Study: Climate Change To Have Big Impact On Colorado River Flow

February 21, 2017
Stewart Tomlinson/U.S. Geological Survey
The study shows warming temperatures are playing a big part in reducing the Colorado River flow.

A new study shows climate change will have a bigger impact on the Colorado River than previously thought. 

What makes this study different is the researchers separated out the impacts of temperature on Colorado River flows from the impacts of precipitation. Colorado State University water and climate scientist Brad Udall and researchers at the University of Arizona decided to investigate when Udall heard recent river flows were lower than water managers expected given the amount of precipitation. 

The research team found warmer temperatures in the 21st century reduced Colorado River flow by half a million acre feet. That’s the amount of water used by about 2 million people for a year.

“There’s a whole set of rules and laws that control how and Supreme Court decrees that control how the river is allocated and managed,” Udall said. “And nothing happens quickly when you go modify those rules. And we’re trying to say, ‘put your thinking caps on now' because it’s likely we’re going to see more of this and we’re going to have to be clever about how we manage our water.”

Forty million people in seven states and part of Mexico rely on the Colorado River for water. The paper was published in the American Geophysical Union journal Feb. 17.