging from 6 percent to 45 percent by 2050. A paper by University of Washington researchers and co-authors at eight institutions across the West aims to explain this wide range, and provide policymakers and the public with a framework for comparison. The study is published this week in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

“The different estimates have led to a lot of frustration,” said lead author Julie Vano, who recently earned a UW doctorate in civil and environmental engineering. “This paper puts all the studies in a single framework and identifies how they are connected.”

Besides analyzing the uncertainty, the authors establish what is known about the river’s future. Warmer temperatures will lead to more evaporation and thus less flow. Changes to precipitation are less certain, since the headwaters are at the northern edge of a band of projected drying, but climate change will likely decrease the rain and snow that drains into the Colorado basin.

Read more at: Phys.org

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